672: The Cattle Dog

672: The Cattle Dog

672: The Cattle Dog


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

There is very little that makes a dog happier than finding something dead to roll in or eat. It’s the nasty fact about my sweet canine companion that I’d rather not discuss, but it’s true. There is the way I know exactly what is about to happen when I see her tail wag, her eyes get wide, and then the right shoulder goes down and before I can do anything, my dog is all four paws in the air wriggling and shimmying on some dead thing in a field or in the road. The triumph of a dog that has rolled in something dead or one that comes back with something hanging from their mouth is unparalleled. Why are they interested in the deep stink, the utterly horrific funk that a decaying thing emits? As Elizabeth Bishop wrote, “how — ‘unlikely!’”

My dog does love peanut butter, and the smell of bacon, so why then would she also love the odorous bile of decomposing flesh just as much or, even more? But oh, how she loves it. And the more it disgusts me, the more she revels in it. I’ve had to bathe her vigorously at arms length for fear of even getting the smell on my sleeves. I try to explain to her that in the human world, we do what we can to avoid death, we even try to make it pretty, keep it sterile and far from the senses.

I had a friend once who worked at a mortuary in New Jersey and did the makeup for the dead. She would talk about the experience in detail. The way the flesh would react, and the art of it, the respect she felt. She made it sound…beautiful. But it also sounded so far away from what we experience on a typical basis with our dead. We send our dead into rooms to get boxed up or burned and it doesn’t feel like a body at all, but more like a series of legal requirements and paperwork. I too want to keep death at bay, my own, and the death of everyone else I love. As Frank O’Hara wrote, “no more dying.”

Today’s poem observes a dog and its dead thing. I love how this poem starts with the puppy but ends with a larger wonder about death and our separation from it.

This is a poem by Jenn Givhan.

The Cattle Dog
by Jenn Givhan

four-months in this world & puppy-footed
goes scavenging the backyard for death

skunks the leaf rot, the mulchy bed
of dog shit & rocks beneath a crackling

ice sheet, finds a cadaveric
mouse, its jaw skeletal through stiff-

crack of face, its brain a hard, brown berry
in its broken case

& when I think the death-seeker
of this too-young pup is chewing

on a bulbous wilt of pumpkin flower,
blanched & swollen in the winter freeze

I see she’s exhumed the honey 
comb of mouse legs, crisp of curling

tail—O foolish love, I would rid us
of this world’s disease & burrow with you,

I would nudge the monstrous creature
awake & slurry the thaw

til a shovel tears from us
our prize.

"The Cattle Dog" by Jenn Givhan. Used by permission of the poet.