“A Portrait of a Dog as an Old Guy”
When his owner died in 2000 and a new family
moved into their Moscow apartment,
he went to live with mongrels in the park.
In summer there was plenty of food, kids
often left behind sandwiches, hotdogs and other stuff.
He didn’t have a big appetite,
still missing his old guy.
He too was old, the ladies no longer excited him,
and he didn’t burn calories chasing them around.
Then winter came and the little folk abandoned the park.
The idea of eating from the trash occurred to him
but the minute he started rummaging in the
overturned garbage container, a voice
in his head said: “No, Rex!”
The remnants of a good upbringing lower
our natural survival skills.
I met him again in the early spring of 2001.
He looked terrific. Turning gray became him.
His dark shepherd eyes were perfectly bright,
like those of a puppy.
I asked him how he sustained himself
in this new free-market situation
when even the human species suffered from malnutrition.
In response he told me his story;
how at first he thought that life without his man
wasn’t worth it, how those
who petted him when he was a pet
then turned away from him, and how one night
he had a revelation.
His man came to him in his sleep,
tapped him on his skinny neck and said:
“Let’s go shopping!” So the next morning he took the subway
and went to the street market
where they used to go together every Sunday and where
vendors recognized him and fed him
to his heart’s content.
“Perhaps you should move closer to that area?”
I ventured.—“No, I’ll stay here,” he sighed,
“oldies shouldn’t change their topography. That’s
what my man said.”
Indeed, he sounded like one himself.
Katia Kapovich is a modern Russian poet, who immigrated to the U.S. in the early ’90s.
I wasn’t familiar with Kapovich’s work until I went looking for a “dog poem” and found this one, which immediately charmed me. Sometimes, that’s enough for a poem. Poetry shouldn’t be asked to bear the burden of significance all the time. Sometimes, a poem should be enjoyed, just for the pleasure of it.
For me, one of the highlights of this poem is the personification and cultural relevance that get applied to the life of the dog. He finds himself in a “free-market” economy; he’s too old to chase the ladies, or run around burning calories. His “good upbringing” keeps him from surviving like the rest of his comrades in the park. But all is not lost; he goes “shopping,” finds a sustainable food source, but won’t move any closer, since “oldies shouldn’t change their topography.” The sweet absurdity of it all made me grin. Kapovich was describing the life of a particular dog, but it could have been my 88-year-old grandfather, or perhaps even her own, with all his peculiar, but dignified ways of doing things in the last years of his life.
Since I have never had the pleasure of growing old with a dog, or the pain of having a dog grow old with me (or perhaps it’s the reverse), my first instinct as a reader is to stick with a surface reading of the poem, the creativity and humor. But if I were a dog-owner and a dog loved me the way this dog loved “his man,” I have no doubt this poem would mean much more. I can see the tenderness and loyalty of their bond, the cruelty of the new apartment owners who threw him out, and the kindness of the street vendors who sustained his life, but if I were a dog owner, I would feel it, deeply, on an empathetic level. That’s why I always try to read a poem more than once. I may, or may not be pleased on a first go-’round, but there is probably something to be learned regardless, an insight into something I know nothing about.
So, thank you, Katia Kapovich for helping me learn something new about a man and his best friend.