Kevin’s Much Loved Poems–“Another Dog’s Death”

This is the sixth in a series of columns that feature a much-loved poem, and a second poem that speaks to, or resonates with, that poem. This week’s poem is “Another Dog’s Death,” written by John Updike around 1989.

The Poetry Foundation states, “An acclaimed and award-winning writer of fiction, essays, and reviews, John Updike has also been writing poetry for most of his life. Growing up in Pennsylvania, his early inspiration to be a writer came from watching his mother, an aspiring writer, submit her work to magazines. In an interview Updike stated, “I began as a writer of light verse, and have tried to carry over into my serious or lyric verse something of the strictness and liveliness of the lesser form.” In his teens, he was already publishing poems in magazines.

“Though he knew that he would not make a living by writing only poetry, he has said that his writing career began in 1954 [Kevin’s note: he was 22] when The New Yorker accepted one of his poems, followed by a short story. His first book, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), was a collection of poems.” This was written late in Updike’s life and published in his Collected Poems.

Another Dog’s Death

By John Updike

For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave

in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.

She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.

I measured her length with the shovel’s long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.

They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.

Most researchers seem to agree the first dogs weren’t domesticated by capture but they followed hunters home, instinctively knowing they could find a decent, if dependent, life with humans. Updike emphasizes this: “the dog, spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.”

The lifespans of most domestic animals are considerably shorter than their human companions, so one of the aspects of owning a pet or a horse can be seeing it die. Often, as in this poem, the pet must be “put down.” He continues this theme by measuring the length of the dog with the shovel that will be used to dig his beloved dog’s grave and by the dog’s easy acquiescence to the veterinarian, offering up a paw for the injection that will take his life.

* * *

Updike used the almost antiseptic details of the animal’s death, and the dog owner’s participation in that death, to avoid the intrinsic sentimentality of a poem about the death of a dog. The poem that I find resonates with John Updike’s poem is “Maverick, in Heaven.” Faced with the same possibility of sentimentality in my poem, I used a boy’s revelation to maintain the poem on a spiritual plane.

Maverick, in Heaven

By Kevin Arnold

“You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.”

―Robert Louis Stevenson

Harry will never forget the day Maverick was hit by a car, and his
body wrapped in a sheet. His father came home early, still in his tie
to bury the family beagle under a dogwood in the back yard. As Maverick
was laid to rest, Harry was touched by God’s presence. God led him to a
stuffed animal in the attic, a limp lamb that Harry carried around for

the next year. The moment his father shoveled earth over Maverick,
Harry understood everyone—including himself, his father and Maverick—
were part of something so intricate it couldn’t be explained. Harry knew
that no one ever fully dies. One day, forgiveness would be like air.
He would again hold Maverick in his arms; they would romp together.

Next week: Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem”

Photo By: Kyle Banerjee's Blog