Blackness ahead, night’s smother. I watch the road,
red glow of stranger’s taillights, towns that show
how scary life is alone. CD on, Bach croons,
then Mozart. I’m riding under the moon,
remembering wry Whitman’s “labial gossip
of night,” desire’s uncrossed legs, that deific
loneliness the mind can’t equal, so it wails.
I’ve been hunting what may be the last quail
I’ll see, trafficked out by cars, farms, places
sucked away by quicksand years. The pace is
what hurts, as the old joke goes, not the death.
I bitch, no one to hear. My mind holds its breath
and leaps and seeks some link in things. What grace
redeems what we write or do but stories laced
with laughs enough, and jibes? Clinton smiled,
a girl gagged on knees, he claimed he was defiled.
Ta-dum! Our poets take no civic part, art’s
voice content to yodel faults within, pale farts,
monologuists who couldn’t spell complicity.
Is it bad genes? Errors of chemistry?
Novels go neuron to neuron with vile acts;
barbarous films bleed, our little selves contract
in lyric poems. Serial killers seem less
evil: where is Waldo’s self-reliance?
Courage, obligation, joy—these we’ve tossed
aside with taste, clamoring to name what’s worst!
What led us to choose manhood like Pogo’s,
no act but slippery comic reptile’s lingo?
What’s worse, the racket of poetry slam or verse,
Collins’s comedy or Codrescu’s mush?
Words enact, but when did they save the times?
My feet are cold from walking where weak birds rise
like ideas so easily shot down they count
as couplet to epic vision, as sigh to shout.
Shouldn’t art be something wilder than a text?
Images remember stars; memory tracks
the bloody truths we’re vested in; we spend
for joy the lives that buy us hope. But then
our cheap hearts plod like tricked-out whores
who’d sell the farm, for Oprah Winfrey’s order.
Whitman groaned “When shows break up what but
One’s self is sure?” I’ve thought about this. Not much.
Still, there’s some feeling when your deeds say
you stepped through time tested; even small acts pay
what words alone hold as debt and promise.
If you’d been with me today, you’d have seen this:
a man’s pointing dog runs like simple fate;
life can be mirrored in how a hunt turns out,
how heart-decisions look in dark’s back stare,
what lived and died. And how. What finally mattered.
That’s all a quail hunt is. A day on the ground,
dog’s glad sweeps, heartbeats, bangs, and blood
enough to link boys back to fathers who held
small hands on the gun, like respect, and pulled
living into lines they’d celebrate with toasts
of whiskey in silver jigger cups, the guns broke
at day’s end with fathers naming the old sires,
big, harder, better men who’d boast of honor
the way today we cheer—well, what? Fuck it,
comes to mind. Would happy days be enough?
Look, today’s what I have, gift from my dog,
a joy song for fields, birds, word-worlds we’ve slogged.
I thought of you, Richard, your intensity,
your precise codes that choose a way to be,
judging all, blue-eyed glare that lasts a week,
but fierce friend, forgiving, if not gently meek
as Rosie, your Brittany bitch, rest her soul,
late ghost in rooms on Bourbon Street, now sold,
stealth nose, stone deaf. New boy Scooter’s a troop
whose desire means mistakes that curl your lip.
Is he the broody one you sent back to school
for what, a fourth decamp? Cheat and pass, fool,
our colleges covertly counsel; dumb programs
the rule, democratic slide’s the usual scam;
it makes bucks. But money won’t keep wild birds,
nor mowed fields, nor dogs artful as Chekhov’s words.
Something big’s harder, darker, in control.
Are we then only genes, trained noses, good will?
Shots echoing in ideas, I dawdle home, friend,
wishing you’d been with me, weather the gold end
of southern Fall like old lies we’ve walked in
twisting up scars and deaths that made us grin
for those we lacked, love and loss hot subjects
of all we’ve breathed. Take hunting: it upsets
the world that lives in malls, kids like phantoms.
Ancestry to them is no car, cash, or dreams.
I’ve been walking grave, deep ground where we shot
like gods, birds came like clouds, our fear was not
testing Shadow’s lies, always heading west,
fleeing some secret back there unconfessed.
Listen, killing’s hard these days. It’s poor game
for one not rich or powerful; faint
hearts don’t welcome shooting fields or the love
that knows when killing’s part of art’s love
of how uncivilized we are, the zany
offenders, warriors sapped by wars, so many
loons there’s no room, it’s dangerous, and crazy.
They’re right: small farms gone, bio-boys
buying agri-biz. Grit’s left. Wild coveys
vanish when suburbs drop concrete like patties
cows once plopped; fire ants, chemistry’s better
living schemes, bright cold cash where water
was—birds, like public enemies, had no chance.
The skyline’s neon now; earth’s owned by banks.
Still, I’m upset we don’t hunt more, as when,
young, we plundered fields we loved. Learning sin,
we praised as good any flesh and song, laughter
so heretic we spooked veteran elders.
Now sin’s just daily news, the morning motive
for usual dreams. And what’s what’s called love?
Talk of meaning’s got too pricey, gone sere
in mouths the way good days are, and bites like fear
from sly ambush, with scorn. A man to hunt
today must hie himself to preserved ground, blunt
stutter of shotguns bring down pen-fed
blinkers that, if missed, hawks, like critics, shred
because these quail have no wildness, guile’s
gone in their genes; they pace; and Shadow feels
its swoopy way down to steal their good meat.
Bobwhite’s a song few summer nights repeat.
Theories, reason, excuses covey tight.
By dusk each citizen’s mouth yawns silent
as guns closeted, rusty. Fall makes us squirm;
our mates think we’re sick.
Your eyes, grim,
narrowed, somewhere blink: Dave, what’s your point?
Richard, nothing’s finer than a hunter’s part,
slogging onward with pals, swapping stories.
If my Brittany’s like fate, yours is destiny.
A good dog’s like a shaman to lift up
or lay you down, whichever need’s the worst,
and maybe one’s the emblem of some decline
the other’s mirror to. Is that symbol or sign?
Remember when life had no argument,
wide skies, fields endless as hope? “Where y’at?”
meant only shade hid us; we did not panic.
Now Shadow licks me, whips like the Atlantic
where I ached my boy’s days, and dogs offered
a happiness that had no hour to suffer.
No dog with me ranks higher than Brittanies;
my joy’s now sixteen inch high loper, Finny,
steady to scent, hawk-eyed head-mover—whistles
up from earth he’ll track and fetch until night spills.
But he’ll test your limits, creeping on each whoa
smart birds shy from, and has the bred-in go
Marines have, the gaunt hard-head muscled look
of Pointers, those you let out of the truck,
turn and spit, and see the rear end of, if that,
ripping off the yards like a catapult
at their ass got tripped. Those don’t make pals
or pets, they won’t nose a friend’s hand, no coiled
cozy sleepers on your feet. That tail tip
like waving flag when you walk in—it’s up
because you’re late. Say man, what’s with you?
Birds are thick as fleas (or theorists)! Let’s go, dude!
Weimaraners, Gordons galloping belled,
bloodied, feet sliced, plunge barbed wire, and will
yank dead-stopped like a string pulled on a trap
where bird’s scented, stand rigid as cardboard’s shape
in a shirt, muzzle shivering, each cell aimed hard
on point because God’s given him that bird.
Now it’s yours to make the kill, and no way
a blind man couldn’t knock this one down, shame’s
bad shit on him who’d miss. Then fetch, drop, flare’s
all he’s got time for, his strides, air-leaps, square
turf unlike anything except, well, some Marine
which, Richard, you were in youth and your green
glory. (I’ve seen some Pointer yet in you, perhaps.
The kind that looks as if it said “Oh crap,”
soon as you spied me unpacking a twelve gauge.)
I’ve considered some dogs are worse than selves who plague.
Mine would rather hunt alone; hates poseurs, boys
who mope if crowded, who snarl he’s got no poise.
Setters, French and English, oh please. The Hun
shorthairs avoid like teachers, the Irish stun
with charm but psycho-counseling’s an annual tab.
I’d sooner hunt poets than a pointing Lab.
Vishlu Marxists, long-haired Serbs, huge mouths,
love ripping guts, quail or man, with or without
reason your average citizen can’t tell
from a rapist’s thought. No chain has enough weld
to gentle them. We like Brits, compact sorts
who want a house, scheduled meals, pats, good sports
buoyant as seabreezes summer long, worries
nothing they know, cocky, smart, loyalty
love’s gift when you buy the breed, and none so staunch.
Soon as I’d lose mine, I’d lose the bloody ranch.
I’ve owned other dogs, big ones, small ones, but fate’s
mystery gave me first a queen, brown and white
vacuum nose; a dream-plunger for birds showed up.
Christmas gift, she was, my new hunting pup,
after years of moans for what I’d never had
forced my wife at last to do what she did
best: histories searched, phone calls, dog ordered.
Son put her in my lap, bow-wrapped. She shuddered.
Dave’s Molly of Midlothian, now past
hunts, gone softly dead, who taught me, like verse,
where secrets waited and how to survey
conditions—light, wind, what laws to obey.
Breeder said “a chosen one, get of great hunters.”
And “Don’t make her sit. Have fun. Don’t hurt her.”
She came like any kid, hungry, surprised,
no self to know good or bad, a live
innocence, more, what you can’t know until it’s
let you loose, unlocked your heart. Is it wit
makes what you love see just how to do you
so you shake your head and dig dazed through
troubles like briars, sloughs, deadfall rotting bogs
you wouldn’t try on a bet except your dog
did, hauled ass in there, past words, and went far
where surely no bird descends or waits, too smart?
Then whirr of feathers, you unready, ka-bam!
Who knew? Or knows why stories like odd whims
bear meaning we have to hunt, sometimes make?
I claim, now, that’s how I found myself, crack
Molly sweeping side to side at the field’s edge
while I walked with my son, talking, the hedge
she slipped in just bush; then her nose filled with scent
to stand her arrow-stiff, friend. Ever perfect
in my mind as sunlight’s queen, handler of wings,
so hot, despite cataracts and hips, to string
before me bird-rockets, game in her bones.
(Her one weakness, and like her, his, was stone
refusal to fetch innards left lying out,
though they’d stand a while marking what they meant.
No matter my open hand would want birds dropped
like Kleenex before they’d bolt for more, turn, shocked
as if lightning had jammed them where they leaned.)
Finn’s a jarhead, some would say a hound for meat.
What counts in art and dogs is obedience
to manner, form, and bag count, a kind of dance
style only loses. Whippet fast, Finn will not
quit, brain a compass, body a giant ferret,
he’s a Hoover nothing but night stops, backed
by ghosts of his line, raw poets, watching his tracks.
But this is pretty talk, porch lies for dry days.
We need transcendence, the goal of stories,
so I’ve got a tale for the dark: in Carolina,
once, marsh rank as mash, razor reed, old briar
rattling canes men could cut and horse-joust with,
thorns that snatched us bloody, ripped and kicked
legs the way muskets had at Shiloh and Cold Harbor,
we flushed a batch of birds big as black stars.
So many, they seamed the sun out, swirled and sailed,
scattered, dropped, and two of us on that field
worked like Saxons, obliged by this auspicious
gift from Shadow whose will in such cold gusts
blew steadily, as if to test bold mettle,
our skill to find what marsh now hid, singles
like secrets of creation. Good as ever
gunner was, dogs better than best begetters,
we attacked. One by one we’d shoot, lift high
bobwhite like a grail, or watch the pale sky
suck back what our booms went past; then dog’s bell
died still, the skin-slitting edge of wind peeled
eye and ear, but on Molly roamed until she’d point
hard as sin-sweeping nun. The night like paint
rose from winter’s earth. Each hand and nose ached
now as in black sleeping where Grendel stalked.
One shy of limits, we wouldn’t quit til blind
blackness from topmost branch drowned the mind’s
push, as at sea’s edge hopeless waves roll in
and in, no comrade, boat, or brilliant moon,
the cause, just memory of being man. It drives
men from pride to greed; sometimes rules get waived.
All good dogs know is hunt, and hunt, and hunt.
The same urge that’s in the writer’s ear once
heard as blood’s right says wow, this is fucking great,
heart dragging words forward like gravity’s weight,
not that sub-sonar pitty-pat, that comatose
usual verse-glide we’re most geared to. So woe
begins, we think like dogs and not the selves
Shadow’s tutored, beings once near-angels
aspirant to hope and vision. So we went,
my friend and I, easterly where light slumped
in deep muck, last rays honing keen reed-blades.
Molly, mostly whipped, panting, showed her age,
I thought, and I never thought of danger, all
her flashy moves turned whine, that fire-gaze gone dull,
yet I pushed, she pushed, her heart’s tongue lagged.
The squishy place grew quick, dark as the bag
of birds against my back. I whined, “Let’s quit.”
Molly sat, lapping air, no more to give.
But you know how it is: the will’s push to win.
Passing near our truck, Friend turned, then gave in,
let out his prize stud, although it wasn’t right,
big footsteps thudding the field like heartbeats,
our own echoing, blown bigger by greed.
How could we fail to honor such stout need?
Molly knew, rose then to match Setter Flight,
English, more royal in lines a dog you might
never see, impeccable blood, legs long, spine
flat as a miler’s, that tail like ski-boat’s fine
high spray as it whines around open water
because it can, was made to, no reason other
but an owner asks that of it, and it loves
what earth and air permits it to, so does
that, as few do, and less do well. I saw him wheel,
roar, seem to float above the moon-touched weeds
where birds like most to crouch til they explode,
just, and the good dog grids them. Flight flowed,
brain-waved that field, he made those godly leaps
flesh can’t believe so love ratchets up the heat
of dream until each step’s desire, immense,
and no Shadow watching. Flight tracked to marsh
you wouldn’t think quail would seek. They will.
Some say they swim! I don’t think that’s credible.
But, viz Hamlet/Horatio, more’s in space
than we expect. Here’s the tale, a la Borges:
corpse resurrected by dog who points
where no fool trusts, pond-shine still as flint,
bird, gone underwater, breaks to save a soul
seeming drowned, the latter by miasma stilled
but undead, rising with a trick from bad water
to reverse roles with Flight and flush dead flyer.
Preposterous, you say. Well, this unfurled.
Flight took the swamp. God-eyed, Zeus-like, he hurled
himself in bogs to fetch from funky muck what
number eights might blister down or, worse, let flap
far horizons, then sit calling “I’ve escaped.”
Jaws dainty as a maiden, Flight’s would save
the dead. Or the live flying out. No chance.
On Molly he had thirty sweet pounds, he pranced
like a Pulitzer at peak, had field awards
bespeaking super genes, a character like words
declared to some, not for others. Life’s not fair.
Not for man or dog. This rule reigns, known or
unknown. Shadow owns the swamp’s cold and lost
there’s no alibiing, no ease from, the worst
when self-blinded you thought you beat it. One last
shade we saw and urged on ruff-speckled Flight
whom now we hardly knew from mists, slight
as lift of wings that fueled that quail aloft,
so even Flight seemed blinkered, who crossed,
recrossed sloughs til, the quarry pinned, he held.
Then orange-fire licked from my pal’s double twelve;
his shout splashed. Friend, you’d trail a bird to hell,
I said, afraid we neared sucking evil,
edging muddy bottom where tide’s black and foul
inseep from Atlantic licks lay rankly stopped,
snaky ease, like lust, unpredictably deep,
and sewer’s mucky smell now of new-built houses
where once, I’d heard, bad boys got stuck and drowned.
My bag seemed full enough, the next steps blind,
so I’d walk in if he would, my Friend and guide,
but saw no one near. Called out, Friend, let’s quit,
fear’s words like reed-hiss spirit passed. This
no man’s ear took in. Stepping off, I plunged
where slick wet draggle gulped me in, the sludge
sly, smooth as oily acres of poets’ flow.
There I felt him, body gripped by the Shadow,
lying, another self, under water’s sheet
still and cool, hands calm folded on his breast
as if some plan I couldn’t know placed him
for text to teach what last wildness within
may leap like an angel out, silent as fish
who’ve seen the moon and said no thanks. I wished
for help aloud (well, louder than that), screamed, saw
flash-shade like a bird, felt gun go oddly off,
perhaps because some root-reed grabbed my trigger,
or fist of swamp-muck at boot tripped me, Sir,
so face-first I fell near Friend. When I looked up,
white as clotted cream on coffee, Molly flopped
from darkness of sky, splashed so much wet away
death’s bottom opened, sleek flats, crabs clicked, sprays
of eels like star-lit wheels rolled off to far fields
someday to be notable for strange yields,
perhaps not excluding cascades of mullet
silver as quivering sleet or tracer bullets.
The sky flashed white as if suspicious gods, shown
four-footed Molly’s will to point life in holes
it can’t get out of, made her bound to the world’s
heart like a poem. I saw her rise, boiled
from that place with plants, bottom scum, water,
shells that rained, gaping creatures, a fall of stars
sprinkling marsh grass where tall herons sang
what I’d never heard, speech human-like, clanged
before Shadow gave the rest of us tongues
to wag like gulls, in measured screech, prolonged.
It now seemed poetic as worlds it declaimed.
Why I felt joy inside me, no mouth’s explained,
but, near bursting, I pushed myself to stand
where, miraculous as the mud I wore, the grand
pageant of things went on, and meant nothing.
Except to be, which dogs know. The world rings
with poets saying so. But who listens?
You’d think my tale endeth here. It doesn’t.
I felt then the bird Molly’d fetched,
placed in my hand like a pledge before she’d ditched
this tidal pool of death to make her best save.
Then, Friend appeared, on bier of silky mud he lay,
which Molly pointed firm, or so I then thought,
Flight behind her, honoring, grand as he’d been taught,
both white as moons on a cat-tailed knoll.
Silly, I thought, to point a dead man so.
But when I heard the human chest its breath resume,
the tell-tale flap of wings wanting air also came.
“Ready?” wheezed my laid-out Friend. I was. His hand
unclutched a bird, upflung it now like sand,
fist toward beachy grind of dark, but I was right
on with double barrels, fired, and opened up a light
full enough to find that second bird’s path. Luck
carried me that day, and words, back to my truck.
If Molly’s monumental dive made belief
hard to swallow as the brine my Friend’s relief
gagged up, you know as well as any man
the world’s way keeps its wild course, which we stand
witness to at hearth and wayside merchant’s mart
where we always stop for beer, chat, to say smart
ones stayed home, nothing flew, our shots flukes,
we couldn’t hit a cow barn, blind boys, with nukes.
Point is, how tell all we’ve seen? I whistled
out where Molly, in my truck, slept, mud-dappled,
drained, peaceful as spirits of the field. She hung
head over the seat, exhausted, who’d seemed stung
each time Flight got point first or shoved her aside
to lift up dead. I’ve been driving hard to hide
the age I felt, in dark’s Shadow, hulks whipped past
like stars I once thought gods designed, trucks that washed
us in wind-wakes, brutal shaking, as if we were
pieces of trash best pitched with world’s ditch-water.
I see the furtive glint of people’s homes
shrinking the woods, sadness that scrapes dreams
of truth the way a dog chews bone. What’s taste
when all the meat’s gone, when life’s only weight?
We’ve learned to think too much to act. But dogs?
They act as if they don’t think. They zig and zag,
go flat out as long as the heart thumps good,
then, like Molly now, sleep hard and deep as wood
rewards what no words, in truth, testify.
Whitman said, Passing the visions, passing the night…
because that’s all we have rights to, start and end
the days bring that’s like a fine reprieve gods send.
Good songs want to say all goes pretty well, better
than expected, given man and dog we are,
mostly man most would say, if asked. I don’t.
Good enough to drive and think of all I won’t
do again as Shadow coils and closes round
everything. It muffled Molly’s weird sound
of throat-clench that was a kind of nightmare.
Like my words’ rant at dull poets. Vision blurs,
the road scares me a little, hard to know what’s
coming, how far ahead things are, the runts
we are in little cars, like verse; yet I dream
back the sun boiling the body to perform
until it fully does, some days. Friend, our
big blue steps scorched the sky, tall trees whispered
what a thing we were to claim all with pride
and love, living, dying, a chance of flesh tried
for its worth. Not much, old ones said. What else
ever felt so good? The end of things flows, melts
all together the way Shadow’s lid behind us
looms black, or comes in bully trucks’ buffets.
Soon we’ll know nothing, muck-drowned, shrouds
on farm-slopes we walked. Below the road’s crown,
cows at fences roar by me, houses darken,
and faces seem frozen in weak, leaden brims
of light—we manage no edge or shape; we’re ideas
of breeders who can’t live, in love with what’s us.
That’s why I lifted Molly, lay her full length
on pillow fresh, clean as a lover’s sheet, yet
she just rolled her eyes and then went still. I’d think
it’s okay, she’ll lick me tomorrow, she’ll stalk
the yard as always, she’ll gobble any food
that appears, as if the gods placed it, who stood
as queen for me, small mistress of my passion,
the kind you need most when so much is wishing
to do what you do, only that, and not press
nature for why, which is anyone’s guess.
I don’t now brood on why there’s a Flight,
why jughead Finn’s moved in with me, why night’s
just the time for aching bad hours off,
why muddy death’s the great reward for life.
I touched her head, thought how I was given
a world to see, through her, where she had led
me, the only reason because there was stuff
waiting. The day, it seemed, then, was enough.
Soft click, lights out, her wheezy breath steadied.
I was sure she’d rise up past dawn, readied.
Lying down, I could think of that, and feel
my wife’s heat where I hurt, and talk a little
until the words don’t come, and dreams do,
and what is worse than dreams, half-seen, that you
alone, standing somewhere because you can’t go,
can’t see, can’t smell, are old, afraid, and you know
all there ever was to know. But no one
to hold, to walk with, touch, or love. No one.
Why else bring home a dog like Finn whose
end is you’ll hunt for him, not him for you?
Well, it’s light on blinds, you’ll hear the rustle
nails make, the business of days, you’ll get up.
Richard, here’s a winter song, not much
against worlds we make, just a day I went to hunt,
to see how good a good dog makes a boy
become who wants to go, and wants some joy,
and morning’s cold crackle of ice, food pail,
smell of my hand is enough to make Finn wail,
no doubt the brilliant thing our books will yield
when we lie at last unreadable, afield.
Dave Smith has published sixteen books of poetry, most recently The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems 1970-2000, Fate’s Kite: Poems 1991-1995, and Night Pleasures: New and Selected Poems. He has taught at Louisiana State University and co-edited The Southern Review, and is currently the Elliot Colemon Professor of Poetry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.