First published poem
My first role model was a dog, the garbage man’s “sharp, high fox-eared, cur-Ford truck-faced” mutt, a mongrel, a Heinz—a 57 breed dog.
As a kid I was morose, a loner, an outsider from Day 1. Adults struck me as unpredictable, arrogant, full of themselves with little or no interest in children. We lived in Chicago and I mostly hung out with the family dog, Fluffy, a cocker spaniel with low self-esteem. From the back porch of our two-flat apartment building, we could see into the alley. There we’d observe the garbage man lifting and heaving trash into the back of his truck. His canine companion, a junk yard mutt with class, kept his head up, eyes forward, ignoring the filth and stink.
The dog had a natural dignity. He wouldn’t deign to run about sniffing for scraps. If he was hungry or thirsty, he gave no sign… the dog had poise… he appeared to be calm, self-assured, more stable, more graceful than my parents or Peterson Elementary School teachers.
Uncle Dog: The Poet at 9 appeared in The Chicago Review in 1957, my first publication. Carolyn Kizer picked up on it, bless her and, later, it started appearing in anthologies, A Controversy of Poets; The Voice That Is Great Within Us; The Contemporary American Poets, American Poetry Since 1940, and others.
UNCLE DOG: THE POET AT 9
I did not want to be old Mr.
Garbage man, but uncle dog
who rode sitting beside him.
Uncle dog had always looked
to me to be truck-strong
wise-eyed, a cur-like Ford
Of a dog. I did not want
to be Mr. Garbage man because
all he had was cans to do.
Uncle dog sat there me-beside-him
emptying nothing. Barely even
looking from garbage side to side:
Like rich people in the backseats
of chauffeur-cars, only shaggy
in an unwagging tall-scrawny way.
Uncle dog belonged any just where
he sat, but old Mr. Garbage man
had to stop at everysingle can.
I thought. I did not want to be Mr.
Everybody calls them that first.
A dog is said, Dog! Or by name.
I would rather be called Rover
than Mr. And sit like a tough
smart mongrel beside a garbage man.
Uncle dog always went to places
unconcerned, without no hurry.
Independent like some leashless
Toot. Honorable among scavenger
can-picking dogs. And with a bitch
at every other can. And meat:
His for the barking. Oh, I wanted
to be uncle dog–sharp, high fox-
eared, cur-Ford truck-faced
With his pick of the bones.
A doing, truckman’s dog
and not a simple child-dog
Nor friend to man, but an uncle
traveling, and to himself–
and a bitch at every second can.
–Robert Sward © Copyright, 1957, 2003, 2007
Recording by David Alpaugh, Nov. 12, 2007.
Uncle Dog: The Poet at 9, Putnam & Co., Ltd., London, 1962
Half A Life’s History, Aya Press, Toronto, 1983
Four Incarnations: New & Selected Poems, Coffee House Press, 1991
The Collected Poems, Black Moss Press, 2003