Robert Sward












Old border collie and I can’t herd shit.

Don’t see so good, don’t hear either.

Gray around the muzzle and my coat is thin.

Thirteen, Boss says, that makes me ninety-one.

What we gonna do with you? he asks.

It’s curtains, he’s thinking. Time to take the leash off.

        Stars and moons and birds and trees,

        sun’s at your back, heart’s on your sleeve.

Likes it when I sing. Boss strokes me.

Each year 2.2 million dogs lose their place,

get stuck in corners, stuck behind furniture,

can’t get out.

CCD. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. You people,

you got a name for everything.

You readin’ Boss, what you readin’?


Anipryl® works by increasing the level of dopamine, an essential neurotransmitter. It has been shown to temporarily reverse some of the changes of CCD and improve behavior in about 75% of affected dogs… 


Aricept for dogs.

So, ‘Unconditional love on a leash,’

but they put a bell on me

–just in case!

And here’s Boss callin’… Shelby, Shelby, he says,

Shelby is still Shelby.

Yeah, right my friend,


Shelby who?






Pet Calm, ‘Passiofloria Incarnata,’

yeah, Boss says,

and it’s chewable

for dogs


I’m actin’ skitzy, he says,

brain plaque, he calls it.

Look at ‘im, ratty bathrobe, and some old slippers.

I go before he goes, they’re gonna put him down,

spring won’t last

and winter neither

yeah, I got the shakes

forget names, can’t remember faces

and Boss, too,

what’s he doin’, Mr. Can-opener ?

makin’ dinner

Primal Jerky, my favorite,

Natural Balance

Chicken nibs

Wellness brand Super5 Mix

Dry ultra premium,Venison and sweet potato.

Two old dogs schlepin’ round the house

yeah, time is runnin’ out

Sittin’ on the porch,

two old gents

yeah, but who’s the dog?








Glory be to God for the tiresome and tedious,

Glory be to God for tedium,

for no news about anything,


for newspaper strikes and power outages,

lethargy and downtime.


Postpone and delay. And again,

postpone and delay.

No place to go. No way to get there.

No reason not to stay.


Glory be to God for inaction,

for not getting things done,

for not getting anything done,


No huffin’, no puffin’,

just some of that slow and easy,

the woman lackadaisically on top,

the man lackadaisically on top.

Yummy, yummy, take your time,

yummy, yummy, I’ll take mine.


Slow and easy,

slow and easy.

Glory be to God, O glory.


O glory be to God.





The first 40 years of life give us the text; the next 30 supply the commentary on it…

—    Schopenhauer


1. Grammar as Hymnal


Seeking solace in a review of grammar, I turned to Strunk & White’s

Elements of Style. Standing at attention,

opening to the section on usage, I chanted and sang –

uniting my voice with the voices of others, the vast chorus

of the lovers of English.


We sing of verb tense, past, present and future.

We sing the harmony of simple tenses.

We lift our voice in praise of action words,

and the function of verb tense.


We sing of grammar which is our compass

providing, as it does, clues as to how

we might navigate the future,

at the same time it

illuminates the past.


As a teacher, I talk. That’s present.

For thirty years as a teacher, I talked. That’s past.

It may only be part time, but I will talk. That’s future.


2. Living the Future Perfect


I will have invoked the muse.


I will have remembered to give thanks, knowing our origins

are in the invisible, and that we once possessed boundless energy,

but were formless, and that we are here to know ‘the things of the heart

through touching.’


I will have remembered, too, that there is only one thing

we all possess equally and that is our loneliness.


I will have loved.

You will have loved.

We will have loved.





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 every single 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.






“Beautiful, splendid, magnificent,

delightful, charming, appealing,”

says the dictionary.

And that’s how I start… But I hear her say,

“Make it less glorious and more Gloria.”


Imperious, composed, skeptical, serene,

lustrous, irreverent,

she’s marked by glory, she attracts glory

“Glory,” I say, “Glory, Glory.”


“Is there a hallelujah in there?”

she asks, when I read her lines one and two.

“Not yet,” I say, looking up from my books.

She protests, “Writing a poem isn’t the same


“As really attending to me.” “But it’s for

your birthday,” I say. Pouting,

playfully cross, “That’s the price you pay

when your love’s a poet.”


She has chestnut-colored hair,

old fashioned Clara Bow lips,

moist brown eyes…

arms outstretched, head thrown back

she glides toward me and into her seventh decade.


Her name means “to adore,”

“to rejoice, to be jubilant,

to magnify and honor as in worship, to give or ascribe glory—”

my love, O Gloria, I do, I do.





All day I have written words.

My subject has been that: Words.

And I am wrong. And the words.

I burn

three pages of them. Words.

And the moon, moonlight, that too

I burn. A poem remains.

But in the words, in the words,

in the fire that is now words.

I eat the words that remain,

and am eaten. By nothing,

by all that I have not made.





Podiatrist Father:


“Just a tiny crack separates this world

from the next, and you step over it

every day,

God is in the cracks.”

Foot propped up, nurse hovering, phone ringing.

“Relax and breathe from your heels.

Now, that’s breathing.

So, tell me, have you enrolled yet?”




“In the Illinois College of Podiatry.”


“Dad, I have a job. I teach.”


“Ha! Well, I’m a man of the lower extremities.”


“Dad, I’m forty-three.”


“So what? I’m eighty. I knew you

before you began wearing shoes.

Too good for feet?” he asks.

I. Me. Mind:

That’s all I get from your poetry.

Your words lack feet. Forget the mind.

Mind is all over the place. There’s no support.

You want me to be proud of you? Be a foot man.

Here, son,” he says, handing me back my shoes,

“try walking in these.

Arch supports. Now there’s a subject.

Some day you’ll write about arch supports.”





We’re comin’ up to my birthday.

I’m seventy-seven—twenty-three more and I’ll be a hundred!

So what’s it all about, sixty-odd years of writing, scribbling?

I’m eye to eye with him, “Uncle Dog: The Poet at 9,”

first mutt I ever wrote about, the garbage man’s dog.

Growing up in Chicago… 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,

my first published poem. First book!


And I’m out now, out on my ass. The charge?

Muse-neglect. Dog betrayal.

Truth is, maybe I had it coming. I let him slip away.

Uncle Dog and I lookin’ at one another.

And the dog has given notice.

It’s been fifty years since I wrote those lines,

…sharp, high fox-

eared, cur-Ford truck-faced

with his pick of the bones…

So, what’s today’s dream?


“Gimme your paw,” says Dog.

“Bad poet! Bad poet! What a mess! And five marriages.

All that scribbling.

Loss of nerve. Cowardice.

What’d you expect? What were you thinking?

Yeah, I know, we had our day,”

he says, and gives me back my hand.

Then it’s like lookin’ in the mirror,

and the “you” in the mirror walks out on you.


Head up, dog wings outstretched, circling, climbing,

ascends into heaven.

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  has taught at Cornell University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and UC Santa Cruz. A Guggenheim Fellow he was chosen by Lucile Clifton to receive a Villa Montalvo Literary Arts Award. His more than 20 books include: Four Incarnations (Coffee House Press), Rosicrucian in the Basement, The Collected Poems, and God is in the Cracks (Black Moss Press, Canada), now in its second printing. His latest, New & Selected Poems, 1957-2011, was recently published by Red Hen Press.


Born and raised in Chicago, Sward served in the U.S. Navy in the combat zone during the Korean War and later worked for CBC Radio and as book reviewer and feature writer for The Toronto Star and Globe & Mail while living in Canada. Sward now lives in Santa Cruz with his wife, visual artist Gloria K. Alford.

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