by Jonathan Johnson

Sometimes I’d leave the flashlight
knowing it meant walking the dark ten minutes
back from the barn by the overhead break
in fir and pine, feet staying to the invisible
scuff of dirt in the road’s left rut.
How many moonless nights
in dark canyons of forest remained
before the sky was to close over sensation?
No one knows, sure, but fewer now than then.
The dog barked out the cabin’s position.
From further than you’d think
he could hear my footfalls.
He quieted when I called out to him.
Good dog I’ve said over and over
my mouth to his ear giving him something
he might follow one last time. And now he’s buried
in a woods way back in Michigan
while I hold the T.V. remote as far into night
as sleep holds out, keeping the room
awash in antipoetic illumination
that glows on after I’m gone down
into my dream shoveling dirt and crumbly sandstone,
his side giving a little as the weight falls
on the blanket we’ve wrapped him in.
Living human years as I do I’m still young, relatively,
and the patience of the woods is legendary.
Odds are I’ll walk the dark in Idaho again.
But no one else knew Odysseus,
home after twenty years, except the dog
who recognized his passing voice
and so died satisfied. At least
someone thought so. Are we who we were once
and then never again? Labor Day comes
with clouds closing and I’m parked
at the end of a long curve of bay.
A half-dozen people knee-deep in the pewter riffles
of Superior under pewter sky. Everyone else on shore.
It went about how I’d expected, except
for the shaved square of skin on his foreleg
and the size of the syringe, how much thick, pink liquid
there was, and how it seemed to hurt some
going in. His muscles tensed.
We had to hurry with our reassurances.
Which brings me to what I’ve left out:
Amy, on her knees on the ground beside me
as I spoke in his ear and stroked his fur,
pushing my shoulder gently so she could see
his eyes. Which saw her. Which never closed.
The fiction of narrative solitude is the poet’s old lie,
and most of us do it and those who do know why. After all,
there’s no one else here now, on this near isthmus of memory.
Though it’s less than he’d have perceived
from the seat behind me, the smell
through these open windows today
is everything another year has made
smelling crushed full of pine, cloud thick and leafy.
Some days there’s more to do.
Some days it seems it’s all been done.
So if I’m to be my own key witness and unwavering
company I’ll look out as though it’s in
where the still warm breeze moves the limbs
of trees turned and determined by a lifetime
of wind, until the waders all come in, rain
draws its curtain halfway across the horizon,
and the iron freighter arriving
passes the iron freighter going away.

Jonathan Johnson’s most recent book is the poetry collection In the Land We Imagined Ourselves (Carnegie Mellon, 2010). He migrates as he can between Scotland, upper Michigan, and the Northwest where he Professor of Creative Writing in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University.