The Robert Watson Literary Prize Poem THE DOGS OF MONGOLIA

Spring 2014: Issue 95

Nathan Slinker

1.

 

Dog pawing the awnings of restaurants in Ulaanbaatar

where the State Department store hawks dog dreams

to businessmen who cast shadows like pit mines

deep enough for dog bodies to fall asleep inside. Oh dog

roped to the old Soviet pillar, roped to an oil drum

full of vodka. Dog roped to a car husk, head stuck

through the radiator & staring at the dead metal flywheel,

mill-wheel. Dog snared by flight, mired in fetal freedom

on a staircase to the first world, feral & chained by fur

to the cracked rib cage of hunger. Three dogs in a garbage pile

near the temple shed. Dog tongue licking the sacred horse skull,

licking the wounded shaman’s hand, the land. Dog head stuck

inside a mayonnaise jar beneath the deep bellow of Asian sky,

stuck to a body beneath a season of ice, stuck to a cup

of goat milk souring on midwinter’s fatal white cloth.

 

2.

 

God, you are an old trick in reverse; pick a horse-head fiddle

backward until scales shed like fur. Run until your hooves

turn to pads and the plateaus of your teeth

peak into canines; run until you run

the hills into camel backs and your four legs

blacken, bloody as the first newborn colt of Spring.

 

On the broken fire escape, dog. In a pile of dogs

on the burnt black factory floor,

dog. Dead in a winter field, frozenblooded, dog.

Blown into myth, howling into the ice wind

from the edge of legend to be born

again from the foggy womb of the hoodoo, dog.

 

3.

 

However the sky falls, we were there, and we were not dogs.

On horseback in the wide-mouthed valley, the immensity

above us, like some lost faith, threatening rain, we passed

dog after dog guarding the hashas and flocks. They chewed

 

sheep into shin bones, chewed the sinew cords

from the ger poles, the legs from wrestling statues—

 

they coughed up prophecy, swallowed the long winter

where gods walk on knees, kept falling asleep

in the wild wind-swept scruff of steppe. Or

 

that part can’t be true—those dogs never slept.

I still see them, in full sprint across the blue khadag of the sky,

their matted fur turning slowly to snow.