When the Virgin appears in the rust
wept from a subway pipe, impassive as a rat
hops the third rail to sniff the lipsticked butt
of a flicked cigarette, where’s the surprise?
Hunger so often passes for prayer, grows stronger
the longer it goes unanswered. And though I was shocked
when the trinity found me, I’d just spent all
night on the curb with a pup who’d spun circles,
its hindquarters slack, as a VW beetle chugged uphill,
and she couldn’t stop trembling or blowing
dark bubbles, so I could see why maybe they’d come.
The doorman, when I caught him watching, would shake
his head and look down his broom, like what
an extravagance to care. And toward midnight a cook
heading home from work stopped singing to ask
if the dog was hurt, then tugged its leg to see how bad.
The bite I got on my wrist for trying to stop him bloomed
and bled a thin stem as he faltered off, predicting two
maybe three hours left. I scrubbed the ashtray
from the nightstand and brought what little
water it could hold and a shirt to cover her
up to her neck. And as her shivering slowed, and not
from the blanket, I returned to the room, turned on
the TV and that’s when I saw them, all three wincing
as if through a mist. I grabbed the plastic camera
from my backpack, cranked the frame, and before
they could vanish snapped a quick shot, one click,
and these faces I hadn’t seen for years blinked—
the anxious wreck, the one with tense lips,
and the plump one who somehow is always
confused. What a daft universe you left for us, my prayers
at that curb were not for you. And so what,
Larry, Curly and Mo, if that dog’s a cliché
of innocence, like I didn’t already know
how cruelty is truth and truth cruelty.
But all you need to know is that others
came and sniffed through the fence, their dog tags
mellow in the lightless gloom, holding their breath
to hear the first gurgle, then howled across
the stark fields of maguey—that cactus sacred
to the ancient Aztecs, who’d snap its fronds
for the sap that turns to a spirit so sour
it stings the tongue numb—and what came back
were the vague and chance harmonies of others
used to being ignored. So I can’t say
I was surprised at dawn when I stepped outside
and the body was gone, but the ashtray was too, just
my t-shirt was there, neatly folded on the curb.
ERIC BERLIN received the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize, Bradford on Avon Poetry Prize, and National Poetry Prize. His interviews with poets have been featured in American Poetry Review and The Hopkins Review. He lives in upstate New York and teaches online for The Poetry School.