“A Question of Time” by Kathleen A. Dale

Kathleen A. Dale



Nine thousand years seems long but for the imagination: 
see a Siberian girl smile as she reaches out to touch the saggital crest 
(shaped like an arrow, indicating strong jaw muscles
on the head of a Husky, once-removed from wolf, panting by the fire 
after pulling home a sled of reindeer meat. 

Now, see them both die (you can fill in the cause), 
buried in a single grave, discovered just last year. 
Time (Anglo Saxon: timma, tide) streams through us, 
modifying species and individuals little by little. 
At birth our innocent lungs fill with air, with time: 
sails catching a breeze, seedlings thrusting up watery green stems, 
rushing through the detritus of April, pushing up, thickening, billowing 
until the instant the fatal blossom explodes at the tip. 

Time is older than the oldest language, its silence older 
than its creatures’ utterances, attempted expressions of their lives; 
it travels through some bodies faster than others, leaving behind 
sloughed shapes, unfinished shadows; it has moved through each 
of my Three Dogs seven times faster than through me. 



Two hundred years of selective breeding have spawned 
a monstrous array of creatures called “dogs,” becoming 
ever fitter for human purposes, including friendliness and 
laboratory testing. Eighty-four percent of our DNA is the same. 

Sixteen percent remains unknown, useless to the other, wild. 
Guns are quick to put down useless animals. 

This morning I see a man whip a large Scottish Terrier 
(bred to rid farms of vermin and to help seize game
with the leash he carries; the giant dog refuses to heel. 
I stare hard at the man’s back, my limbic brain shooting 
fight, then flight, then powerlessness, then, from my 
newer frontal lobe, hope he will eventually change. 

He calls to mind my father, fifty years ago, whipping 
his Brittany Spaniel (bred in France as gun dogs). 
When often in memory I scream at him to stop, he always 
drops the rolled-up newspaper, ever surprised. 



My Last Dog is a mix of Husky (sled pullers, guards, hunters
and German Shepherd (search-and-rescue, police and military). 

Thirteen years seems long except for the imagination. 
My children grown, I find myself before the cages at the shelter just to look. 
They say I am too old for the adolescent handsome male I have chosen, 
categorized on his cage as “orange” meaning he needs lots of exercise. 
Incensed at their assessment of me, I pay the fee to take Last Dog home, 
and though they are correct in that I cannot run as fast as he, 
they do not know that he will come to lope beside my bike, 
the two of us, pulled by instinct and imagination, a team in the Iditarod. 

At 62, I believe Last Dog and I might live out our lives concurrently. 
At 75, it does not seem so likely. 



Time is stealthy (Anglo Saxon: stehlen, to steal). 
Eight thousand years seems long but for the imagination. 
Hear Lao Tzu speak: time makes possible all that is; 
what allows us to live, permits us to die. 
Walt Whitman insists, a mere 150 years gone, 
death is different from what any one supposes, and luckier.
I am counting on luck: composing a detailed script for when 
time is nearly through with me but pain is not. If I can catch 
that sweet spot I will not eat or drink. This is called suicide, 
though if someone withholds nourishment at my behest, 
it is termed murder (to rub away; harm); 
both are sins (synne, of unknown origin). 

Dogs may be bred for aggression, but they never 
hold their breath, imagining death. They do not anticipate. 
We do. 

In liver sausage he never refuses I hide antibiotics for the sepsis 
that leaves Last Dog trembling, feverish, after each chemo treatment. 
The palliative prednisone makes him manic, knocking coasters 
off the coffee table with his nose, in a replay of his puppyhood 
I never saw. I am patient. I cook meals twice a day, and he eats, 
voraciously, pisses constantly. He is anxious, panting for something 
I’m not ready to give. Never bred for displays of affection, now he pushes 
his head into my lap relentlessly, asking, asking. 



It is just a question of time. 
Restoring Last Dog, me, or, in fact, the earth that together 
we’ve explored, to health is out of the question. 

I compose another script. 

I will hire his murderer: rely on a stranger 
with her needle of oblivion to force time to unleash 
Last Dog’s body as painlessly as possible, leaving me 
(for we will of course have separate graves), for a time, 
still alive, attended by his completed shadow. 

This leaves the heavy grief (grever: to weigh down, afflict
that all of us must carry, in proportion to our given 
length of life, 
breadth of vision, 
depth of (what else to call it?) 

from Rattle #71, Spring 2021


Kathleen A. Dale: “We had no books of poetry at home. I was a first-generation college student in 1963, majoring in what I thought would be medicine, mainly because my beloved older sister had died at 16 from polio. But I was itchy and frustrated with the need for absolutism in my first science course. On the other hand, when my professor of English read Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,’ he later told me a bomb could have gone off in the back of the room and I wouldn’t have noticed. So I started writing poetry. Today, over 50 years later, I still write to access that space where, as Jane Hirshfield put it, ‘anxiety, grief, and the abysses of chaos can be lured into beauty and meaning. … The point is not resolution.’ Writing poetry has helped me not only to make meaning out of the senseless death of my sister but also to share the immense value of accepting the unknown in our current world, resisting absolute certainty in all its forms.” (web)

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