When the Dog Bites

By James W. Gaynor


I started Early – Took my Dog –

And visited the Sea –

The Mermaids in the Basement

Came out to look at me –

                        Emily Dickinson (656)


In my limited experience with the phenomenon, love at first sight tends to require crowded rooms and alcohol consumption, not metal cages and a powerful odor of disinfectant. But there’s a first time for everything.

Our eyes met. A voice in my head informed me in no uncertain terms, “You’re late. Let’s go!” And we did.

My new canine companion trotted along Second Avenue with me, sporting a sexy blue tattoo on her belly that marked her chip implant and a new name in honor of the poet whose work can all be sung to The Yellow Rose of Texas. She was now officially Emily Because-I-Could-Not-Stop-for-Death Dickinson Gaynor. And I was wiped out by love, humming Barry Manilow songs, ready to believe in unicorns.

My previous relationships had all been with submissive, short-haired males of both our species — but this one is different in several ways. Emily is an alpha female Shih-Tzu mix, aggressively fluffy and with a startling habit of untying strangers’ shoelaces in elevators or while waiting for the light to change. She also views our ZIP code as a necessary first step toward world domination.

Emily to the Rescue

Emily recently attained celebrity status in our neighborhood when she took on a 20-something Citibike renter who was pedaling at full speed on the sidewalk. I stepped in front of him after he grazed a woman who was pushing a stroller. She lost her footing, and the stroller went off-balance into a tree well. Mad Max didn’t stop. After I blocked him I refused to move, yelling at him to apologize to mother and child — which is when he tried to hit me. Having been a bartender and occasional bouncer in my youth, I was able to block his punch, but dropped Emily’s leash as I did.

Making wolf sounds worthy of an animal six times her size, Emily attacked. The now-panicked cyclist was trapped by the crying baby, screaming mother, and shouting old guy. He also had a 12-pound dust mop gnawing at his calf. Yelling something in German, he picked up the bike, ran into the street, and then disappeared at top speed. Emily trotted over to the mother and immediately took advantage of the ensuing adoration to untie one of the woman’s running shoes. Word of her heroism has gone out on the dog-people network (“The Nightly News” below), and Emily’s conquest of NYC 10021 has begun.

Emily as Muse

We’ve been together for more than two years now and still going strong. Like many inter-species couples, we have grown to resemble each other, though Emily has me beat in the Hapsburg lower-jaw category. I have grown to accept that she requires far more maintenance that I do — but thanks to the wonders of YouTube, I have learned how to do her complicated monthly grooming myself. I then use the same clippers on my beard, all the time contemplating the irony of our matching white-and-tan coloring.

At the age of 68 — that’s about 95 in gay years — I am both surprised and grateful to find myself in a relationship that actually works (“The Secret to a Happy Married Life (for Men)”). It does so across taxonomic groups and gender. And in idiosyncratic meter, punctuation, and capitalization.

Recently, a friend and her family suffered the painful loss of their beloved dog. I wanted to send something more personal than a card, and in looking for one of my poems that would be suitable, I discovered that Emily is far more present in my work than I had realized. In fact, she appears in nine of the poems included in my new collection, Everything Becomes a Poem. I hadn’t thought of putting them together, but now it seems a logical next step —  to honor both Carlo, the historical Emily’s “shaggy ally” and Emily Dickinson Gaynor, the terror of East 75th St.

The Emily Poems: An Accidental Nonet


“Dogs are better than human beings because they know but do not tell.”

                                       — Emily Dickinson


New York Evening: Three Haiku


I watch her watching

The first firefly she’s seen.

Clover-scented night.



Laughter in summer darkness.

Shakespeare in the Park.


Watch out! But I saw

Only the pointing finger,

Not the speeding car.

In Dog Years

He sits

In the afternoon sun


His milky-eyed



Same bench

Same time

Each day




Neck and neck



Each other

Both knowing



And / or


She is his

Final dog


Ave Atque Vale

After considerable consultation

We have decided

The cat

Will miss you the most.


Everyone else

(Including the dog)

Views your departure

With mixed feelings.


(Particularly the dog)


Destiny in Midtown

I seem to have misplaced my destiny

In the search for love,

Five fewer pounds,

Better glass frames.


Or perhaps my destiny has misplaced me,

While books go unwritten,

Music never heard,

Injustice not addressed.



I walk the dog,

Shop for food,

Do the laundry.


And here’s the downtown bus —

I am running,

Per usual,

About five minutes late.  


The Nightly News

For people who know each other only

By their dogs’ names and

For those who read a


Scent-based alphabet

The rusting corner lamppost is

Where and how both groups catch up


Lexington’s dad is getting divorced

Due (in part) to his affair with Davidson’s person

Mazurka ate the tutu


Her guys thought would be

Such fun for Halloween

And everyone hates the Shar Pei


The Boardroom in the Park

Not unlike

Mahogany and chrome-polished

Corporate chambers


The neighborhood dog run

Is a regular destination

With familiar protocols


Cautious greeting precedes

Ritual butt-sniffing

To determine the alpha


And in ending our gatherings

Even if we accomplished

Nothing else


We know

Who’s on top



The Secret to a Happy Married Life (for Men)

Rather late in the season

I have at last discovered

The secret to a happy

Married life for my gender.


It is based on daily awe,

Gratitude to be the one

Man deemed worthy of serving

A silken doe-eyed goddess.


I’m now that delirious

Bumper sticker of a guy

Who would like to be the dude

He hopes his dog may think him.


And there it has always been,

In plain sight, the key to bliss,

A truth repeated over years:

Life’s a bitch.


Long Story Short

Long story short

I was in a car with



Laughing and

Eating jelly donuts


Then I woke up

The dog and

The cat were

Curled up next to each other and

That never happens

Swear to god


Her Previous Person

Though we are now

Thoroughly bonded

I was not her

First nor was she mine


And on the street

I often think she

Hopes to find her

Previous person


I cannot know

But imagine as

An old woman

Who died leaving her


Without a lap

Needing someone to

Risk the daily

Past-life regression


Otherwise known

As walking the dog


Everything Becomes a Poem  available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Hear James being interviewed about the book here.


James W. Gaynor is a poet, artist, editor, and writer. A graduate of Kenyon College, he lived in Paris, where he taught a course on Emily Dickinson at the University of Paris, studied the development of the psychological novel in
17th -century France, and worked as a translator.

After returning to New York, Gaynor worked as an editor at Grosset & Dunlap, Cuisine magazine, Scriptwriter News and Forbes Publications, where he was on the editorial staff of the Social Register. His articles, book reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Observer, and he recently retired as the Global Verbal Identity Leader for Ernst & Young LLP.

A silver medalist in the 1994 Gay Games (Racewalking), Gaynor’s found-object sculpture has been exhibited internationally. He is a member of the Advisory Board of New York’s The Creative Center at University Settlement, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing the creative arts to people with cancer and chronic illnesses.

An avid urbanite, Gaynor lives in New York City. 

Photo credit:  Justin Wilson


26 thoughts on “When the Dog Bites

  1. Thank you so much for this! I hadn’t known that the title of one of my favorite books (“Started Early, Took My Dog” by Kate Atkinson) was from one of Emily’s poems. How’d I miss that! So glad I didn’t miss this post of yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Noel, Atkinson is one of my favorite writers and I loved “Started early …” Her Jason Brody books were made into a great series as well. Have you seen it?


  2. More please!!! Thank you James … I truly enjoyed this and learning more about you and Emily. I’m looking forward to receiving your book I just ordered ‘Everything becomes a poem’!

    Liked by 1 person

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