POETRY April 26, 2013

Three Poems

Be The Pack Leader

cries the book my wife assigned to help my “relationship”
 with our dog, Jasmine—i.e., to make her obey, but not to pee
when she sees me (which, my wife says, means she’s scared).

 Is that so bad? Machiavelli thought it better for a leader
to be feared than loved (though feared and loved was best).
 But I don’t want to lead. That’s why I never ran

for president of anything. That, and suspecting I’d lose.
 Too bad doing what I want goose-steps hand-in-hand
with telling others what to do. My Cub Scout Leader,

 Mr. Bimpfelberg—in khaki shorts and more ribbons
than a commissar—could barely lead our troop in singing,
 “Oh I had a little chicken / but she wouldn’t lay an egg . . .”

He never showed us how to scalp an enemy, spear a moose,
 hold off the U.S. Army with bows and arrows,
or even shoot a bb-gun (which, anyway, Mom wouldn’t

 let me have). Still, when I’m tempted to ridicule
life’s Bimpfelbergs, or—right now—my son’s Little League coach,
 who knows less baseball than I know Dentistry

(for which, mostly by brushing my teeth, I “earned”
 a Merit Badge), I remind myself, I could have volunteered.
But no, it’s tough enough teaching my boy to bunt and not to cry

 when he strikes out. How could I lead twelve kids who lack
my DNA? I’d forget who’s up to bat, and couldn’t bring myself
 to yell, “Good try!” when the pitcher, attempting

to throw, blacks his own eye. Years ago, as I boiled in eighth-grade
 angst, the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack”
gave me hope that, if I led a pack of bikers, Sherry Ames

 might not equate me with that jock strap
always kicking down the halls. The song, with its motorcycle
 revving, singers wailing, “No, no, no, no, / no, no, no!”

as the leader roared into his fatal skid, made pack-leading
 sound gloriously doomed. But even Dad nixed
a motorbike for me: “I don’t want to scrape you off three

 hundred yards of blacktop with a hoe.” He earned my fear
and love the time he saved me from Foley’s security.
 “If you ever shoplift again,” he raged when we got home,

“I’ll knock you through the wall.” Thanks to him,
 I can play Dictator to my kids (though not, I hope,
the Auschwitz / Gulag kind). After I’d vowed to treat my first-

 ever Freshman Comp class as “fellow-learners,”
then learned they wouldn’t let their fellow-learner speak,
 I slammed our text to the floor with an atomic BLAM!

“I’ll flunk you all and ruin your lives,” I roared,
 “if you don’t shape up NOW!” These days,
I start off Stalinesque, then relax. Result: great student-evals,

 and no thrown books. Clearly, people want strong leaders.
Still, it’s hard to believe that dogs like being bossed,
 and are glad just to be part of the pack, which is why,

 on seeing someone in the family—even our four-year-old—
Jasmine flattens her hindquarters on the floor and drags
 forward like a paraplegic before bellying up, frog-

kicking her legs until we pat her and coo, “Good girl.”
 I’ve bought the democracy ideal so completely, I feel bad
reading the (probably mojado) gardeners the riot act

 as my Armenian neighbor does so cheerfully.
Raised in the USSR, he hates the “asshole leaders”
 we elect. “This is best we have?” he demands, although—

a U.S. citizen for years—he knows our campaigns
 favor the corrupt, hypocritical, power-mad.
I’ve read that medieval peasants were proud to serve

 their “God-given” lord—that untouchables accepted
the caste system as just and right—that some slaves
 in the U.S. embraced their lot. Can that be true?

Woody Allen says people will follow any order, however
 asinine, if it comes from a deep, well-modulated voice.
When I talk to Jasmine, that’s how I make mine.