Val was my friend and my first woman lover. Spending a week at her small cattle ranch gave me a view of the world — and of where my food came from — I’d never had. That week was pretty gross, but there was a beauty in the grossness I tried to catch hold of in this poem. What struck me even more than the ick factor was the rhythms of life there. She worked long, hard hours, but nothing could be hurried or forced onto any schedule it wasn’t going to keep naturally. It was Taoism at its muddiest.
Calving: Day 3
It’s mostly watching, you said. Filth and watching.
They don’t need us often, other than to be there,
To towel the calves until they’re dry and breathing.
We stood by for two days, slept in the muddy pickup bed,
Shared coffee from a thermos covered with the muck of birth after birth.
I learned to bear the thud of spindly bodies hitting packed earth,
The smell of blood and fear that rose from the heifers.
You taught me to low to them,
To mimic the comforting sound they knew from their own births.
By the third day, I was waking with you to the groans of cows delivering,
Running with you through the gumbo of topsoil and shit
Following Jack’s waving tail to where we were needed.
Thirty, forty deliveries, they all started to blur and merge
Into one sound, one smell.
Then we woke to see Jack clearing the fence between your ranch
And a neighbor’s I’d never met.
You knew him to say hello, and avoided doing even that very often,
But you were over that fence too, bellowing for me to follow.
This one was dying; you could hear it in her moaning.
I hauled myself over to find you up to your elbow in her,
Face screwed down tight with pain.
Breech birth, you grunted. And she’s got me. Grab my waist and pull.
I wrapped my arms around you and sat back hard.
We groaned together, in our different pains,
All heaved at once.
The calf was cold and I sprinted to the truck,
Tore back waving towels like banners.
We rubbed for half an hour, shoulders burning,
Hissing Breathe, you little fucker in time with the chafing.
You burst into tears when he gasped, staggered to his feet,
And sneezed a gout of blood-flecked mucus at us.
I hauled him by his ears to his mother’s teat,
The three of us bawling all the way.