after Ellen Bryant Voigt, with a line from William Faulkner
A man kills a mule with a hammer or a two-by-four.
No one is really sure. A poet writes this
about her father’s father. It is a bob-end of a family
tale only a few of her kin remember.
He was a wonder of indecipherable silence,
this young farmer from a prior age.
The reader is meant to consider the man
plowing his field, the sweat and lather of the work,
the futile confrontation with weariness.
It’s hard to know if the writer mourns him—
she does not romanticize.
Actually, the poem makes me think of the mule,
hoof-deep and halt in the riven ground,
welts the man’s leather lash has made livid
on belly and flank weeping with serum and pain,
the bludgeon, then,
retrieved from the barn.
Perhaps the mule resigned itself to the fate
of dumb resistance to the prod.
They are intelligent beings, after all.
Smarter than horses, some say.
The mule no doubt knew that pulling the yoke
an extra inch would have exceeded its nature.
Such is the mule, muscled with self-knowledge,
wiser than Aristotle.
It cannot be untrue to itself.
Unlike a man
who wields a plank and pounds
mule blood into the earth.
Maria Rouphail, author of Apertures (New Women’s Voices/Finishing Line) and Second Skin (Main Street Rag), is a five-time Pushcart nominee based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.