Steve Knepper teaches literature and writing at Virginia Military Institute. His poems have appeared in Pembroke Magazine, SLANT, The James Dickey Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Floyd County Moonshine, and other journals.
A farmer knows the point where prayer
And blasphemy are one — My God, My God —
The shepherd-psalmist's cry of dereliction.
A windstorm flattens out his corn, a chainsaw
Bites into his firstborn's leg, the well
Goes dry in August's drought.
The night my father breathes such words his lips
Are beaded up, his cotton shirt soaked through,
His arm a swollen mass of blood and slime
From failed attempts to push, to turn, to pinch
The breeched calf's legs, a stubborn inch's task.
Frustration mounts as minutes turn to hours
Without the necessary shift, the cow
No longer bellowing. Her head hangs low.
Our neighbor puts his shoulder in her side
To keep her upright in the narrow stall.
The pulling chains lie useless on the floor.
I dab a towel across my father's face
And keep the water hot, add iodine
To crudely sterilize. The slug of brown
Uncoils its tendrils in the steaming pail.
Despite myself I think about the day
He had to shoot a spraddled cow to ease
Her misery. She was a heavy milker,
A thousand dollar cow. My mother cried.
My father's eyes were wild as he returned
The rifle to the rack, went back to work.
Damn it all. He sinks against the blocks.
My God, My God. He pumps his arm, exhales
The words, then stumbles up again to try
To wrench a miracle into the world.
Dropped out of school last week and disappeared —
No sign of him till Chester called me up
And said he'd seen him huffing gas behind
The dollar store in that abandoned lot.
When I got there he had the kind of look
A fox might get that's chewed its leg all night
But can't get loose before the trapper comes.
I said I needed him to fix some fence.
He told me to take a pitchfork ride
To hell and stay awhile. Then we fought.
He tried to hit me with a chunk of asphalt
But only scraped my forehead up a bit.
I socked him in the gut a time or two
To take away his wind and settle him.
You know when I was young I came in drunk
One night and thought my daddy hadn't heard.
He was a strict teetotaler, a Baptist
Who didn't even like to give a cow
Off her feed a funnel dose of beer.
He had a bottle waiting at the table
When I came slumping down the stairs next morning.
He made me drink it all and then we bailed
A dozen loads of hay in August heat.
Still can’t hardly stand to taste the stuff.
That wouldn't cure what's got a grip on him.
He'd smoked and snorted all he could afford
Before he started on the gasoline —
Might not have stopped till he had fried his brains.
When we were riding home that night he said
He'd take me soon. I'm getting old and slow.
What then? I said I hoped to God he'd kill me.
He laughed and said that wishes can come true.
Glass: A Journal of Poetry is published monthly by Glass Poetry Press.
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