Great Day in the Cows House
In the dark tie-up seven huge Holsteins
lower their heads to feed, chained loosely to old saplings
with whitewashed bark still on them.
They are long dead; they survive, in the great day
that cancels the successiveness of creatures.
Now she stretches her wrinkly neck, her turnip eye
rolls in her skull, she sucks up breath,
and stretching her long mouth mid-chew she expels:
-Sweet bellowers enormous and interchangeable,
your dolorous ululations
swell out barnsides, fill spaces inside haymows,
resound down valleys. Moos of revenant cattle
shake ancient timbers and timbers still damp with sap.
Now it is warm, late June. The old man strokes
white braids of milk, strp strp, from ruminant beasts
with hipbones like tentpoles, the rough
black-and-white hanging crudely upon them.
Now he tilts back his head to recite a poem
about an old bachelor who loves a chicken named Susan.
His voice grows loud with laughter and emphasis
in the silent tie-up where old noises gather.
Now a tail lifts to waterfall huge and yellow
or an enormous flop presses out. Done milking, he lifts
with his hoe a leather-hinged board
to scrape manure onto the pile underneath, in April
carted for garden and fieldcorn.
The cows in their house
decree the seasons; spring seeds corn,
summer hays, autumn fences, and winter saws ice
from Eagle Pond, sledging it uphill to pack it away
in sawdust; through August’s parch and Indian summer
great chunks of the pond float in the milkshed tank.
Pull down the spiderwebs! Whitewash the tie-up!
In the great day there is also the odor of poverty
and anxiety over the Agricultural Inspector’s visit.
They are long dead; they survive, in the great day
of August, to convene afternoon and morning
for milking. Now they graze Ragged Mountain:
steep sugarbush, little mountain valleys and brooks,
high clovery meadows, slate-colored lowbush blueberries,
When grass is sweetest they are slow to leave it;
late afternoons he spends hours searching.
He knows their secret places; he listens for one peal
of a cowbell carried on a breeze; he calls
“Ke-bosh, ke-bo-o-sh, ke-bosh, ke-bosh.”
He climbs dry creekbeds and old logging roads
or struggles up needle-banks pulling on fir branches.
He hacks with his jackknife a chunk of sprucegum
oozing from bark and softens it in his cheek-pouch
Then he pushes through hemlock’s gate
to join the society of Holsteins; they look up from grass
as if mildly surprised, and file immediately downwards.
Late in October after the grass freezes
the cattle remain in their stalls, twice a day loosed
to walk stiff-legged to the watering trough
from which the old man lifts a white lid if ice.
Twice a day he shovels ensilage into their stalls
and shakes hay down from the loft, stuffing a forkful
under each steaming nose.
In late winter,
one after one, the pink-white udders
dry out as new calves swell their mothers’ bellies.
Now these vessels of hugeness bear, one after one,
skinny-limbed small Holsteins eager to suck
the bounty of freshening. Now he climbs to the barn
in boots and overalls, two sweaters,
a cloth cap, and somebody’s old woolen coat;
now he parts the calf from its mother after feeding, and strips the udder clean,
to rejoice in the sweet frothing tonnage of milk.
Now in April, when snow remains on the north side
of boulders and sugarmaples, and green
starts from wet earth in open places the sun touches,
he unchains the cows one morning after milking
and lopes past them to open the pasture gate.
Now he returns whooping and slapping their buttocks
to set them to pasture again, and they are free
to wander eating all day long. Now these wallowing
big-eyed calf-makers, bone-rafters for leather,
awkward arks, cud-chewing lethargic mooers,
roll their enormous heads, trot gallop, bounce,
cavort, stretch, leap and bellow -
as if everything heavy and cold vanished at once
and cow spirits floated
weightless as clouds in the great day’s windy April.
When his neighbor discovers him at eighty-seven, his head
leans into the side of his last Holstein;
she has kicked the milkpail over, and blue milk drains through floorboards onto the manure pile in the great day.
Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin
Donald Hall is one of our foremost men of letters, widely read and loved for his award-winning poetry,
fiction, essays, and children’s literature. He has published sixteen collections of poetry and has edited
numerous anthologies. His poetry has won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, The National Book Critics Circle
Award, a Lenore Marshall Award, and the Robert Frost Medal of the Poetry Society of America. He is a member of the
American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was installed as the nation’s Poet Laureate in October of 2006. Since
1975, when he resigned his university teaching position, Hall has lived in New Hampshire, on Eagle Pond Farm, an old
family house, which he shared with his wife, poet Jane Kenyon. Their life together and her tragic death from leukemia
have been the subjects of many of his poems.
DONALD HALL IN THIS EDITION:
PROFILE: Thinking with Muscle and Tongue The Poetry of Donald Hall
POETRY: Great Day in the Cows House
POETRY: Kicking the Leaves
POETRY: The Man in the Dead Machine
POETRY: Mount Kearsarge Shines
POETRY: Weeds and Peonies