We run as if an agitated earth
were breaking up behind us, and we fight
to gain our stations at the gritty trough
half-filled with corn, where each survivor’s worth
is daily measured by another’s right
to fair apportionment denied; and off
our makeshift plates of muddied, calloused hands
ensues a squealing angry vulgar rush
to suck the greasy nourishment before
there is no more, beneath the reprimands
of our possessors, who behold the crush
of vermin squirming to and fro, and roar
with ridicule at other men’s distress.
And now the furnace of the picking fields:
my sweat, like acid, so intense the heat;
the layers of my skin in merciless
assault laid bare, as one would flay the shields
of weary swordsmen crumbling in defeat.
For I am just machinery, a tool;
and I must step and lift and strip and clear,
again, again, until all hope becomes
a moment’s respite from another’s rule,
a storm-whipped seedling doomed to persevere
until its fleeting energy succumbs.
The night, at last, should be our time of peace.
Instead a tempest rises from inside
of me – my brother kneels before the fire;
and all the creatures of the darkness cease
their plaintive calls, the churlish winds subside;
to touch his breath the spirits all conspire,
as like a starry pond his amber skin
reflects a thousand beaded silver pearls
of terror; time and motion seem to pause;
a fearsome crackling – flesh explodes, the din
of horror as a scarlet vapor curls
above bewitching firelight; and the cause
of all the misery of humankind
is set aglow upon the lustful eyes
of those in witness to the spectacle;
his swelling body thrashes in a blind
contortion at the resonant reprise,
the whistlings of the lash a chronicle
of limits to endurance, or of prey
in final battle, and we both recoil
with every searing flash of brilliant white;
the wordless ritual proceeds till day
begins, and merciful the rite of toil
to shroud the distant memories of night.
The valuation: ox and mule and I
are harvesters, production’s pulse and breath;
the traders, sure as scripture of their just
and righteous task, assess and quantify,
and probe and estimate each life and death;
like seed we will be spread among the dust.
I watch my mother’s face: ’tis just as well
they hack away her arm, so great her pain;
but all her tears dissolve in scenes of mirth
and profit, as the men who buy and sell
the bucks and hands and breeders do ordain
for us a last embrace upon their earth.
Our dearest bond is cherished; as the men,
becoming restless, hurry us along.
Once more I’d like to gather a bouquet
for her, to see her smile; and once again
to drift to slumber on an angel’s song
as all my fears of darkness slip away.
Paul Buchheit’s poems have been published by the Illinois State Poetry Society, Lucid Rhythms, and the State of Nature online journal. His happiest moments are spent reading, writing, and reflecting on carefully crafted poetry. As a retired teacher, he now devotes more and more time to this blissful pursuit.