Claudia Emerson – “Collective: A Drift of Hogs “ – A Long Poem

Collective: A Drift of Hogs

After the bullet had halted in the brain
      and with it the breathing, my cousin recalls
his father slitting the throat right there
      in the lot to begin the cleansing bleed.
This had happened for so many falls,
      he said the soil before the trough had been
changed by it, and while still the stuff of mud
      and sand, of hoof prints frozen into deep-cloven
molds, its color, its texture, had assumed
      a chocolaty depth, obvious, ignored
once the freshness of the smell receded into cold—
      seepage settling like a thicker rain.

****

The documentary opens
      with the photograph they thought
would capture the kill—thousand pound body
      strung up by its hind feet, the hoghook
attached to the backhoe the men
      had brought into the swamp in order
to prove, measure, then bury
      this thing long-rumored, glimpsed,
heard, its size given scale
      by the man—posed smiling
as for any photograph—

      made small beside it.

****

The whole of them thriving after all,
      they appeared agreeable somehow to it—
the calm way a hog turned out roamed close
      all summer, the bell piercing its ear
unnecessary. (He reminds me that theirs
      is a hunger easily satisfied,
the browsing turning up anything
      that grew or landed close: insects, eggs,
lizards, snakes, young birds, and moles—everything
      rooted, bulbs and tubers, and with them
the congregation of decay, worms
      and beetles, a lung-shot doe some hunter
gave up following, a human foot blown
      in the boot discovered with the same delight.)
It entered the lot without real protest,
      showing joy in the slop and corn, the confines
of the trough. Perhaps an understanding
      came in the suckling, that the afterworld
of their bodies was fused with the ones
      escaped, returning to the hidden
sounders and the wild odor of the hive
      with the ease of meat turned on the spit,
smoldered in the ground-pit, hissed
      and sizzled, the fat spitting back
from the black iron frying pan
      onto living flesh, the same survival.

****

His narrative, already virile,
      the town nearby embellished—
how he heard before he saw it,
      killed it with a single shot
or surely it would have killed him—
      how the creature had all the features
of a wild boar in its sheer size,
      the coat mud-rimed, its tusks thick
as a man’s forearm, but also how
      it bore sure signs that someone had once
owned it, claimed it in the docked tail,
      in the ear’s notch—deep, deliberate.

****

My mother says the day was decided
      after a week’s worth of heavy frost,
persimmons stricken sweet, the morning
      shadowless.  The axe angled gnomon-like
but hourless from the block. Smoke
      from the scalding fire so finely laced
the air it was as inextricable
      from it as the sound of a blade
sharpening, its measure breath-like, the fragrance
      of a whetted edge mingling iron
with the smoke. The world outside the pen
      was slatted again, redefined in thick slices
of dawn, and with its slow reemergence
      of color, the tattered remnants of the garden
returned, the sage patch still dense by the woodshed,
      volunteering thicker and healthier
every year—and the house from which they spilled
      with slop and corn, the children’s screams coming sharp,
their voices rising, pale wisps feathering
      from the heat of small, determined mouths.

****

The town celebrated, paraded,
      the children wearing plastic snouts
and little ears, holding paper cones
      of cotton candy, greasy sacks
of popcorn.  Following the marching band,
      someone’s tractor pulled a float
that carried a living tableau
      of the scene they had been told
they could stop imagining:
      a blood-covered man overcome
by the long-feared boar—a quick,
      rough rendering in paper mache.

****

All of it was worth the work she says:
      nothing wasted—hocks, hams, chops, fatback,
bacon, even the ears, feet, intestine,
      tongue, the heart, even the brain that would be
in the morning scrambled to the plural brains-
      and-eggs, salted, peppered; her mother
shushing the children not to think about it.
      The learned ritual of that day would define
winter—the body going from fall’s quick,
      purgatorial fattening to an anatomy
segmented, ordered first in the meatbox, hams
      and shoulders packed tight in salt, kept in the hold
of the smokehouse, where later they would be hung, crowded there;
      she says its eaves steamed night after night against
the early winter sky—like a small house
      that would not succumb to the fire it had inside it.

****

But doubt would suspend the story,
      possibility upon
whispered possibility,
      then a small certain voice,
then two:  they could have mistaken it
      for the one  still in the swamp,
something they had never known.
      Only three men saw the body
after all, and them not from
      around here, the photograph
a made thing—no proof
      in such small witness.

****

So much revision in the rendering,
      in the precise economy of a slow, graveless
decay, some of what remained of the body
      distilled, disappeared in the snaps and potatoes—
seasoned the greens, the soup, assumed the form
      of lard in the bucket, of soap by the sink.
Relics of the body once carried, obeyed, the feet,
      cloven and delicate, my mother learned
to pickle alongside cucumbers, beets,
      and peaches; no longer gravity bound, they floated
weightless, suspended in the gallon glass jar
      like curiosities in a medical museum—
or specimens preserved for studying
      the development of the fetus.

****

And so the documentary
      closes with the men’s
return, scientists
      among them this time.
They wear rubber gloves,
      boots to the hip, black
masks. No resurrection, this—
      inquiry an insult
to the swamp’s slow recollection
      of what has already
disappeared among them,
      the fact of that.

****

It moves through the dead finish of the thicket—
      swamp and understory—shared threshold
with predictable clearings, lots, coops,
      cellars, lofts, and cages, a house, the shadows
neat, obedient. One form reforms,
      resolves, survival more than the memory
of muscle and space, more than the calling
      back of time, the body and brain indivisible,
changing around what has changed and will
      again, penumbral noon and after
noon, the way the wind rises as something
      recalled, and at the same time, quickening.

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