Wednesday, February 06, 2013

`But It Was Good'

“Wouldn’t drive and wouldn’t be led,
So they tied cotton line around its neck and it backed,
Clipped steps, as the rope stretched.
They shot it clean through the shrieking brain.
And it dropped in a lump.” 

But for the impersonal pronoun, we might guess the poet is recounting events in Syria or Mali. The setting, in fact, is rural North Carolina. In “February,” the first poem in his first collection, The World Between the Eyes (1971), Fred Chappell describes an ordinary event from his Appalachian childhood that most of us will never know – a hog butchering. It’s free verse with an iambic spine, and the story is told from the point of view of “the boy,” presumably a mutation of Chappell, who was born in 1936 in Canton, N.C. He spares no details of the bloody, greasy work that turns, in those long-ago, pre-PETA days, into a community celebration: 

“The fire popping and licking,
They roll the big black cauldron to it. Saturday,
The neighbor women and men and kids, the faces
Broad with excitement. Wow wow across the gravel,
The cast iron pot...” 

Dumped in the boiling water, “His hair falls off. (Swims in the filmed water / Like giant eyelashes.)” “And they cleave it / And cleave it. Loins. Ham. / Shoulder. Feet. Chops.” “Every surface / Is raddled with the fat.” The hog’s bladder and stomach are inflated, tied off and “flung to the kids.” The boy, our stand-in witness, is “dismayed / With delight” and “elated-drunk / With the horror,” as most of us would be: 

“They’re gleaning
The last of him and the slippery whiskey jar
Goes handily among them. Wipe their mouths
With greasy wrists. And the smug head
Burst and its offerings distributed, Brain.
Ears. And the tail handed off with a clap of laughter.
They lick the white whiskey and laugh.” 

Our world is sanitized, plastic-wrapped and inspected by the USDA. Chappell describes a world in which people must do the dirty work required for their sustenance. But more than mere food processing, a hog butchering becomes a social event, an excuse for gossip, laughter and whiskey. In his first poem between hard covers, Chappell chooses not to gaze at his navel but to recreate a powerful scene from another America. I thought of Chappell’s poem while reading Civil War Reflections 1862-1865 (1900) by Harvey Hogue. He served in the Ohio 115th Regiment and was taken prisoner during Hood’s advance on Nashville in December 1864, but with two fellow Ohioans escaped before he could be transported to the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville. Recounting the walk north with his companions, Hogue writes: 

“We had now again been without food nearly two days and a night, and having, by activity and freedom with plenty of pure air, largely thrown off our prison contracted ailments, our appetites had returned. Here was a chance. We were in sight of a farm house and between us and it was a large apple orchard in which we discovered a pile of hogs. Thorp still carried the butcher knife in his boot leg; we reconnoitered the premises and waited until midnight, when a jump, a scramble of pigs, a single squeal and the law of confiscation of the enemy's supplies is obeyed. The two hams are all we can take. With these we again start northward eating warm fresh pork as we go, raw and without salt, but it was good.”

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