The Cows on Killing Day

by Les Murray

copyright ©2000 by Les Murray

All me are standing on feed. The sky is shining.

All me have just been milked. Teats all tingling still
from that dry toothless sucking by the chilly mouths
that gasp loudly in in in, and never breathe out.

All me standing on feed, move the feed inside me.
One me smells of needing the bull, that heavy urgent me,
the back-climber, who leaves me humped, straining, but light
and peaceful again, with crystalline moving inside me.

Standing on wet rock, being milked, assuages the calf-sorrow in me.
Now the me who needs mounts on me, hopping, to signal the bull.

The tractor comes trotting in its grumble; the heifer human
bounces on top of it, and cud comes with the tractor,
big rolls of tight dry feed: lucerne, clovers, buttercup, grass,
that’s been bitten but never swallowed, yet is cud.
She walks up over the tractor and down it comes, roll on roll
and all me following, eating it, and dropping the good pats.

The heifer human smells of needing the bull human
and is angry. All me look nervously at her
as she chases the dog me dream of horning dead: our enemy
of the light loose tongue. Me’d jam him in his squeals.

Me, facing every way, spreading out over feed.

One me is still in the yard, the place skinned of feed.
Me, old and sore-boned, little milk in that me now,
licks at the wood. The oldest bull human is coming.

Me in the peed yard. A stick goes out from the human
and cracks, like the whip. Me shivers and falls down
with the terrible, the blood of me, coming out behind an ear.
Me, that other me, down and dreaming in the bare yard.

All me come running. It’s like the Hot Part of the sky
that’s hard to look at, this that now happens behind wood
in the raw yard. A shining leaf, like off the bitter gum tree
is with the human. It works in the neck of me
and the terrible floods out, swamped and frothy. All me make the Roar,
some leaping stiff-kneed, trying to horn that worst horror.
The wolf-at-the-calves is the bull human. Horn the bull human!

But the dog and the heifer human drive away all me.

Looking back, the glistening leaf is still moving.
All of dry old me is crumpled, like the hills of feed,
and a slick me like a huge calf is coming out of me.

The carrion-stinking dog, who is calf of human and wolf,
is chasing and eating little blood things the humans scatter,
and all me run away, over smells, toward the sky.

Notes on the Poem

After dwelling amidst the delights of the poetry collections comprising the most recent shortlist, it feels like a good time to go back to the shortlist with which the Griffin Poetry Prize started off 18 years ago. This powerful selection comes from Les Murray's 2001 International Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Learning Human. In an interview over a decade after this poem was published, Murray revealed that "The Cows on Killing Day" was part of a set of poems written in the early 1990s, "when I was suffering a bout of depression and decided to get out of my own head and be an animal for a while. It worked for a time." He grappled, perhaps not entirely successful, with this method of self-treating his depression in a memoir discussed here. That article opens with this bracing characterization of Murray's work:
"The signature quality of a Les Murray poem is anger — a visceral smoldering that freshly lights up the tired old landscape and turns conventional pieties inside out."
It's not there at the outset, but that anger does emerge partway through this poem: "The heifer human smells of needing the bull human and is angry. All me look nervously at her as she chases the dog me dream of horning dead: our enemy of the light loose tongue. Me’d jam him in his squeals." "The Cows on Killing Day" an extremely harrowing poem to read, even more so to reread. But it's worth it, as Murray takes a horrifying subject and somehow resolves it in transcendent fashion. Therapy for the poet becomes good, if harsh, medicine for the reader. Do you agree?

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