Folks tend to stare when I wear my black corduroy cap labeled PIPESTONE with the crossed butcher knife and sharpening tool on the front. Of course, the cap came with a story.
The occasion was one of the many readings I’ve done at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota. The reading took place after 1991, because the poem that occasioned this story was first published in Land Circle that year, and in 1993 appeared in Dakota Bones, published by Dave Pichaske, who still teaches in Marshall.
The poem I read that evening was “Butchering the Crippled Heifer.” This is not an easy poem to read or to hear. I consider it an important poem because it raises difficult questions about meat-eating and expresses the ideas in graphic images. I love to read the poem because it is dramatic; several people who have commented on it mention its strong religious overtones. Still, before choosing to read it, I try to determine if I will have the kind of audience that will appreciate the poem’s complexities.
At the end of my reading for the evening, people gathered around me to comment and to have their books signed. I noticed the quiet man wearing the Pipestone cap, but I couldn’t make out the insignia. Finally he was able to approach and did so with his cap in his hand.
He really appreciated the poem, he said, because very few people, even or perhaps especially people who eat meat, understand what it’s like to kill a bovine and to butcher it. He believed that I understood and respected the process-- as he did, because he was a professional meat cutter, his skills represented by the symbols he pointed out on the cap: a butcher knife and a sharpening steel. And then he said that because I understood, he was naming me an honorary professional meat cutter-- and he gave me the cap.
I wore it the rest of the evening. Sometimes I wear it when I’m reading the poem, and tell the story with pride.
Here’s the poem.
Butchering the Crippled Heifer
aim the pistol at her ear. Stand close.
She chews slowly, eyes closed. Fire.
She drops. Kicks. Sighs.
Cut her throat and stand back.
Blood bubbles and steams.
wrap chain around each ankle,
spread the back legs with a singletree.
The tractor growls, lifting;
the carcass sways.
drive the knife point in,
open the belly like tearing cloth,
the blade just under the skin.
Cut around the empty udder.
Don't puncture the stomach.
Sheathe the knife and reach in.
Wrap your bare arms around the slick guts.
Press your face against warm flesh.
Find the ridge of backbone; tear the
membranes loose. Hold the anus shut;
pull hard until the great blue stomach bag
spills into the tub at your feet.
Jerk the windpipe loose with a sucking moan,
her last sound.
Breathe blood-scent, clean digested grass.
Plunge one arm into the tub, cut loose the heart,
and squeeze the last clots out; slice the liver
away from the green gall, put it all in cool water.
Eat fresh liver and onions for supper,
baked heart tomorrow.
Cut off the head and feet,
haul them and the guts to the pasture:
coyotes will feast tonight.
pull the skin taut with one hand,
slice the spider web of tissue with care.
Save the tail for soup.
Drape the hide on the fence.
Let her hang:
sheet-wrapped, through three cool October days,
while leaves yellow and
coyotes howl thanksgiving.
Cut her up:
bring one quarter at a time to the kitchen table.
Toss bones into the big soup kettle
to simmer, the marrow sliding out. Chunk
scraps, pack them in canning jars.
Cut thick red steaks, wrap them in white paper,
labeled for the freezer.
worship at a bloody altar, knives singing praises
for the heifer's health, for flesh she made
of hay pitched at forty below zero last winter.
Your hands are red with her blood,
slick with her fat.
where your next meal is coming from.
Copyright Linda M. Hasselstrom
# # #
For more information:
Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
published by Fulcrum Publishing.
This poem may be found on pages 317-319 of the 1991 edition (cloth)
and on pages 356-358 of the 2008 Anniversary Edition (paper).
Land Circle is a featured book on this website. Click here to read all about the book.
Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom
published 1993 by Spoon River Poetry Press (now Plains Press).
This poem may be found on pages 54-55.
back to top