from Milk in a Pail
Maxine Helfman

from Milk in a Pail

First Polly, with udder-heavy thrust, lifts
her hind legs on stand’s base, taps across

and slips head through keyhole’s transept,
wide spot, & down, neck, handsome neck, inside

so as to reach bucket wedged in deck &
then feed, Blue Seal’s Caprine Challenger

for grub; & now Sophie who at thirteen
has been running this routine for five years

locks her in with bolt half through PVC
and half in red oak. She talks to the goat,

brushes her, wipes her udder, her hands, sits,
strips first milk to a bowl she places on ground

for cats; pail sterile & stainless soon under,
the girl’s squeezing one teat, next teat (elbows

out), two thin streams alternating a rhythm
like breathing, fast at times though mostly

just right, white trailings, ear low on doe’s flank,
mouth’s quicksounds working feed from bucket

into throat–birdsounds, bugsounds, babysounds–
sun under hardwoods now no sun now sun

through clouds over the cordwood stacked
by fence, woven wire, strand of barbed

at peak where the next does, munching cud,
wait at goat’s curious pace. Meanwhile,

William & Ola, twin babies, wrangle in
the Pack n Play a frog’s leap from milking stand,

and watch & don’t watch but sense something
regular’s going down, the way the udder

shrinks slow to shrivel after being so full,
bouncing from inner thigh to inner thigh

each time Ms. Doe trotted a bit–Polly,
Geraldine, Matilda, Nellie–good-uddered

Nubians, not the best breed for volume
but best for butterfat, sweet milk, good to

sip or chug or slug a bit to lighten the night
on a mug of darkbrewed. It goes like this,

the human herd grown, the other flocks
and herds more populous too–chickens, ducks,

goat kids, guardian dogs, lambs under ewes; yes
this spring–of newborns & whatintheworld,

of so much & time for it, & time so stretchy
and pinched–this spring we set up the Pack n Play

next to the milking stand in the graveled carport,
and even now–late summer–as I grip

Polly’s legs so she won’t kick the pail our
oldest’s stripping milk into, I watch our babies

in the strange crate, that honeycomb of mesh,
playing a primitive polo with spatulas

and a felt ball, or swinging a little stuffed giraffe
by the neck, or chewing on the label

of some toy or other, chewing on their fists,
the other’s finger or ear. They are cutting teeth.

Ola has started to wave & clap. William
likes using his feet the way monkeys do,

trying to, legs like dough that won’t stop
rising. Crazy. Lucky. Yes, we have too

many roosters this summer but fine since
sleep’s as rare as one clear thought. Kirsten,

her gardens are extravagant, thick & wild &
gaudy even with more perennials than trays

of vinegar fries served at the local carnival
for firefighters & rescue squad, the fair

with a two-headed raccoon & a sheep
with five legs, funnelcakes, Tilt-A-Whirl–know

the scene, parades of obesity, camo & Deere,
thick belts, heeled boots, a few downwardly

mobile, new rural-foodie types like us;
and know, too, how Sophie’s been dealing

this summer since learning her two best friends,
sisters, 12 & 15, are moving away. Reads book

after book. Sews dresses. Learns another old
fiddle tune. Loves on her goats. Never mopes.

Now her corgi Caleb’s licking the pink place
undertail of some ewe! Always something

these August mornings, Sophie milking,
working dark, hot teats over the stainless

while I grip legs, prohibit kicks & milk-
taint, soothe the twins & then move buckets

to kitchen to filter the milk into Masons
to get on ice in cooler in the room where

last week was spent cleaning a lye–for soapmaking–
leak. These endless mornings, I think they are

milking us too. Time’s soupy these days,
soapy. Time on the telephone watching

a praying mantis stalk a little butterfly
on the green expanse of a hosta leaf. Time,

predator & prey. Pray. You’re darn right
mantis got a meal. Time, milky time. See,

Echinacea’s pink tentacles began
to wilt mid-July this summer. We grill.

On locustwood, cedar, oak, & maple.
Goat chops–chevon & cabrito–& lamb chops,

lamb & beef burgers. Onions & squash, peppers,
potatoes. Two accordions, Sophie’s hands–

Polly’s teats: fingerflesh, fingerflex:
mammarianflesh. Polly, Geraldine, Matilda,

Nellie–each morning Sophie does this dance
with, & we dance on the edges, Kirsten,

William, Ola, & I. A dance desirous
as needful, as yummy to make as to drink;

arias of bleat, trilly & plaintive,
the goatcoat’s shine, molasses & honey,

pale at knees & underbelly, at udder
and nose, ghostshapes on flank & crop,

rump & chine, no two coats the same nor
bleats nor milk nor temperaments. If

husbandry, more wifery, the stand brought
from the milking room at the barn, the barn

too far & complicated with twin babies to
tend to. Weeks some goat’s eyelids show pale

so Sophie gives shots, drenches, treats for
parasites. Ducks & chickens chase bugs. Nothing

is endless & the days go on forever.
Kirsten makes chevre, yogurt, fromage blanc–

works the milkmagic with the goatgoods
and her own, for twins, while off the front porch

a broody duck sits under maple in a shady cove
of perennials, & stretches her neck & hisses

whenever person or dog approaches. We watch
her mornings while pushing a baby or two

in swings we hung from a good limb there.
Broody stares. We stare. Sometimes she moves

a stick or chunk of mulch around, tidying
her very tidy nest, & maybe we glance south

to goats browsing sidepasture–they often face
away from the sun–the curve of their back

the arc of Purgatory Mountain, long spine
to the west, western rim of the bowl

we live in, the rim we live nearest to,
that feels most container-like. Nights we sit

in the glider, moon nearly half-mast
or more–the moon has felt large all summer,

as though it forgot how to wane or its shadow ran
out of juju, or milk was moon condensed, pulp

of lactose, fat globules, nitrogen–none visible
but felt in digestion, in how it goes down

and what the body does with it & what
the days, all the doohickory, do with the body; yes,

albumen, too, & minerals: calcium, phosphorous,
chloride, copper, iron. We sit & let eyes fall

on some burdock & some lightning bugs & some
gauzy upwelling of a treeline north

of here & a little east, east being
to north as seeing to thought, barnroof

to rainfall, moccasin to rattler. One fang
or two, we learned this summer not to apply ice

to the next snakebite since the Wagner’s oldest
got copperheaded at the Preece’s cookout–

ice leads to tissue damage. Burdock talks
as it grows, mocks me for not digging deep

enough when plucking it–stuff spreads like
cigarette butts in rocks when the tattooed,

sideways-ballcapped crowd the swimming holes
at Jennings Creek. Take your compost out,

says burdock & then says it again. Or was it
get your babies on a schedule. Something in roots–

a fenceline, a shore. Cantaloupe, watermelon,
flypaper. I don’t know. Sophie knows, yes her

grip’s got that intermammary medial groove.
I’m holding Polly’s ankles, Sophie her teats,

and looking down the driveway through red maple
to catalpa in the big pasture’s lowplace–

shackling & shackled, how holding is to be held
if not accountable then hopeful, or close to it

as the wails, the shrieks, teething fits like
little seizures. Twinbabies. William, Ola Rose.

Quivering cheek, arms, lips. Love’s quiver,
how milk is motion, motion touch–basket

of ligaments, balanced: pelvic symphonics,
a lactiferous menagerie my daughter’s not

one with but closer & in mind maybe one
as in prayer or in throating this, cupful, cold,

or yesterday’s earlier this a.m. You know
everything’s repetitive & nothing repeats,

as in whoever said Sally Barger’s father Roy
had his ashes cooked into rubber for a wheelbarrow,

its punctureless tire, when the cancer finally
got him. As in storms skinnydipping over

Purgatory & on over Cove & Apple Orchard,
Pine Ridge & Bryant Ridge, dusk’s fabric a fierce

in sheets & streaks, tearing. There that slug
near the rainbarrel’s sternum, ducks doing some

stutterstuff in puddle at flank of leafmulch
and hurricane fence. Blackberries big as,

toad in Swiss chard’s rainbow room, creekstone
along the path, border as path. Moths at floods,

spiders busy with munch, processing & repair–
we watch them nights, their sticky doilies,

gossamer gondolas, & don’t at all feel all
the identities one might identify & enteat, how

katydids, meantime, rewind night’s cassette,
and the dry spot on the elm’s trunk after

the latest stormpour is a long-armed lady
seen from behind holding on tight. Look,

Polly’s nearly empty. She’s trying to kick.
Udder to bucket, Sophie keeps at it. I grip

between hock & dewclaw, a hammerhandle
but hairier. Godly, good, a house of ducts

branching: milk-secreting alveoli,
progesterone the spark at first & then

inhibitor–corpus luteum: here comes
prolactin, some sucking stimulus. Are

you thirsty? I’m thirsty. Because who’s playing
the organ playing the organ that makes

this miracle bodily mindful so Kirsten
can keep making what the twins need &

get, bloodtaxis ushering milkstuff to cells,
microhotels, five hundred parts blood to

one part milk–lipogenesis, energy as
synthesis, glucose & galactose

spawning lactose, milksugar, but only
in bits, milk ninety percent water,

nearly. I mean, yesterday at the creek
a sandpiper scribbled not an inch above

Sophie’s back en route to land on ledge
a few feet downstream of where girl still

floated, bellydown, goggles on, staring at
light through water through current on rocks

and fish. Shadow & shine, time is, & summer
is, as milk, time, sweet & fat as a fencepost

for years hosting the same honeysuckle vine;
a feathered thing, too: mockingbird in blackberry,

swallows & thrush & jays. Catbird. Junco.
Crow, vulture, cardinal, wren. Get this:

Angie & Patricia for my birthday in May
hand over a cooler, say open it. Inside

a baggie loaded with slick burgundy bulges–
forty chicken hearts one day removed

from the birds they’d worked for, been.
Cornish cross, hefty meat birds lovelyladies

raise pastured in hoophouses. Size of plums
bumped from tree when mowing in late May;

yep, plum full of hearts the skillet soon was,
plus red wine, tamari, maple syrup,

black pepper, salt. I love hearts, how they sort
of bounce around your mouth when you bite–

no joke, summer’s essence is density;
around here anyway, summer in these hills,

so much generous with green & growth.
Humid days the air seems to milk us, breathe

us; grass grows around our waists & chests,
up our legs. Dogs bark less. And then a coldfront

might roll in like mercy for a day or two, plow
the moisture out–you can tell the different trees

in the monster armchair of cove & ridge a mile across
the James then–oak, hickory, maple, gum.

Goat kids hop more often then. Bleat less, both
kind of kids. Crisper colors. Birds at amplitude

of lively & feeding. Chiggers, ticks. Bumblebees
in sunflower’s pupil. Fig tree’s fists starting

to close against cinderblock shed’s southfacing.
Feels like September then. Feels like, like

the choreswarm is plenty, which it is, more
than plenty–mist some mornings coming up-

hollow from river: gravel & grass: there,
chainlink fencestapled to the six panel,

visibility a hundred yards, three bantam
roosters still shrillsounding–by that we

navigate, & by else: moss on lumber,
lichen on stone. Wormfossils, maybe,

in quartzite, preserved burrows (skolithus
tubes), shafts of other realms, other coolings,

later or sooner. God’s calcium. Hoofprints.
Petrified beach. The prehistoric present, wants

unhinged, when what is resourceful to one
is handout to another. Even the fog rains.

Every thunderstorm lays an egg. Nothing new.
The next rooster starts before the first

finishes. Such is song. And milk. And milking–
or of. By the needful, the undoing that does it

done, we chug along: Kirsten, Sophie,
William, Ola, animals, soil, greens. The cool

doesn’t last but she remembers it, Sophie
does, in triple digits (hottest July on record)

already at seven am while drawing brush
over flank of the next-to-be-milked, giving

Geraldine a little sweet talk, watching
stray hairs drop on gravel & then wiping

her teats clean & stripping first squirts
from each to little dish for kitty to lick–

sweat on forehead, shirtwet. Days so hot you
breathe wool. Breathe what you can. Body adjusts.

Leaves shrivel. Petals do wilt. We slice tomatoes,
snip basil, monge bricks of chevre fresh or

frozen. In sunflower’s radar. And freeze berries.
Picked, bagged with a vacuum sealer. There’s haze.

Breezes in locust, breezes dancing with
each leafy thing. How into this world the babies

grow. Accustomed, maybe. Will they remember
any of it?–that question is one source,

leopardslug size of a mouse another, & always
more half gallon Masons blurring the life

seen through. Bleat on, kids. Hornet on hose nozzle.
Ridge on ridge. I’m saying, Geraldine hauls

a mighty shapely udder, teats just right for
Sophie’s hands (a bit small for mine). No more

east or west, just the place, homestuff. Sip it,
white’s original pale. And these handpainted signs

hacked from trash-lumber pile when whoever
remodeled the old bait shop on Purgatory Creek

into a rental house dumped it there. Lizards.
. Red on white. Vertical.

Faded, chipped. Scraped & sanded & varnished
one Saturday afternoon next to the milking stand

and Pack n Play, in building you don’t call
a building–more a frame, a sunshade. Port, too.

But name that summer. Name it: Kicky doe.
Sleepless. Chiggerlove. Babies. Goats. Chickens.

Eggs & milk. Stuff. Stuff & Grub. To build
a milking stand you need to procrastinate–

funny how that word works your mouth–
you don’t have to have substantial scrap,

semi-substantial: six to fifteen foot of 1×6 stock
(old fascia works well), two lengths at least

six foot a piece for front feet & flyway, place
you catch goat by neck by space & feed,

hunger & blunt cunning, & hold her so
you can sit comfortably & work her udder dry;

i.e. steal her milk, accept the gift by doing
the work–work that hot dark bag as Sophie

now, two hands, each curling down, index
to pinkie, always down, down to streak canal,

two teats, wrist twisting, too–full teat, filling
teat–top to bottom like a pastry bag;

and you need a pad & a frame for that pad
and for the rear legs & flyway legs. Serious

jackleg carpentry, older school the better
but sure there’s a place for flourishes, paint,

details jigsawed along some edge. Sturdy’s
the goal; they appreciate it–Polly,

Geraldine, Matilda, Nellie–in that order
this morning, & each—back in June

we took a few hours one afternoon to
build this second milking stand. Even had

linoleum leftover from that cut
the Wilsons gave us for the first. Scrap is

scrappy–what’s there what is, make it work,
hold you in its waters under cliffs where

moss tooths crevices & lichen makes continents
and archipelagos on the face, hold you down

at the base of a little falls, eyes & nose just
above surface, a loud so quiet a shape

might form, links piece together this way
and that way & another several, the way you

might climb from that water onto a boulder
and lie on your back looking at trees & sky &

water giving light to the underbelly
of some overhang in shapes of pulse,

current, & there know less of everything:
how summer is drip & seep: fireweed,

Joe Pye. Polypody. Names. Cracks of, of
abundance, the rush, the republic

of green, of flood. Thick stillnesses. Birdnoise,
bugnoise. Heat more than warmth, humidity

more than any, othermore. And sultrier. As
clover, sunflower puckering.

Thorpe Moeckel is the author of three books of poetry–Odd Botany, Making a Map of the River, and Venison. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hollins University and lives on a small acreage near Buchanan, VA, where he helps his wife Kirsten and their children make good eats from their Nubian dairy herd, sheep, poultry, and gardens. His writings have appeared widely, and his awards include a 2011 NEA Fellowship, a Kenan Visiting Writership, the George Garrett Award from The Fellowship of Southern Writers, and The Gerald Cable Book Award. A new book, a trilogy of long poems, including “Milk in a Pail,” will be published in 2015 by Etruscan Press.


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