Here is the horse from a bad family, hating his burden and snaffle, not patient
So much as resigned to his towpath around the sorghum mill, but pawing the grist,
Laying back his missile ears to balk, so the single spoke of his wheel freezes, the gears lock.
Not sad, but stubborn, his temperament is tolerance, though his voice,
Old door aching on a rusty hinge, blasts the martens from their gourds, and he would let
Nothing go behind him: the speckled hen, the green world his blinders magnify.
With the heel of one ecclesiastical hoof, he would stun goats or gods.
Half ass, garrulous priest, his religion’s a hybrid appetite that feasts on contradictions.
In him Jefferson dreamed the end of slavery and endless fields, but the labor goes on
In prefabricated barns, by stalled regiments of canopied tractors, in offices
Where the harvest is computed to the least decimal point, to the last brown bowl of wheat.
Not with him, the soil yields and futures swell into the radio.
His place, finally, is to be loved as a curiosity, as an art almost dead, like this sulphurous creek
Of molasses he brings oozing down from the bundles of cane.
Sometimes in the library I pause suddenly and think of the mule, desiring, perhaps, some lost sweetness,
Some fitful husk or buttercup that blooms wildly beyond the margins.
Such a peace comes over the even rows, the bound volumes where the unicorn
Bows his unearthly head, where the horned gods of fecundity rear in the pages of the sun.
All afternoon I will think of the mule’s dignity, of his shrunken lot—
While the statistics slip the tattered net of my attention,
While the lullabies erect their precise nests in the footnotes.
I like to think of the silver one of my childhood and the dark red one, Red.
Avuncular, puritanical, he stands on hooves as blue as quarries,
And I think his is the bray I have held back all of my life, in churches
Where the offering passed discreetly from one laborer to the next, in the factories of sleep,
Plunging a greased hand into the vat of mineral spirits.
And I think I have understood nothing better than the mule’s cruelty and petty meanness:
How, subjugated, he will honk his incomparable impudence; stop, precipitately, for no reason;
Or, pastured with inferiors, stomp a newborn calf on a whim.
This is the mule’s privilege: not to be governed badly by lashes, nor to be turned
Easily by praise; but, sovereign of his own spirit, to take his own time,
To meditate in the hardening compost under the rotting collars.
To sleep in wet straw. To stand for nothing but himself.
In August he will stand up to his withers in the reeking pond. In the paradise of mules,
He will stand with the old cows, contemplative, but brooding a little over the sores in his shoulders,
Remembering the dull shoes of the cultivator and the jet heads of the mowing machine.
Being impotent and beautiful, he will dream of his useless romances.
—Rodney Jones