At the Piano

At the piano, the girl, as if rowing upstream,
is driving triplets against the duple meter,
one hand for repetition,
one hand for variation and for song.
She knows nothing, but Bach knows everything.
Outside, in the vast disordered world,
the calves have been taken from their mothers;
both groups bawled and hooted all night long—
she heard them from her quilted double bed.
Twice a day, she gives the young
their frothy warm placebo. While her brother
steadies the cow with grain, her sister
leans in close from the little stool,
fingertips aligned on the wrinkled tits
as if to pick some soft, fleshy fruit,
but pressing in, hard, while pulling down,
she milks with both hands, two jets of milk
spraying the metal pail as they go in.
The girl must put her whole hand in the pail
and push the head of the suckling toward it:
wet muzzle, corrugated tongue:
when her last year’s calf was in the bank
she drew the money out for candlesticks—
a present for her parents—tall and brass
because she thought the eighteenth was for brass.
Hers was the only gift. Her mother filled them
with thin candles; though never lit, they are twin
lighthouses on the mantle’s narrow strait
where the loud clock makes a metronome.
At the piano, hands in her lap—
what’s given, and what’s made from luck and will—
she also hears a diaphonic moan:
long before dusk the animals in the pens
again have started calling for each other,
either hungry or too full, she can’t tell
which is which. Her mother’s in the kitchen,
her father’s in the hayloft pitching hay,
she pushes off in her wooden boat—
she knows nothing, she thinks
no one could be happier than this.
—Ellen Bryant Voigt