When the mule balked, he hit him
sometimes with the flat of a hand
upside the head; more often
the stick he carried did its angry trick.
The mule's job was to power the press,
iron on iron that wrung the sugar
out of cane, circling under the coarse
beam attached to his shoulders and neck.
That mule of my childhood
was black, remained blackly obedient
as round and round he made himself
the splintered hand of a clock, the groan
and squeak of machinery chewing
the reedy stalks to pulp, each second
delivering another sweet thin drop
into the black pot at the center.
He hit him with a rag, old headrag,
but the animal winced only with the thrash
of a cane stalk itself--he squinted
under the rule of that bamboo.
The sun was another caning
on his black-hot flesh. He was slow
as the blackstrap syrup the boiled sugar made,
so true to the circle he dragged
we hardly saw him. We loved the rustling
house of green cane, blind in that field
of tropical grasses whose white plumes
announced the long season's wait.
We yearned for the six-foot stem, the eventual
six pieces the machete sliced
at the joints, then the woody exterior
peeled back lengthwise with a blade.
It was a black hand we waited for, his job
to lay bare the grainy fiber we chewed.
That juice on our tongues
was his sweetness at work.
Chester was his name, he kept the mule.
Cleopatra Mathis' most recent collection is Book of Dog, Sarabande, 2013. Born and raised in Louisiana, she has taught at Dartmouth College since 1982.
"Cane" from White Sea by Cleopatra Mathis. Published in 2005 by Sarabande Books.