The winter poem


The winter poem comes harder.
You have to wake up in the dark,
throw on your lined coveralls,
your mitts and wool hat,
grab the pails from the porch by the separator—
even before coffee—
and leave the house to find your way to the barn.

The yard light helps.
But if it’s snowing hard,
all you can do is follow some internal pattern
and watch for a great platinum shadow to rise
in the blizzard-black morning.

And if the wind was high in the night,
there will be a snow drift in front of the two big doors,
and your foot will break through the crust
and you’ll flail and fill your boots,
before squeezing through one of the doors,
with your pails,
to get the grain shovel
and clear an arch for the path of the door,
and make a trail back through the drift,
so that by the time you are again in the barn
you’re radiating like these bovine furnaces,
adding to all steam you’re now trying to peer through
to find the milking stool,
and retrieve the kickers before going to the first cow.

But before you sit down to compose anything,
you’ll make a few trips for feed:
hay and chop—maybe stop,
watch the big heads go low and lick up
the hammered grain and the grey-green grass.
Then you’ll get the manure fork,
and throw the half-frozen chips
to the back of the barn—later onto the sled.

This done, you will press your toqued-head
into the warm flank,
pinch the pail between your knees,
reach for the back teats,
hear hot streams hit the galvanized tin bottom,
like the strumming of a single steel string,
sense in the distance an approaching cadence,
that you’ll work hard for, and wait eager for.

But starting is hardest,
because you have to milk the young cow first,
the one that kicks,
the one you use the kickers for,
pinning her tail at the hocks with the hobbles
to prevent the cold wet slap that comes out of the dark,
that throws off any rhythm.

You want to get those first quarts out
before she squirrels: head down, eyes bugged—
despite restraint—jacks sideways, knocks you off your stool,
milk in the gutter, hooves in the bucket.
It has happened.

You are wishing done,
these two Holsteins and three Herefords,
past ready for bacon and eggs and that coffee.
And in your time-lapsed mind,
you are throwing open the back doors,
lifting the blocks out of the head-rails,
opening the stanchions,
slapping withers and thurls with cowhide mitts,
walking to the water tank,
taking the axe,
breaking through the ice so the cows can drink,
closing the doors,
picking up the pails,
following the porch light to the house,
hoping for dawn.

The young cow had twitched but did not thrash.
Now, with that first stanza done,
you find yourself milking mightily,
filling pails, not worrying about the high foam hills
the cream mixed in, the homogenous mess.
You put it all down,
everything gets separated later.

When you’re well into your third cow you are humming,
not even thinking, casually throwing,
like Zen-bathed jump shots,
glory-white arcs across the walkway
to the calf pen’s gatepost
where the cat has been waiting and watching,
and is rewarded, no need to move,
her open rose mouth is hit on the money.

You are centred.
Your forearms are pistons,
your hands are camshafts,
your fingers are valves opening Vedic mysteries,
releasing the will to wander the reaches of one name,
the one now,
freeing the body from the time-bound opacity of then,
and there,
into the pacific clarity of here,
as though reaching through the ruminant
to a single reified red clover.

But now,
perhaps you think that it’s these epiphanic moments
that cause you to quit your bed,
plant your pink feet on the plank floor
and rise to the cold predawn chores of winter.
But it’s not.
As any poet knows,
it’s for the milk.



  1. I love this, Stephen, having just read it on my way down to milk and do morning chores on this small farm. What a wonderful capture of the morning progression 🙂 And I also love the last line. Was this your childhood? Thank you for these smiles in this trying time of unsettlement.

  2. Oh Stephen, I read this on the earning morn – before dawn and a day of heavy snow – and before I have headed out to my own barn to find shovels. This old barn, before we were the custodians, held turkeys, and cows, and horses since the 1800’s and I love to go inside and listen for the past.

    Until a year ago, my own horse was in there and the sounds of him crunching hay, the smells of animal warmth and waste, the heat generated by these large animals as you describe, were quite comforting especially during stressful times. Many people don’t understand that, but barn people do.

    Your picture reminds me of the old and modest farms in upper Michigan. My grandmother had one of these. I am not sure her descriptions of going out in the cold to milk the cows would have been so poetic! She viewed it as the hard life. But, unlike her, my life and livelihood doesn’t depend on what happens in the barn.

    Thanks for evoking these remembrances through your wonderful (as always) expressions.

  3. Thank you Diane! And thanks so much for sharing your own “barn experiences.” There are times, now 40-plus years later, that when passing a farm, seeing cows in a pasture, a barn in the distance, that farm-chore memories come back with force. I can only attribute this to the natural spiritual earthiness of the barn, the old farm.

  4. The memories flooded in, thank you Stephen.
    This brought memories of cold winter nights when it was my chore to take the lantern to the barn and carefully lift it with me on the ladder to the loft. When enough hay was tossed down I gingerly descended the ladder keenly aware that dropping the lantern would mean a disaster of fire on a cold night. After portioning the hay I would set the lantern outside, close the door and stand inside in the dark and listen to the sounds of six cows and a team of horses munching on the hay.

  5. Thank you, Mr. Berg. I felt my boot break through the crust of snow, smelled the barn, enjoyed the warmth of the cows, saw the foam on the pails. And I look forward to the milk.

  6. My memories come from the barn in the picture – first the eagerness of finally being old enough at age 8 or 10 or so to do some “work” in the barn, then hating it when it became expected/required, fighting with my brother over who gets the better milk stool, and the easier cows – ah yes squirting the cat – the cow’s foot in the pail when it’s almost full – and longing for the day when I would be old enough to leave and find my own way in the world. Which I have done. But this early morning, sitting in the comfort of my bathrobe in front of my lap top – thank you for this reminiscence – I’m overwhelmed with the nostalgia, and so grateful for what I now realize was a truly rich upbringing.

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