The twin died overnight
despite all efforts, feeding colostrum
at the cost of near impalement
on his mother’s horns,
her patience none the less astonishing.
The other’s in the shed, hand cossetted.
Next morning, when I hear his throaty cry,
a cow runs frantic
towards where his mother stands indifferent,
or wise to the reality.
I open the half door and step in.
He’s left his hay and carpet bed and sprawls
helpless on the dry cement,
convulsing, froth around his lips.
Unlock the locker.
Draw out the gun: select
a double zero cartridge from the belt.
Another calf cry as his body twists,
Choose the top barrel:
slide the safety catch and place
the muzzle in between his eyes
just touching calf-soft hair.
Select the second trigger.
The force flings half his body through an arc:
the young pink blood flows smooth
and silent, and coagulates.
Good gun the merciful.
If such a day should come to me,
give me a soldier’s kind deliverance.
Come close: aim straight:
and wash away my thoughts before they dry.
About this poem
This poem was included in the Best of the Best Scottish Poems, published in 2019. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of our annual online anthology Best Scottish Poems, the Library invited broadcaster, journalist and author James Naughtie to edit a ‘Best of the Best’ drawn from each of the annual editions of Best Scottish Poems.
How do you write about the (necessary) shooting of a new-born calf without descending into sentimentality? John Purser – a noted musician and musicologist as well as a poet – manages it with ease, rounding off his little story with a Burnsian reflection that’s delivered with beautiful pace and rhythm.
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2007. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2007 was Alan Spence.
John Purser is not only a fine composer and musician, he’s an accomplished poet who has been writing powerful, weighty poetry for at least thirty years. There’s a seriousness, a gravitas to his work which is most impressive. Here he’s revisiting familiar territory, the harsh, often brutal business of rearing cattle. The poem depicts the suffering and necessary slaughter of a young calf. The telling is unremitting in its detail, heartrending but utterly unsentimental and underscored with profound compassion. And the turn, the switch at the end to contemplation of the author’s own mortality – a prayer for an equally kind deliverance – is stunning.
My wife Barbara and I keep Highland cattle on our croft on Skye. Mostly there are no problems with calving, but the calf in this poem was one of twins born on a horrendous night of sleet and bitter east wind on the steep slopes below the house. One twin slipped down the hill into the trees and could not stand or reach his mother’s udder. The other she had left behind. They were good sized male calves but by the time we got colostrum to them it was too late for them to gain any immunities. One died on the hill in the night beside its mother. The other died as described in the poem after two nights in the shed.
As a poet I find myself too often wedded to truth and too determined to include every detail, as though one’s observation was more than poetic, as though one were almost conducting a scientific analysis of both fact and emotion. An earlier version of this poem had too much detail in it and I shed some, but not all of it, in response to Gerry Cambridge’s promptings. But the facts were as described because I wanted to convey something of the necessary analytical state of mind into which I had to project myself before killing the living creature we had tried so hard to keep alive.
The end of the poem, however, expresses what I was really feeling inside – an empathy which easily travels across species and which features in a much earlier poem I wrote called ‘A Share of the Wind’. On that occasion I had saved a calf’s life by artificial respiration but, having had such intimate connection with it, wondered, when the animal came to be slaughtered would I too gasp and would my head feel pain.
In this poem death was merciful, not commercial, and my situation brought to mind the heart-rending requests of soldiers appallingly mutilated begging their colleagues to shoot them. As for the last line: I don’t like the idea of lingering farewells any more than lingering deaths. Besides, it’s always best to clean up straight away.