Only a blue string tethers him to the present.
The small black goat; the stone enclosure;
the forked wooden altar washed in coconut
milk, hung with orange and yellow marigolds;
the heap of sodden sand.
With a single bleat
he folds himself into a shadow in the corner,
nosing a red hibiscus flower onto its back
and nibbling the petals.
The temple bells; the drum. It is nearly time.
A litre of Ganges holy water
up-ended over him. He’s dragged
shivering to centre-stage and
slotted, white-eyed, into place. On the last
drumbeat, the blade separates
his head from his body. The blood
comes out of his neck
in little gulps.
The tongue and eyes are still
moving in the head
as the rest of him
is thrown down next to it.
Neither of his two parts can quite take this in.
The legs go on trembling,
pedalling at the dirt – slowly trying to drag
the body back to its loss: the head
on its side, dulling eyes fixed
on this black, familiar ghost;
its limbs flagging now,
the machinery running down.
There’s some progress, but not enough, then
after a couple of minutes, none at all.
The last thing I notice is a red petal
still in his mouth, and another,
six inches away, in his throat.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2010. 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 2010 was Jen Hadfield.
On the surface a filmic account of a metamorphosis: the sacrifice of a goat at a Hindu temple. The account's primarily distant, with executioner and witness all but faded out, so I'm sort of surprised by how keenly I feel the goat's predicament. I think that's down to that half-comical line: 'Neither of his two parts can quite take this in'. I doubt I'm intended to be emotionally affected. Instead I've to weigh the significance of those dabs and flashes of colour, the last vital signs two shreds of red hibiscus in the dying goat's mouth and severed throat.
While in Kolkata as a guest of the British Council, I was particularly keen to visit the temple at Kalighat where the cult of the goddess Kali is still active, and where live sacrifices are still made in her honour. After washing my hands and feet, and garlanded in strung marigolds, I was led to the entrance and followed the increasingly excited celebrants into the small temple. The men and women in front of me became wild at the sight of the black touchstone statue of the god and it was hard to get near enough, in this frenzy, to deliver the thrown blessing of red hibiscus flowers.
It was quieter outside, by the low wall of the sacrificial pit, as the small black goat was led out. The rest happened as described.
'Kalighat' is one of a sequence of poems on sacrifice and punishment that make up the central section of The Wrecking Light.