Is There a Dead Mule in It

by Gregory Donovan

          …there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like
          test for the quality of Southerness in literature.

What say we throw off the narrative
imperative this once and let the damned mule
live, and why not, let him live on with the spirit of Fidel
in his sensitive hairy lip and his long white tooth,
the power of Ali in every hoof,
the sting of a hornet in his rump?

Let’s take this chance to drive it deep
into the Carolina piney woods, into that light
flashing its potential for migraine and epileptic
fit as black trees fly by, where we’re supposed to pull
a paint job for the wilted Southern branch
of the family Rockefeller, & we’ll find him
there, that inescapable crazed gallop
barreling at us, that excitable suicidal reincarnation
of Che kicking up the gravel road, and so
the resisted and shattered story may begin again,
& in it I, in dubious first person,
will barely get the fishtailing
truck stopped in time
to avoid killing him
outright to say nothing
of the farmer running right
behind him though I had to
swerve broadside & the mule jumped
up into the back of the pickup,
wreaking havoc with the paint,
splattering his long dark legs
Dead Canary Yellow
and the back window cracked, not
from the mule but the hammer
the farmer had whipped
from its holster in his bibs
and fired at the mule’s head
to get him to by God dammit
now stop, but you know he wouldn’t?

(Thus the story, now in color, may carry on in glory.)

Place my partner there riding shotgun,
a Jew from Chicago, wandering grandson
of rabbis of Poland and Russia, and he will
sit there stunned as any Yankee at Bull Run,
but the loping farmer, he has put me in mind

of my own grandfather so I will slip out
& in a smooth flanking action, quietly
enter the past tense and wave
my arms once & the giddy
mule who was mighty limber for one so old
will have bolted gamely for home and farted twice
in time-honored traditional revolutionary salute
by the time the farmer swings the moaning gate shut.

Some things never change, I said.
The farmer didn’t say a thing,
but looked as pleased
as a farmer can look
who has on his hands
among other tribulations a wild mule
as the man’s own story will soon have it
what leaps over fences
and jumps into trucks.

The farmer pulled out his wrinkled
wallet but I refused, it was just the one
crack, the International Harvester
pickup was old, and the Rockefellers, they
could afford one more gallon
of that damned yellow paint. Besides,
I told him, we would all get something
out of this. A story. We would call it
The Battle of First Mule Run.

Well he’s a yellow-bellied
sapsucker now for sure.

The man said this without a grin.
He was no Rockefeller on your TV.

And we could end it all here,
a postmodern polyvocal fragment but
this bunch of Rockefellers
for whom we were going to work still
owns even now several solid square miles
back there, a little kingdom of pain
with its own post office, though
once they owned even more,
including all the red clay and pines
they sold to the government
to make your Fort Bragg.

Some things never change.

The job was to paint up a special
heated indoor pool, a giant Dead Sea
thrashing bath of surging alchemical waters
and steam that up close roared as if
God was in there bubbling somewhere
but it was only Mrs. Rockefeller
who had the arthritis in her
special aquatic room that had been lined
with exotic soundproofing tiles—
the third set, actually, replacements
imported from Italy—so that
when you dropped a hammer right
there beside the pool, it could not
be heard on the other side.

My mother is there on the other side,
she told us once, she rode a white horse in gloves.

Into the clean Danish dressing rooms
with a sprig of mint from the garden,
seventy years the family retainer,
and all his people slaves before that,
a tall man in bow-tie and white monkey jacket
carried us iced tea in the hot afternoons.
We got him to bring himself a glass,
sit down for it, and when he was told
my partner was a Jew from the North,
he refused to believe again. Naw, he said,
waving his long thin hand, all y’all are kin.

By this time the Rockefellers
had sold all their mules.

I can picture the old lady there still
floating deep in the heart of whispering
waters. I imagine her God is in there, too,
waiting for her in the steam. He has taken
the form of an angry mule.

My painting partner has gone back
to Yankeeland, back to rooting
for the curséd Sox and being
devout, an officer in his synagogue,
fatback gravy and biscuits for him no more.

And whatever the I represents or obstructs
in self-delusion or narrative transparency,
I am still sweating it out in the South,
and yet here I have managed to tell
you this story, like a miracle,
with only one lie.
                                      Because as you well know
some things never change, and although
they can live in their impotence
forty years in some cases or longer,
all stories, even broken ones, come to la fin,
& given his talents and bold predilections,
his taste for rebellion and soured corn,
it must be that by now in cold & hard truth,
bless his heart, that poor mule
named Robespierre is surely dead.

GREGORY DONOVAN is the author of the poetry collection Calling His Children Home and of poems published in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Southern Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, MiPOesias, Chautauqua and elsewhere. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and is Senior Editor for Blackbird, the online journal of literature and the arts.