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Poem-a-Day

The Man Without Oxen Trembles

THE MAN WITHOUT OXEN TREMBLES

"Take good note when you first hear the cranes flying over, coming each year without fail and crying high in the heavens. They will give you the sign for ploughing and tell when the winter's rains are at hand: at their call the man without oxen trembles. Then give your oxen plenty of fodder - if you have oxen. It is easy to say: 'Please lend me your oxen and wagon,' easy also to answer, 'I'm sorry, I've work for my own oxen.'"

- Hesiod, from WORKS AND DAYS

Last fall it was your neighbor who stood trembling,
Oxenless. You could have lent him one, having two,
But it was the year 642 BC, centuries before Christ
Would utter that pretty piece of wisdom about the coats.
He stood at the stonewall you built together to clarify
Where his land ends and yours begins, coveting
The furrows your stumbling team made like the wake
Of Odysseus's ship on the Mediterranean. Not wanting
To finish fieldwork early and feel an obligation to
Let him borrow them, you opened more ground than
You intended to sow, driving them to exhaustion.
Now you're the man without oxen, looking up
At the first cranes flying over, crying out it's time
To plough. The harness you might have taken hold of
Last fall to still this trembling in your hands
Hangs in the barn, smelling faintly of lather.
And being a farmer, you know you didn't sow them
Deep enough, and that it won't be long now until
Winter rains bring their bones out of the hill.
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