In my literature seminar this week, we read out loud a poem about a beheaded goat. “Song,” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, is this horrifying work about darkness and violence and a poor slaughtered farm animal. The class had the usual discussion of tone and theme, of the deeper meaning of the poem. Was it about the boys who killed the goat? The girl who owned the goat? Was it about the goat himself, who only gets a gender when he’s with the girl? Was the real meaning responsibility? Growing up? The duties of boys versus the duties of girls? Everyone around me was talking excitedly. I looked down at my notebook, and I had a very difference image in my notes.
The goat had belonged to a small girl. She named
The goat Broken Thorn Sweet Blackberry, named it after
The night’s bush of stars, because the goat’s silky hair
Was dark as well water, because it had eyes like wild fruit.
These lines spoke sex to me. The goat was a metaphor for the girls sexuality, or moreover, her virginity.
Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.
The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they
Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school
And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything.
These lines spoke violence to me. But beyond the obvious violence, there was something darker. The boys took the goat from the girl. They took her virginity. They raped her.
What they didn’t know
Was that the goat’s head would go on singing, just for them,
Long after the ropes were down, and that they would learn to listen …
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.
These lines spoke responsibility to me, that the boys would always have to live with what they had done.
I didn’t get it, how no one else could see it. The sexual overtones running through the poem. The great violence of the boys. The passiveness of the girl. The need of the world to protect her from the trauma, to make it better, to get her a new goat with an intact head and pretend it had never happened.
We all want to pretend it never happened.
In my undergrad, I would have run from this text. But I didn’t run. I looked at my notebook while the other students talked about everything BUT what I was pondering. I looked at my notebook, and I convinced myself I was wrong. That I had had a bad read, colored by my own experience. That I was damaged somehow, that I couldn’t see the things everyone else saw. Though I did see why they saw the things they saw—I just couldn’t change my own opinion. I couldn’t unsee what I had seen, but I couldn’t convince myself to speak up when no one else would agree. When I could be wrong.
I wondered why that was my natural instinct, why I’d fallen back on that, the need to have the right answer. It took me so long to learn that there IS no right answer, and now I was defaulting to this behavior, this staring down at my notebook and not saying what I really thought when I was so excited to think it. And then I figured it out. I let myself become complacent. I let myself fall back into my old ways, let myself stop connecting with people, let myself stop using my voice. I hadn’t made an effort to meet people in my new locale. I waited for them to come to me, and they didn’t. I sat alone in my room for ninety-nine percent of semester break because I had no money and no friends to do things with. I told myself I was the same old me.
I started to raise my hand, but the discussion had ended. I missed my chance. I closed my notebook and shoved it in my purse and looked around the room, considering whether I should talk to anyone. Whether I should talk, or put my coat on and sling my bag over my shoulder and walk out of the room like I did every class last semester. I put my coat on and walked out of the room, saying goodbye to the one person I knew. I pressed the elevator button, alone. As I stepped inside and pressed the button for the lobby, another student came running towards me. I normally would have let the elevator doors go, as they were almost closed, but I stuck my arm out and forced them open. I had seen her during class, across the table, and I had pegged her as an older student. A student like me. We walked together to the subway, this new acquaintance and I, exchanging life details.
I went home happy, assured that I was not the same person I had been, that I was still the new me I had worked so hard to build. And I saved my notes, and I saved the poem, and I decided to write my paper on them. Because my thoughts are important, and people should know them.