Article body


Growing up, mostly vegetarian, in suburban Canada, I faced the gamut of emotions when our first ram was slaughtered at our home in rural Mexico. The poem was born as a reflection on food sources, butchering, and eating here in Mexico following the style of Wallace Steven's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Through the process of writing "Carnicero," and reflecting on the connection we get to have with our meat sources on a farm, I found it strangely beautiful to be able to know how each animal lived, what it ate, how it was slaughtered, and especially, to know each one by name.


Juan takes long sweeping steps. He is

focused force, all efficiency, his chin

square, his eyes small. They told me

he was fast: one long knife to the heart,

arms embracing the ram, both

creatures still and silent,

one spurting red until finally it didn’t.

The sheep collapsed gently

on the concrete. Offal, viceras, skin,

feet, organs removed and buried, blood

rinsed into the grass. It took twenty minutes.

We paid Juan one hundred pesos.


Imagine killing for a living:

Do the hands of a butcher look different

at the end of each workday,

weighted by the lives of so many

creatures? Is there an unseen cost

to making death easy? I’m squeamish,

I can’t stomach the acrid stench

in the kitchen of burnt feathers

when Luis plucks chickens in the sink,

or watches YouTube videos

for better slaughtering ideas.


It’s cliché but true, Miguel

tells me. Practice makes perfect.

The first chicken was a mess:

neck half cut, feathers everywhere.

He said he looked at his kids then.

Either the kids go hungry or

he kills chickens. Chop. Chop.

He learned to make it easy.

They butchered, defeathered, and

sold chicken for a year

before the economy improved and

he got his office job back.


My neighbor builds a low, red brick

fire pit. His wife skewers ribs, chops, marinated

chicken legs, and chorizo sausage on metal stakes

planted inside the rectangle where the embers

glow. The scent of roast: the BBQ juices

dripping, heat, and tender cuts.

She removes the meat from the skewer

places it in thick corn tortillas;

the salsas are tangy fire:

chunky tomatillo or roasted red chile ancho

with sweet cilantro and spicy onion.

The smoky scent is a good sales pitch,

and they sell out every weekend.


When I was a kid, I once cried

because I believed that my yolk should

have been a fluffy yellow chick,

and it was better to give up my dad’s

eggs on toast than to kill for food.


I drive past Juan’s tiny abattoir on the main street

heading out of town. There’s a pig squealing inside,

but nothing like the noise the time that three pigs

escaped there, screeching and hollering down the street.

Luis says, we can’t keep pigs; they’re too smart.

He can’t even hire Juan to kill a pig

who would be too aware of impending intentions,

but Luis still likes a nice bowl of pozole or chicharrón.


I stop at the local supermarket chain. My cart’s rear wheel wobbles up the aisle.

It’s privilege to have a variety of protein sources;

Tofurkey is not universally available.

The shelves here are stocked with items in plastic, refined, colorful flavours.

The Western diet, with higher intakes of meat and processed foods

is acidic to the body and can increase risk for heart disease and cancer,

but none of the packaging spins it that way.

However, the supermarket’s meat section seems a very modern,

very Western privilege, with that magic of refrigeration and

well-travelled packages of instant, fun-shaped food products so we can

eat ourselves into disease, while industrial farming feeds

our planet into extinction. I was vegetarian for awhile.


The trucks go fast on the highway and

there is nearly always a dog carcass rotting

somewhere in the hot sun along the roadside.

I’ve heard more than one story of fresh road kill

mysteriously disappearing and the rumours:

taco stands selling tacos al pastor too cheaply.


One night I went outside because

there was an odd noise; the dogs

had found a young red hen. She was

still alive, body fully intact but

they had chewed her legs

right off. Luis got the machete

and told me to hold her head

and body, neck stretched out

on the wooden log in the backyard.

The sky was full of stars above,

and I cried for so many things

but mostly that a good farmer

should be able to do the right thing

for a suffering animal and I

wasn’t sure that I could.

Her blood was good compost

for the guava trees.


The day we got him, Luis laughed, said he’d call

the sheep Asado. With a name like that, his destiny

was assured. There is spirit and body, and at some point

they separate, even in sheep, I think. Juan had taken

the carcass to the butcher’s cooler. El Güero offers me the head:

bare, red, familiar eyes staring, good for soup. He rips off

the outer skin of the testicles, wraps it in paper, marking it

criadillas and adds it to the rubber tub filled with rack,

ribs, leg roast, chops. Asado is delicious, the kids say.

The dogs are ecstatic with the bones.


Armando told me

back in the days

when NAFTA was snuffing out

all the small local economies

and there was not much to eat,

his brother would go hunting:

skunk, possum, rabbit. A good birria stew

covers the flavour of anything, he grins.


Feedlots, injected hormones, cages

plastic wrapped packages of neat slices,

bloodless, hygienic, no recognizable animal

parts, creatures with no name

slaughtered at six weeks of age,

fast food, frozen food sections’

icy anonymity – It’s easy to cook

because it doesn’t even feel like

flesh: sterile, safe, without a soul.


New lambs are born, wet

and steaming in the cool

of the morning. I wipe

embryotic goo from tender nostrils,

run a finger through a mouth still

unbreathing, the lamb

shakes its heads and finally cries,

the sweet morning air

entering its lungs for the first

time. We exhale together.

The ewe licks and sniffs and

licks and sniffs. A few hours later,

the lambs are dry, walking,

nursing. They will grow hearing

morning birdsong and the sweet

sound of breeze through grass.

The children will chase them, bring

them alfalfa and clean water,

and I will name each one, even those

whose destiny is assured.