Afternoon with Irish Cows

2015 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature: On Africa © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center
 

Scientists mostly ask questions about the world outside themselves. It is very rare that they question themselves or try to learn about themselves. There is no subjectivity here.

But artists, on the other hand, keep questioning themselves and ask questions to themselves. They are introspective and want to know more about themselves. Poetry, for example, is mostly one way of doing this. Thus, a poem becomes an attempt to answer the question: Who am I?

The poem “Afternoon with Irish Cows” by Billy Collins is a typical example for such introspections. The poet does look out and sees cows and observes their behaviour which is in contrast with his.

This contrast can be seen all over the poem. In a beautiful country, the poet prefers to be indoors while the cows prefer to be outdoors,

Stepping all day from tuft to tuft

their big heads down in the soft grass,.

The distinction starts there and continues in different ways. The cows live from moment to moment, in the real world of the meadows which provides them with food while the poet lives in a world of imagination too. He describes himself realistically

I would sometimes pass a window
and look out to see the field suddenly empty

But then reveals his world of imagination with he says,

as if they had taken wing, flown off to another country.

But imagination cannot provide a realistic answer and the poet continues to observe them with a view to understand them which by contrast may help him understand himself. So, he does not believe that they have flown away but opens the front door to look for them and there they are going ahead with their routine mundane things like eating, chewing the cud and lying down on their sides, completely relaxed.

Then later, I would open the blue front door,
and again the field would be full of their munching
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,

The black and while patterns that the poet refers to as a map is of importance here. These patterns which only roughly resemble maps still remind the poet of maps because of his interest in the world and its affairs. But for the cow it is just a pattern on their body and they don’t mind getting them dirty by lying on their sides. It is nothing to be proud of or flaunt.

We pride ourselves as social animals, but we commit uncivil and unsocial acts. The newspaper, the stone wall and the knife are symbols from such a world. But the cows, which do not seem to communicate like we do, are also social animals and when they rest lies down in different direction to guard one another.

facing in all directions, waiting for rain.

After such an observation the poet’s interest in the cow comes out in the open when he says,

How mysterious, how patient and dumbfounded
they appear in the long quiet of the afternoon.

They only “appear” dumbfounded, mysterious and patient. They are not to take things lying down, for,

… every once in a while, one of them
would let out a sound so phenomenal

 

Given the kind of world he lives in, this noise brings only memories of torture and pain to the poet’s mind.

… which one of them was being torched
or pierced through the side with a long spear.

But looking at the cow, the poet finds that the cow was only being self-assertive.

… it sounded like pain until I could see
the noisy one

Through mooing, the cow was only asserting its nature, voice and behaviour and it is not ashamed of its ‘unadulterated cowness’ but rather proud of its self.                       

The cow’s self expression does not come from its soul or mind as some poet deem their poems to do. It is a product of its body.

… she gave voice
to the rising, full-bodied cry
that began in the darkness of her belly
and echoed up through her bowed ribs into her gaping mouth.

The cows have been here long before us and they have been trampling the hills, munching away the grass, polluting bays and cursing the rain. But unlike humans they were always apologetic about their atrocities and the poet believes that every mooing of a cow is only its apology for what its race did. The poet’s face coming up behind the wall is a later incident in history and shocks the cow with a premonition about the worse things the new race can do to the world.

Now the afternoon is no afternoon but the second half of the earth’s own life as it is unapologetically hurriedly pushed into its grave by the human race. And Ireland, though a land of great writers, is also famed to be a land of faction and civil wars where people pride in killing their own siblings in the name of God and faith.

But the cows are the same anywhere, anytime. They don’t kill one another or damage the environment in any serious way. Yet they are apologetic.

At the same time, through a series of concrete images, mostly visual and kinaesthetic but auditory and tactile too, the poet has managed to give us an almost direct experience of his surroundings. The visual imagery, like

the field would be full of their munching
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,
facing in all directions

recreates the scene in our mind while the kinaesthetic images, like

her bellowing head
laboring upward as she gave voice

make us feel how dynamic the scene is.

Thus in highly subtle ways the poet is able to suggests what he learns from watching some Irish cows one afternoon, without being preachy or overtly didactic. Even we set aside the philosophic content of the poem, there is still enough in the poem to enrich us in a pleasing way because of the skill employed by the poet.

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