I always make my students read Andrew Grace’s “Y,” and they always hate it at first. Because undergrads are undergrads and are hung over approximately one hundred percent of Monday and Wednesday mornings. Even the enthusiastic ones balk at the shores of poetry like water-shy horses.
They really hate it when I make them read it aloud.
“Whiruva forty-five ay cee…”
I let them read through it once, and they do so flatly, approaching deadpan. And then I ask them what it means. What is it about?
Nothing. They stare at me.
All right, then. What happens?
Silence. I threaten them with jumping jacks.
Then, a voice.
“A cow gets hit by a train.”
Perfect! A place to start. A cow is hit by a train, yes. Where?
In the country.
Whirr of a .45 ACP. Train-pierced gloss
of a day’s last light.
The train was our
How did she get there?
She got out of her pasture. Someone left the fence open.
Left it open by accident, or on purpose?
Maybe—? The first theory: a careless son. Another: a local boy, making trouble.
acquitted by an anonymous
boy of her fence
rocked her dense body
–motion like knuckles rolled
in the clenched and unclenched
fist of one who is testing
the after-pain of
recoil after re-
coil, calm the shot-bucked barrel—
past the chapped crops
and mustered her
mass onto the tracks.
I show them the cow. “She doesn’t just walk, right?” I say. “She musters her mass onto the tracks. She musters—“ I rock my (admittedly large) body across the classroom floor, “—her mass onto the tracks.” My students are always too mortified to smirk or do anything besides a stare.”She’s rocking, right? Her dense body.” And, teaching in Iowa, I can ask the classroom if someone has ever shot a shotgun and I ask them about the clenched and unclenched fist, the pain after the gun has jerked back. They make the motion with their fingers, and I do it too, and lumber for effect. A few smiles, now. Rocking, mustering mass. Dense body. The tracks. The tracks.
“The sun is setting, right? The crops are chapped, yes? What does that mean?”
Sunset, they say. Chapped, and someone says, lips, and someone else says, drought, and still another says, late summer. Then a brief squabble about late summer versus autumn.
And remember the beginning of the poem, I say. What’s coming?
By then, they are beginning to see it. They always do.
in the farmhouse’s hush
heard the impact of cow
and train. I went with my father—
she was all
and wilderness. She wailed.
And the speaker, the child? The gore, the exposure, the wounded, baying animal.
In the dark tent of our
attention, we lanterned
Or else. I turned.
Echoed cordite reported
a mercy shot.
The dark tent of our attention. Two figures, father and child, twin sides of still and temporary quiet, their witness the only light. The child looks away. The sound tells her what has happened, and for once, she understands.
What I do not tell my students: that I met Andrew Grace’s sister-in-law in a post office in Berkeley, not that many years ago but in a different sort of life. I had envelopes destined for MFA programs pulled tightly to my chest. The old building was crowded, and the number being called by the annoyed row of post office employees was over fifty from my ticket, crumpled tightly in my sweaty fingers. We shared a wooden bench and she told me about Andrew’s poetry, and when I heard about the Illinois countryside that inspired his collection, I went out and bought it and carried it with me to the Midwest. I do not tell my students that I revisited the poem again after I had to put my dog Oliver to sleep, having just moved to Iowa days before, in the thick swell of late summer, and cried ruinous tears into the pages, warping them. I do not tell them how, like “Y’”s child speaker, I wanted to turn away. I do not tell them that I would have given everything to have my father there.
I ask them about the title. What could it mean? They are ready, they are so ready.
A question a child asks a parent.
A diverging path.
The interpretations spin out of them, faster and faster, and soon they are ignoring me and shouting everything that the Y could be.
The box you tick to accept something.
A child’s slingshot.
The pick of a fence.
And the shape of the poem?
The river, they say. The train. A path. Time. The way the cow wandered.
You move down the river and you ask why. The train whirs across the countryside and goes left instead of right. The child begins to understand what adults must do and does her best to meander toward adulthood, rather than run.
All of them, any of them, yes, yes, yes.