The Cows in The Cows

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Lydia Davis’s new chapbook The Cows documents the lives of her neighbor’s cows.

Lydia Davis—in The Cows, a prose piece chapbook where she documents observations of her neighbor cows—seems to be writing from an interesting literary assumption: as though she has never seen anything but instead has only recently acquired some matter of fact, basic expression. This is the most honest prose. She writes, in the first sentence, “Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play.” The first metaphor: a play. The simile, however obvious-seeming, has a certain nuance, “next act,” which impresses barely anything on the scene. Like many of Davis’s stories (as those in Samuel Johnson Is Indignant and Almost No Memory), The Cows is stylistically absolute and has a wry effect, without being stylistically wry.

The Cows is a patient piece, and necessarily so. The mode is a person observing three cows from across a country road, recording their minute behaviors as occurrences, and doing so as they happen, never faster. In The Cows, Davis writes like a cow. Cattle are assuredly slow. Being so, they have an assuring (which is to say, deceiving) presence to their stasis. Often times the moment you glance at them they seem held in a particularly deliberate moment, but this is plainly a measure of time. A cow’s long pace suggests that whatever she is doing she is always doing. These creatures lend themselves to a constant measure of often times.

“So often they are standing completely still. Yet when I look up again a few minutes later, they are in another place, again standing completely still.”

In this way, the world is fascinating. It is witchcraft; it is spell. The snake would dazzle its prey into silence; it would fascinate it. Let’s see.

My neighbor has 110 acres in one of the last remaining family-owned, family-run farms in this part of the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts. When I find myself discussing the neighboring Holsteins, I tend to humanize them in these ways. She eats loudly. She trots best. Those two like to watch when I water the garden. And that one, she’s a real lady: to make the ultimate transposition, that the animals can be understood in some sort of human terms. The cows and I spend time together, and I want to give people evidence of that.

It has taken me eleven months to learn some of their names. I can tell you the largest (Boston) is half-white with a large black shield from poll to withers and down; the youngest (Bermuda) is almost all white, with pronounced hip and pin bones, an attractive feature for dairy cattle, though it makes her appear perhaps sicklier than the others.

Individualizing animals in writing is a rhetorical device, and it is a good one for quickly communicating affinity for the creatures, and for suggesting theirs for us. This is not, however, a particularly effective literary device. It does not garner a profound literary sympathy—an aesthetic pleasure that transcends information and informative appeals along the free-spirited path toward pleasure for such transcendence; to rise above information into the loft of pathos. To individuate these animals does not tell a story or make a poetic moment, but rather it informs an interaction which, in the end, merely offers the human with some measurable understanding of the human self; it says very little of the animal. It is a thin and selfish technique for mediating substance between the cows and the distant reader, because in the end, it yields only a name and some conversational, superficial qualities for the animals. It offers no other language on the matter, but a lingering vague notion of animalistic connectivity. It has no capacity for lyrical plunge. Naming and typifying animals is useless. Lydia Davis is more careful. She resists the temptation to individuate, and ultimately make cute, the cows.

The cows in The Cows are all named ‘she,’ or collectively ‘they.’ Even in description, they are plural. “They are a deep, inky black. It is a black that swallows light.” The blackness of the cows matters more than the particulars of their patterning, size, or physical conformations. They are treated together but not objectified. They are described collectively, initially, as a way for the author to orient this new community slowly, but as the chapbook progresses, the accumulation of plural language delivers a strong sense of the nature—nature in animals held above character—of these cows.

Before long, the cows are given separation. But still, here, they are not individualized—and certainly not humanized. They are presented by measurement, not description:

“One of them is in the foreground and two are farther back, in the middle ground between her and the woods. In my field of vision, they occupy together in the middle ground the same amount of space she occupies alone in the foreground.”

The cows are given as a way for the speaker to comprehend her own relation to them, and, moreover, as they relate to each other. They continue to be treated with unity.

“They are often like a math problem: 2 cows lying down in the snow, plus 1 cow standing up looking at the hill, equals 3 cows.

Or 1 cow lying down in the snow, plus 2 cows on their feet looking this way across the road, equals 3 cows.”

This is Davis at her most playful, though, again, calmly and patiently.

Davis’s descriptive interests, however honest, and however playful, remain a vehicle of perception. No matter how objective-seeming her prose, it is still a treatment of how she sees. And perception has zeroing limits. In fact, whosoever sees an apple or a cell phone with some newly dazzled clarity has merely encountered a zeroed moment with the thing. There is an exact depth to accurate perception of an object. Hone in on a cow, truly, and try describing your own breath or planetary orbit; it becomes decorative and moot; language becomes chaotic among the calm literary pursuit, becomes ridiculous. Like, to a cow, “they do not know the words ‘person,’ ‘neighbor,’ ‘watch,’ or even ‘cow’.” Cows have their own apparel of momentary permanence, and capturing it is the ultimate exercise of Lydia Davis’s prose. Zeroed in, that everything about the cows seems inevitable and eternal.

David Bartone has recent poems in Denver Quarterly, The Laurel Review, and Handsome, some prose at Verse, and book reviews coming at Kenyon Review. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. More from this author →