Dear Carolyn (toothache, cows)
holy cow! it's a guest post
featuring Maria Sledmere as Godot
I write this from the hole in my mouth. I’ve had a simple, invasive procedure that probably you don’t wanna hear about, though some people do (it’s been proven) and my friend Louise is for example the first person to hear all my gore. She positively laps it up and I have to drip drip the horror content her way when it comes. When I fell off my bike in 2018, flipping it off the kerb along the Partick expressway, the first thing I did when home and under better lighting was to send her a picture of my streaming wound. She’s a medievalist at heart and loves the blood. Anyway, this is the hole talking. When I told her about my tooth removal and the crunch heard deep as the dentist wrenched the wee enamel devil of wisdom from its gums, she recollected her own procedure gleefully. “I loved the crunch!” was her phrasing. Maybe the anaesthetic wasn’t working on me, with my sore and swollen gums, and I felt the crunch a little too much. It couldn’t be enjoyed in the abstract. I see myself from the outside near fainting at Charing Cross station, a bloody rag wedged in my mouth, praying not to bump into anyone. And no coffee for five days! Totally wretched vibes.
But here I am writing in public from the hole in my mouth and why? Well, I’ve never felt more animal than when undergoing medical procedures of any kind. I’ve never felt more animal and exposed than when I couldn’t open my mouth for the agony of infection. As a teenager, sometimes I would literally and inexplicably ‘lose my voice’. It wasn’t like I had tonsilitis or was off school sick; I just woke up in the morning and couldn’t croak a sound. It made me feel a million years old, like a fallen star, and the world was equally bewildered with me. Those years, most of the time I felt myself a ghost in company. The clichés about losing your voice seem true, at least they do when you know it can happen. What did I do instead? I remember trying to buy a friend cigarettes from the Ayr tobacconist and my husky non-voice paradoxically proved I was old enough. Yes, I was sixteen and I’d done the work. Did I smile or groan or do wild expressive things with my eyes? Things would be better, sweeter, if humans had whiskers and they lit up bright colours of your mood at the ends like fibre optic novelty lamps. Imagine all the colours changing while kissing, leaving us speechless. Then people would recognise depression and press bundles of roses into each other’s arms, at work, at the doctor’s, even in the gym, why not. We’re still here, they’d say.
My silence was something else that didn’t belong to me and I didn’t understand then I was carrying it. As Ariana Reines writes in ‘Earmark’, in The Cow (2006):
The poisoned nuance that started everything. It was from eating ourselves. It had to be Someone else’s sickness first, our silence, our good balance, our usefulness. There is something certain creatures long for. To be hacked up and macerated. That’s having it come out and go into another body.
Someone else’s sickness first. The sibilance is itself diseasing. Maceration relates to fruit, a mush of the mouth. When that other slips into the plural first-person, our, only a cry comes out – but whose is it? An enormous, cowardly cry of us, suffering, dripping strawberry juice on the floor. It is a very specific little thing that gets into you and starts the rot. A boy at school goes round with a branch of red bark dogwood and thwacks everyone on the ripe part of the calves. You’d come home with whip marks. The word ‘coward’ (Apple Dictionary again) comes from the Old French ‘coard’ based on Latin ‘cauda’ as in ‘tail’. Being frightened, a tail between your legs. Put that tail back inside you. It’s reasonable to be cowardly in the face of what is done to a cow, or a schoolkid, or even a fully grown human person. It’s okay to be cowardly and sometimes with no warning. Do cows ever just randomly fall down? There was a fucked-up trend in my town for kids pushing cows over. Just to see what happens. The closest you’ll get to a kill. Some kids also pushed my mum’s old car over once, and there it was, poor cow, bleeding rainbows of oil down the sodden road.
Tishani Doshi begins a poem, ‘They Killed Cows. I Killed Them’ with the idea that ‘In the future we might all be vegetarian’. This is a stunning poem of so much precision and scale jumping from the horrors of witness to maternal pain, killing and dying, separation, complicity, some kind of ‘dirt’ confused for ‘a galaxy’. How to get closer to a kinder future? Recently, in Erica Fudge’s Animal Studies Reading Group, we talked about how you can never be truly ‘vegan enough’ and perhaps there’s something about knowing yourself as an animal which is this constant process. It’s always ‘to-come’ which is like justice in deconstruction. Hedging your sense of embodied self when in the arms of someone loving or violent. My partner is training to be a massage therapist and reminds me that ‘it is always the more intense experience to be touched, than to be the one touching’. You have to be so subtle with your fingertips, your wrists and knuckles. Where can I touch you? How do the poems like to be touched? The cows? What can I eat? These poems switch fiercely between dying and thriving.
When is the cow a real-ass cow and not an allegory? Real cow babies landing ‘on the / cold / concrete / floor’ (‘Cow Knows’) is so devastating and the enjambment performing the fall. I feel all the vom of human decision being kneaded out in these poems. jac common writes of these abject materials, as they manifest in your book, as ‘potentially joyful, visible volumes’. It’s an abject industry that steals goodbyes. The idea of seeing ‘the universe / once’ in your ‘son’s wide gob’ (Doshi, ‘They Killed Cows. I Killed Them’). Georges Bataille has the idea of l’informe, or formlessness, where ‘affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or a spit’. Attuning to milk, spit, the hash of reality, I see this spit in everything and it kills my appetite. Not being able to eat solids causes baby regression of nourishment and so comes a return to object impermanence? Maybe disordered attention is akin to this undigest; a messed up, temporal indexing?
I’m such a silly cow! Always losing things, and bleeding everywhere!
Is it wrong to relate to a pain beyond me?
You see this is getting towards the question of the animal. In your poetry collection COW, you give voice to the nonhuman animal; to the cow and often specifically the female cow. This is something we hear a lot in ecopoetics, ‘giving voice to the animal’. I don’t mean to make it sound simple like that. It’s more like you give shout to the animal. People use cows to trash each other: ‘stupid cow’, a chef says as I drop plates of rump steak feeling ten pounds heavier for every time. But sometimes tenderly I’ll be a ‘poor cow’, kind of feeling in drag as the operatic soap queen of another neighbourhood, languishing in voluptuous big gender like even I could have a baby. Giving shout to the animal, throwing a tantrum, saying words like ‘oops’ & ‘slay’, ‘titties’ & ‘honey’. I’ve never felt so animal as when writhing in menstrual agony on the kitchen floor and a thought occurring, ‘this is pointless’.
As I write this, one of my tenement neighbours is coughing their guts up. Some kinds of cough are full of regret, others are lavish. I can’t believe how endlessly ill things seem. I used to do cartwheels on beaches, rehearse the word ‘cartilage’, climb trees. I used to grow my hair long! How strange to be animal. I love that the opening poem of COW, ‘In My Waking Dream I’ is a bovine fantasy of freedom dressed up in what it means to be naked. What are the species limits of imagination? The speaker is part-cow part-human, speaking between tongues (later recalling the ‘long licky tongue’ of a mother cow). Write with your tail? Adriene in her menstrual cramps video says to do child’s pose and waggle your tail. You can also do this on your back. Breathe deeply the fantasy of sweet, unending soils and the peachrich skies above.
Yes, Carolyn, you give space to the real dreaming and inner life of cows, without pretending to master it. The ‘I’, ‘she’ and ‘you’ in this book triangulate the question of cow’s voice between genders, agencies and species. In his famous lecture, The Animal That Therefore I Am (originally published in French in 2006), Jacques Derrida writes of dreaming, ‘I myself, in all innocence, of an animal that didn’t intend harm to the animal’. This innocent, self-naked ‘I’ of your waking-dream poem is at once the human speaker feeling animal, exposed in the gaze of the animal, and also the innocence of ‘a calf skipping beside your mother’. Probably a healthy dream life is full of animals and the animals that therefore we are. My own is kind of dying off into the crispier species of spiders and insects, polishing their spindly adrenaline wings, web-making without end. It is filtered through temporary solutions of oestrogen, sounds like a Björk song glittering wild in the wake.
Carolyn, as you write ‘In my wildest fantasy’, you put a lot of pressure on wild, and wildest. Wild at heart. What is it about a cow’s heart? I remember we had to dissect one in biology at school, but they let me, the school’s sole vegetarian, do some filing in another room to avoid the bubble and guts of a meat unseen to me. This happened again, in Home Economics, when some company came in to demonstrate from scratch how a beef burger was made at a fast-food joint. It was supposed to make us want to cook our own food, buy local, avoid junk etc. Idk, we lived in Ayrshire surrounded by dairy farms; we were still supposed to eat meat. Two flush people in white overalls arrived with foreboding tones and proceeded to chop and toss in salt and mince no words. A lofty, flesh-hissing smell wafted through the halls. I don’t know exactly what happened in there; I was filing again next-door, sneezing eras of school dust. All I know is the class went out for McDonalds that night, bodies piling into wheezing cars, ‘why not?’
But the cow’s heart beats through the book. What’s a bovine pentameter? Here, it can’t be corralled. Anaphora, indents, repetition, parenthesis produce their milky leaking. Rhyme is kind of sinister, as in ‘The Birds’: ‘Such a / treat. To eat pure meat’. I wanna kick its fence down and let free the shitstream of ‘the / chaos below’, or that sweet cow from the field over, will they come over? What are the real stakes of this poem made of actual steak, the ploughshare gone through or the fat around the heart? It all bubbles up to what might be a 100% cornfed, historical shriek. My poem is open. COW is an embodied, discursive generosity, roaming the field.
Is the Olsonian open field really open to all speaking animals? What about Cow? ‘In My Waking Dream I [cont.]’ revisits limbo where the pigs really ‘start to fly’, who could say they aren’t when ‘You just cannot see that far’. Cows flying with them to see over everything. Whatever it is we’re doing, farting carbon, fucking up the general meadow, filing hot, earnest taxes while many companies don’t, ‘maybe the stupid cows knew all along […] and all the other dumb animals too’. Cows know it the way they know the coming rain, don’t they? You put the long sound of the knowing in the poem. It’s a metabolic arsenic. The cattle are lowing. ‘MooOOOOOOOOOOOO FUCK YOOOOOOO / says the cow’. Yes I did count the O’s and hope I’ve not missed one, bubbling up to the brink. Love that stream of lowing, clicking together the O beads on the sonic orbit, a meat belt. Girdling whom?
One of the best things that ever happened to me on twitter was the generous response to my emergency plea for cow poems, about a year ago now in late November 2021. I was recovering from the everlasting throes of COP26 and was about to give a writing workshop while perishing with the supercold. Turns out zillions of poets have long written about cows, from bovine existentialism to cow dreams, including this zany Amy Gerstler one, ‘Grass’, where the speaker gets really into grass like cows are. The poem ends:
cud-chewing, this waking dream
in which I’m blessed
with multiple guts
and everything I swallow
keeps jumping, alive
from stomach to stomach.
I’m starting to think, Carolyn, that maybe your poems are chewing the cud and making new grass sculptures too. Grass sculptures of tiny moments in the life of a cow. Funny that there should be so much waking dreams in the poems of cows. Is it because their lives are a little sleep-walky, by human standards: confined to machinic conditions, or a field? Maybe that field is their infinity. Is it that the association between feminised and bovine bodies creates a film of fleshy proximity. Is it really possible to dream as a cow, awake? For Gerstler’s speaker, having ‘multiple guts’ in which to pass the undigest of grass between is kind of a blessing. So I start to think differently about what it would be like. Grass in my belly. My other belly and my other. When one gets tired or bored, pass it on. That’s basically how I write. As a kid I got pulled up in front of the class for eating grass. They wanted to set an example. Children, do not aspire to the life of a cow, like this one. Poor cow I was, refusing to eat my sisters.
The jumping beans of Gerstler’s grass cud, the audio cocaine of that Doja Cat refrain, Bitch I’m a cow playing over the poem tannoy of COW. My brain is a ‘quagmire’ as in your poem ‘The End’ which washes up ‘survivors’ in the language of permacrisis, ‘times like this’. We’ve grown so used to being carnivore in our painful longing we can say things like ‘Religion has a golden sound’, ‘And then everything dissolved’ (Reines, The Cow). It’s so much easier and harder to long for everything in times like this to stop. A bell clangs in the brain or the little one around your neck or the want of bounce. Wait, what. ‘For cow so loved the earth’ is a fable you tell in ‘Mince’, as I say a lot ‘maria stop talking mince’ after a thing my friend Douglas used to say, which is to say, catching myself out deconstructing the lot of it. Stuff bluegrass, goldgrass, greengrass into the hole in my mouth and then I promise I’ll stop.
My body shrinks from pain, even as it puts on weight in the light.
Lilac affinities drop ice cubes in cow’s milk.
Nightmares are non-announced over supermarket tannoys.
There’s a call out for the cow.
Just say no.
ejaculation of a moo.
Not a moot point.
‘[And drink cappuccinos]’
The dentist, and countless American healthcare websites, warned of ‘dry sockets’. Where the blood clot fails to form in the hole in your mouth, or the precious clot somehow is dislodged or, as the NHS puts it, ‘disappears’. How can a blood clot disappear, like a ruby? The resultant throbbing pain (nerve exposures) is just as intense as a toothache. So you have swapped one pain for another. The horror of this phrase, ‘dry socket’ comes surely from electricity – gaping plugholes in my mouth. Dr Frankenstein performing galvanism at the dental practice. Admittedly I’d rather be a frog, in my little pond socket. Apple Dictionary tells me that ‘socket’ comes from an Anglo-Norman French diminutive of the Old French ‘soc’ meaning ploughshare, ‘probably of Celtic origin’. Is it a poet’s curse to always see nefarious extra meaning glow in common words? As common a word as socket can be when drying in the hole in your mouth. The main cutting blade: words.
I never ate so much dairy as during the height of the Tooth Debacle. Desperate for splash calories, I loaded lentil soups with blocks of blue cheese, ate tubs of ice cream, plopped yoghurts on top of porridge, felt ‘greedy for butter’ like Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, after her food poisoning. My skin flared with acne. I wanted there to be a reason for all this suffering, but I had to buy into absurdity all the same. I’m full of regret, you can hear in my cough. The cough is a supplement. There’s stuff inside it. Hinting. Gloop.
Which is to say Carolyn, this book is so great. I felt like I flew with the cows and knew their extremities in my own purple fingers. ‘Holy mother fucking cow!’ It’s so great to say that in a book of poetry and know it’s actually a cow’s shout, and we can say it too. For the cows. When you see the apocalypse coming in the form of a cow’s shout. Then you know.
Their death gives birth to our life as their life-giving births our breakfast. That’s pretty fucked.
From a thread on quora, I learn that animated male cows may contain udders, but bulls don’t have udders in real life. Art can make anything happen. That’s its ‘thing-power’, huh? A dairy quantity of diary makes lust for life.
Sleep’s making a daisy chain of my fears these days. Lacewings and the drapery of worst outcomes. The body of somebody I love. Carolyn, your book took me through the psychedelic supermarket of the capitalist unconscious and I came out with packets of alfalfa, a bushel of apples, a nuzzling dream. It is in many ways a revelation. Every goddamn ‘THUD’, for the love of the earth
& elsewhere. That hole in my mouth is healing, so I’ll be quiet now. Let the blue whale of the day exhale me as plankton. Oceanic quietude of the open green. I’ll love above and outside of the woundedness that is letting the ice in, the salt rinse, the afternoon sky a shade of whey, vommed duly from morning. ‘You take normal milk’ (‘Normal’) / you have normal thoughts. You are right angled, multiplying, leaving the field.
Let’s dream a simple utopia in cow terms, from this book of Lisa Jarnot’s Joie De Vivre (2013), on long-term loan from Colin Herd:
COW is available to order from Osmosis Press.
This time Godot was played by Maria Sledmere, editor-in-chief at SPAM Press, founding editor of the magazine Gilded Dirt and member of A+E Collective.
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String Feeling (2022) out now with Erotoplasty Editions
The Luna Erratum (2021) out now with Dostoyevsky Wannabe
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