Cows use horns as sense organs. Horns give cows a sense of their surroundings and metabolisms. A cow without horns can’t feel anything. A hornless cow doesn’t know who a cow is as an entity. Farmers take horns off cows so cows won’t notice cows close by. Cows with horns require a wide berth. Enter the personal space of a cow with horns and see if the cow likes it. Cow is a strong-willed being. Who goes near cow now? If you do, see cow get out of the way of you. —Dreaming Cow
American cartoonist Gary Larson (b. 1950) drew and wrote The Far Side from 1980, when I was twelve, to 1995, when I was twenty-seven. In 2019, in my fifties now, Larson came out of retirement to publish single-frame, digital comics. Of the animals populating his oeuvre—shark, reindeer, turtle, pigeon, giraffe, orca, viper, peacock, horse, rhinoceros, bear, moose, elephant, ram, dog, woodpecker, pig, canary, alligator, piranha, wolf, cheetah, owl, goldfish, butterfly, spider, duck, tiger, vulture, stork, kangaroo, bull, python, mosquito, gazelle, scorpion, orangutan, zebra, blue whale, octopus, gecko, slug, fawn, eagle, chicken, mole, lobster, squirrel, seagull, anteater, warthog, porcupine, penguin, sheep, polar bear, et al—cows are best.
Humans and cows take up behavioral issues in cow panels. Figures like Farnsworth invite cows over for a drink and now cows are drunk and dancing on the table. A doctor diagnoses Farnsworth with a case of cows at the sight of cows coming out his knee, his elbow, his back, the top of his head, etc. Queuing outside a slaughterhouse without knowing what’s inside, cows complain bitterly when cows cut in line. A cow ding-dong ditches the house of Farnsworth. When he comes to the door, no one’s there but a cow lows on the lawn. Cows bolt upright out of a recurring dream featuring golden arches.
A cow is a ruminant because a cow chews the cud regurgitated from cow rumen. A menagerie of microbes lives in cows’ rumen in service of digestion. Methane gas is a byproduct. Because cows spew it when cows belch and fart, to pass gas is not a euphemism the way other ways of saying it are and have been. I’ve heard it said cows don’t have standup comedians or funeral processions. A ruminant is a contemplative person. A cow sits on a mound in the lotus position instructing a cow to remain present. When traveling life’s highway, Larson writes, ‘always stop and eat the roses.’ To adopt this sense of humor, pretend you’re a cow while going about your daily business. Not even your mother can know what you’re up to. Write down what you see, hear, and do. Describe your interactions with others. Record your feelings. Keep a sacred cow diary.
He announces he’s a step closer to entering the Agent Orange Program and do I know what Agent Orange is? “I do, Dad. I know what Agent Orange is.” “You say you do,” he says, “but do you really?” “Really, Dad. I do.” “But do you really?” “Why would I say I do if I don’t?” “You know the herbicide Agent Orange,” he says. “That’s what you know.” “I assure you, Dad, I know it as the thing you’re thinking of, in the context you’re thinking of it.” “How can you?” “I just can.” “But how?” “I guess I read my history.” “What the history books won’t tell you,” he says, “is that it’s more than an herbicide. It will shock you how much more.” But I won’t be shocked. I won’t allow him to shock me, or even tell me. All my life he’s pushed his definitions on me. Definitions for things everyone knows. Things I could never be so condescending as to define for others. The things I know by heart I must block him from explaining: equinox, stock market, ball bearings, cold front, Chinatowns, spark plugs, asphalt shingles, fish hooks, failure, plaster of paris, place settings, noctilucence, Windsor knot, Rough Riders, acid reflux, grace, Cassiopeia, Whitman, defacto segregation, growing tomatoes, running starts, grounding lenses, catheters, desalinization, comparative advantage, barbecue cooking, yellow journalism, hormones, tumbleweeds, rock formations, layering effects, opportunity costs, detente, prime meridian, hostage negotiations, Appalachian English, a blue whale’s aorta, sororal twins, prophylactics, how not to lose your watch, your wallet, God, defogging headlights, vanishing point, cross country driving, cross country skiing, moon landing, rocket science, inflating a tire, mixing colors, sharpening a knife, polishing your shoes, loving a woman, loved by a woman, holding back, stepping up, eating crow, waltzing, making a lasting impression, making a cappuccino, brain surgery, patience, no grandstanding, grinning, bearing, best foot forward, planning a wedding…. I can never let him tell me what these things are. I can’t even pretend and say, ‘I’ve never heard of Agent Orange, Father. Please tell me.’ I can’t say, ‘I already know what it is, but I would appreciate hearing your perspective.’ Instead I let him go away feeling unheard, with this thing he means to say bottled up inside of him. He is indignant. I feel it, too. We share this same bottledupness. He thinks to himself as I think to myself that one day after he’s dead and gone, I’ll stumble across the golden nugget of information that convinces me beyond a shadow of a doubt that Agent Orange, before its day was done, was far more than an herbicide.
A secret airbase operated by the Central Intelligence Agency sometime between 1959 and 1975 doubled as a town in Laos.
when the first Hmong arrived in Minnesota
one among them asked why are there no leaves on trees
only years later did he say he thought his host was lying
when he responded, winter instead of admitting
the trees had been sprayed by low-flying airplanes whizzing over
A poet of the Berkeley Renaissance, Robin Blaser (1925-2009) got some good coming-of-age parts into a single poem. Presenting a kind of Original Scene, he quits his job in “Quitting a Job” to devote himself full-time to writing. “Your apron lay in a wad on the counter,” I was picturing. Pictures he, “the moon shines through the straggly body of a / tree of heaven.” (1959)
To personify love in a forest teeming with siblings. Who besides love? Water among them is not like this being of love, even in motion, ever flowing. Hitchhiker here is love’s bride or husband. Does it have a penis? Maybe. A vagina? Hard to imagine. Your Self reconstructed, a boy steps forward to announce his and his sister and brother’s disappearance into a dark wood. What would I do in this situation? I’d improvise happy stories and dance to take my siblings’ minds off being late for dinner. It’s no big deal really. Decades before the hoax of it is made plain to me by a presence in a forest, I’d take death by the elbow and, on my siblings’ behalf and in the firmest voice I could muster, explain their indispensability to our family economic status without mentioning our emotional well-being. (Charms, 1964-1968)
One describes a moth as musical and why not? Do they not tumble and climb? Perishable wings in time. Riot. Dirge. Wordless singsong combined. Is it not silent rubato? Are there not musical poplars also? (The Moth Poem, 1962-1964)
The Old-World name for blackbird, you teach us in a Merlin poem, means an action between worlds. This is one of your primary realms of inquiry, isn’t it? People of my generation are only now looking forward into this birdlike dimension, so tell me something. What’s one good example of an action between worlds? May I close my eyes to receive your answer? I’m closing them now. Please yes, speak now. Keywords: flapping, fluttering, gliding, soaring, alighting, phrasing, strutting. (Charms, 1964-1968)
You write about the male womb. What could this be? What do men carry to term that means the world to them? And who’s this Mythro character mentioned in passing? Does it tend to love all humanity? No one can do this without emptying himself out first. But try explaining this to my wife. She goes deaf at my talking like I’m the only one in the house leading an inward life of the Spirit. One aches to have her own idea because it either belongs to someone else or labors under such apprehension. (“The Park,” 1960)
You dress up your dignity like a clown and pit it against a selfsame clown of games. I like this but one quick question about gender. Are they both males sitting beside each other on a bough in a forest whose true identity escapes me? Are those trees—standing tall, squatting down, turning away, facing forward, bending back, leaning back, reaching across, and brushing shoulders—celestial women casually interacting? Keywords: oak, alder, nettle, coupling, olive, cherry, pine, epicene, fresh take, wedding poems. (Cups 1-12, 1959-1960)
While you speak of Christ among the olives, I ask after trees, ‘Are you holy?’ I saw him once too, you know, but mine happened in a pine forest. So there’s your scent and the look of it, too: His noble mien slipping in and out of view amid dipping branches is more real than I would have imagined. His approach across the snow is, in one tired word, breathtaking. To not wake up is to go on living. (Les Chimères [translations of Nerval] 1963-1964)
Two poems coming in a row are an epithalamium and one called “a good return” from 1971. Both are good occasions for song, like jobs well done but held close to the vest, where good means humble and humbly ego erased. It hardly sounds like you though? Who says ironically unto the snow-lit night, ‘Heed the message or suffer the consequences’? ‘I always suffer the consequences,’ I smile. ‘It’s like a hobby of mine.’ Your paralyzed mouth shows disappointment every time I try coaxing smiles with a self-deprecating sense of humor. How about this instead? A thyrsus, I learned, is a wand of giant fennel.
You begin a poem “The Soul” with the adverb someday and then list subjects, window, scream, and even a rainbow and a marriage procession. I crave a verb on a day like today. An action has yet to materialize. An exercise in schmaltziness on a dire topic, I once wrote about rainbows. A girl from my childhood Camila died from leukemia when we were nine. I knew she was sick from the swells in her legs but was too young to name it. My barrage of questions closed the door on my ever seeing her again. Camila Sentences, long lost, once I began them, ‘There’s something warm and welcoming about your room I like a lot. Something about a turtle passing under a rainbow pelted by felt-tipped arrows.’ The word bowshot comes to mind so many years later. Who can help but ask questions about arrows arcing through a gradually revealed sky with the rain tapering off then stopping? (Pell Mell, 1981-1988)
Your apron lay in a wad on the counter. Water plays the part of love ever-flowing. We are only now on the lookout for sacred bird migrations. I am not, I repeat, I am not the only one around here peering inward. Two discrete men sit in a tree who stand for neither dignity nor frivolity. One is amor and the other, nameless, accepts one-sided love affairs on the condition of reconsidering. Coaxing smiles is at last an obnoxious pastime for all but the coaxer. The forecast rarely calls for rain anymore. Later in life, when you are hospitalized for a disease you half suspect you’ve concocted, you will refuse to give your nurse a sputum sample but use the cup for your candy cup in honor of your sweet tooth. Keywords: O-friend, invisible pencil, la-de-da, orange, calendula, looks, like, smells, like
Here are a few excerpts from a long essay I’m working on about Mary Oliver and Plato (odd bedfellows, I know). Though I am not always a fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry, I am moved by both her tenacity as a poet and the positive impact her writing continues to have on the lives of so many poetry lovers.
They say if Mary is taking a walk, and she begins to walk slower and slower, and finally she’s standing still scribbling, you know it was a successful walk. —Mary Oliver talking about herself as a poet writing in nature
The twins Liney and Jane and especially Liney love the nature poetry of Mary Oliver. I prefer Hass. Something so simple as his “…small brown wren in the tangle/of the climbing rose…” stirs my imagination more than anything from Oliver. They especially admire her poem “Wild Geese.” They call it a permission poem when the poet invites the reader not to be so hard on herself:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
The poem then conflates reading with wandering across what to my mind is an alluvial plain. Then Liney might ask, ‘What’s to see, Theo, in landscapes running together like this?’ ‘What’s it feel like to go out into them?’ Whatever ‘it’ is, I look through mist and weeds. Through colorless, odorless weather:
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese,
high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
It’s like a mystical experience when, reading the poem, Liney claims to cease to exist. Or she coexists with those oral geese flapping high overhead in some slack V formation and enough rising light to eat a moon with!
Mary Oliver’s hometown of Maple Heights, Ohio, covers roughly five square miles of suburban Cleveland, where the twins were born and raised. A handsewn notebook Mary Oliver carried for jotting down her experiences in the woods of Cuyahoga County measures 3-by-5 inches and contains owls, an alder grove, graveyards, bright barns, mothers, fathers, blueberry fields, mortgages, cranberry bogs, a bear, robins, Shawnee in absentia, rainy seasons, egrets, lightning, a few kids running at dusk, first snow, mushrooms, lumbermen, quick Ohio creeks, a train whistle, passing neighbors, strangers passing, a buck moon, hunters moon, wolf moon, sickle moon, strawberry moon, walnut trees, beech, sugar maple, cucumber trees, everything waiting to be reassembled into proper poems.
I don’t see Mary Oliver as a permission poet the way the twins do. She is a peripatetic poet, maybe, going around on foot to gather her materials and vibes. Going into the woods like that. She identifies herself as this other kind, too:
I’ve written before that God has ‘so many names.’ To me, it’s all right if you look at a tree, as the Hindus do, and say the tree has a spirit. It’s a mystery, and mysteries don’t compromise themselves—we’re never gonna know. I think about the spiritual a great deal. I like to think of myself as a praise poet. I acknowledge my feeling and gratitude for life by praising the world and whoever made all these things.
Permission. Peripatetic. Praise. I could do something with these words. I just might. An informal dissertation. I almost got a Master’s degree. It was to be in Poetics. I would have borrowed fifty thousand dollars to cover tuition. Who goes fifty thousand dollars into debt for a hobby that may or may not be his passion?
Of the fifteen books of poems Mary Oliver wrote, the one before Dream Work that got her the Pulitzer. She was already being touted as the bestselling poet in modern times. My chalking her popularity up to the accessibility of her poems led the twins to think of me as an elitist for a while. I admitted without sarcasm that she could be soulful: In our time of climate change, her poems asked what was missing and, naming Nature, may yet turn us into mystics.
But it wasn’t always about Nature. I suspect that the twins rank Dream Work over the other books because suddenly, and then only occasionally, the poet steps out of those nearby woods to write in conspicuous ways about her own suffering. The poem “Rage” is about a man, presumably her father, interfering with her when she was a child. Of him she writes
But you were also the red song
in the night,
stumbling through the house
to the child’s bed,
to the damp rose of her body,
leaving your bitter taste. The damp rose of her body stays with me, even if I expect a darker presentation of abuse. I want to talk to the twins and especially Liney about this. What is the redness of song? Where may rage go? But I cannot for the simple reason that I don’t know what Liney has lived through and what attracts here to these poems.
Mary Oliver lived in three different and distinct places representing three essential phases of her life. We started in the woods near Maple Heights with her pencils and handsewn notebook that she might set aside while she whistled or whittled or spotted animals or diverted streams with rocks peeled from the moist earth or assembled what to her mind was a thatched house for a wayward girl leaving her real home forever. I imagine this to be her entire adolescence, before she went away to Ohio State University without taking a degree and then to Vassar, again without taking a degree. I love any detail implying underachievement and also a higher calling. Then it was off to Provincetown in what I’m calling Mary Oliver’s middle phase. She lived with Molly Cook, a photographer, I believe, and a gallery owner, for decades. She must have written the bulk of her poems there. Whether she did or not, the women descended together into retirement in Florida, where Mary outlived Molly. Then a protracted mourning period before Mary could have some fun on her own. Despite her introversion, she mingled with a big and I think multigenerational band of friends, before contracting cancer and dying at eighty-three on the island of Hobe Sound.
 From an interview Mary Oliver gave Maria Shriver for Oprah Winfrey’s website (2011)
 From Robert Hass’ poem “Cuttings” in Human Wishes (1989)
 Originally published in her book Dream Work (1986)
 From an interview Mary Oliver gave Maria Shriver for Oprah Winfrey’s website (2011)
Mom stayed home for me when I was boy. Home was Taiwan once Dad made captain at the Taipei Air Station. Then Sister Mother, who some called Sister Esther and some called Superior General, became my teacher at Dominican School. If I was the only one to call her Sister Mother, it wasn’t a put-down but a natural association between abstract nouns for family members. I learned much later that her real name was Marian Caldwell (1915-2000) and referred to her simply as Marian in my daydreams of the conversations we might have had if she’d known me as a grownup.
I don’t remember what Marian looked like except that the frame made by her coif and veil made her face seem bunched-up in a way she’d grown used to. I suspect I was also warping her appearance in the countless drawings I did in my spiral-bound notebook of cartoon nuns in different shapes and sizes. She’s un-seeable now. I can’t even find a photograph of her in the yearbooks of our time. She’s buried in the vast cemetery along Chongde Street in the mountains on the outskirts of Taipei. I remember riding my Schwinn Typhoon down the lanes there long before she died. I remember drawing myself speeding along on my bike, cherry red amid grayest tombs and the likenesses of nuns and my gravestone rubbings taped into my nonextant notebook. I used to ask myself if the ghost fear of Taiwanese boys was real. If so, were my rubbings more like goading the very guys I wanted to be friends with?
I would give anything to see the drawing that made Marian my enemy. I almost certainly began with a few light marks, and with an expanding sense of purpose patterned blue bikini bottoms with stars for a pelvic region. After that, I must have given her go-go boots galore, a lasso of truth, an eagle for a breastplate, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and a tiara doubling as a boomerang when weapons needed knocking out of the hands of perpetrators—say Cheetah’s. Say Ares. Say Genocide. Behold: The Circle.
Mother Sister found no Great Defender in a leggy triangle whose legs were different sizes but asked of boy illustrators dumb to how girls should be considered what their place was in Earth’s meadows. Able-bodied and swift with her hands, she whacked my knuckles hard with a rattan cane for drawing a pornographic picture. Drawing blood on her third hit she caught hold of herself.
I don’t think she would have hit me had I not named my patron. From her greater perspective, I was lying. After all, who would put anyone up to such an odious drawing? Mary Chang, who was littler than I, I called Nettles after a stinging nettle stung her on our way up the Junjian Yan Trail to Dog’s Head Mountain one sunny morning. It was Nettles who paid forward a cup of ramen for the likeness of the superhero she must call Supergirl for her trouble pronouncing W’s.
Marian, you would be surprised to know how often I think of you. I imagine you sometimes in the bustle of crowded squares, among commuters filling the avenues at dusk, your hunch drifting away toward its vanishing point. I sense your presence now in a picture at an exhibition at the Harvard Bookstore on Massachusetts Avenue. Known for such books as The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Epiplectic Bicycle, and The Beastly Baby, writer and illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000) includes more than a few cutthroats and pied pipers in his drawings. His style is disarming at first, and then it alarms. We must look hard and, doubting ourselves, look again to see if he really is featuring a pedophile in what appears to be a cartoon for children. Our fear of what it may be, Marian, we sense in this untitled drawing— and fly beyond the bejeweled fingertips of the fat man striding along a kind of Edwardian Fifth Avenue in his fur coat and golden fedora. If he longs languishing to tap that or snatch that or whatever such beings do, my own imagination, Marian, has always been more puritanical than sexualized. Never mind that the illustration is a canard of human predation provoking us to reflect on the jurisdiction of fear and reasoning. Never mind that Gorey probably got smacked for being accidentally or naturally flagrant or flamboyant in his younger days. Never mind how one pays for being who one is in a conservative epoch. But I’m no cultural critic. I’m not even sure what I want to say to you, so I’ll keep it simple: I wish you were here with me at the exhibition. We could go to dinner afterwards. The first thing I’d tell you, even before we shared our opinions about the art, is that I’ve tried many times to write a memoir about my childhood. In it, I report that you hit me three times and that on the third time you drew blood. This is my flourish. Though you did hit me three times, and though it hurt, I did not bleed. I wanted the word blood to connote the fear I felt, and my confusion. I’ve called the piece, my so-called memoir, “Wonder Woman Alights on Dominican School.” It is my “Supergirl” essay, too. I was talked out of doing much with it because this superhero means so much to so many women as to feel proprietary. Your heaven is like that, too. Proprietary. I’ve never believed in it as a place to go, but if it is a place, I look forward to meeting you there and walking with you over mythical hills into valleys and meadows where fear is a funny remnant and boys, taken at their word, are patiently redirected.