Until page 12 they’re only “they,” these cows, if that’s what they are. And what else could they be—given twenty-seven photographs of, er, cows, scattered in bovine patterns or attitudes throughout the chapbook? (After a single reading, one glance at a photograph can make you laugh—or start—rehearing what accompanied it.) It’s in the twelfth stanza/note of Davis’s reportage that the word “cow” first appears. But already she has made you wary of drawing conclusions about the cows. And you’re already aware that you’re seeing mere fractions of one life cycle in this particular place. “They come out from behind the barn as though something is going to happen, and then nothing happens.” But, of course, that may be only that day.
In thirty-seven pages you get a good look at them. You see these unknown, closely observed phenomena coming out from behind the barn. “Or we pull back the curtain ... and they are already there.” You see them walking —“fore, hind, fore, hind ... motionless again.” They stand in the nearby field, “with twelve legs”; and all of them survive the year. They “worry”; they make “immediate small group decisions.” But Davis is sparing with comparisons, using plain speech also for herself, as they gaze at “the strange thing in front of them.”
Many fiction writers—I’m thinking of Jane Smiley, Alice Munro; also of the Iowa boy in Deborah Eisenberg’s “Recalculating”—will wholeheartedly appreciate “The Cows” for its ways of reserving judgment while still, subliminally, judging. Poets can take the poem as the sparest model for how to write about an ultimate mystery in “long forms”; Dante himself would have appreciated it—it proceeds like one of his metaphors, of frogs or other fauna, winding down a canto. Dante never did any mortal cows; a good reason to celebrate Davis’s scenes.