Poetry Porch: Poetry

Remarks by Joyce Wilson
on the composition of her poem “One Cow Stands Quietly” 
and on the Daniel Varoujan Award 2002, New England Poetry Club

        This poem was inspired by an article from the AP wire service that I read in 1996. It concerned the war between Russians in Chechnya: “One cow stands quietly, still alive, with her stomach hanging out from a gash in her side.” (Chechen rebels had fought Russians for two years, forcing them to withdraw in 1996. Armies returned in 1999 after a series of deadly bombings in Moscow apartments and rebel incursions into other territories, now called acts of terrorism. I wanted to treat these rebels as innocents at first. But with the passage of time, I couldn’t.) 

        The tradition of Daniel Varoujan, the Armenian poet who was killed in the first genocide of the twentieth century by the Turks in 1915, is a tradition of abundant imagery. His poetry communicates the spirit of a young man filled with the riches of life. 

by Daniel Varoujan

My field is burnished gold. 
without fire 
my wheatfield burns.

My field is honeygold. 
The edge of day melts down
to fill its honeycomb
in coils of brown. 

My field is ambergold.
Rows of corn
catch yellow butterflies
with nets of sun. 

My field’s a golden nest. 
For swallow wings at rest, 
for bumblebee and wasp,
a hive about to burst. 

(Translated by Diana Der-Hovanessian) 

        Varoujan wrote this poem while he was in jail waiting execution. The imagery here conveys a freedom that he remembered in his village. His last poems were ransomed, smuggled out of prison to a priest, and published six years after his death. 

        I wasn’t thinking of the Daniel Varoujan Prize when I began my poem. But after I finished it, I know I had a suitable subject and theme. I knew I had come upon a strong image when I read the article about the cow and Chechnya. I sensed that this was an image suitable for a political poem that would speak of the horrors of war and uphold the value of life. This domestic animal, which provides for families in an agrarian society and continues to have a role in the current economy of the world, has been wounded, undoubtedly mortally wounded. At first, I focused on the cow as a feminine animal. But this version of the poem didn’t work. Then I realized that the important focus was not the maternal aspect of the cow but the cow as an animal with a stomach. Cows are ruminants, which means their stomachs have many chambers to digest their food. Ruminant is from the Latin rumen, or throat, referring to the stage of digestion in which the animal regurgitates its food to chew it again, or chew its cud. (The Indo-European root reue, means to open, or open space, as in room, and then rummage, which means to search by turning over). This word, in the verb form ruminate, has come to mean to ponder, to chew an idea over and over, to think and rethink. This process of meditation is one that is being addressed in the image of the cow without a stomach, or with a stomach that is in the process of being removed from its body because of a wound. I had these layers of definitions in mind when I rewrote the poem. While the early versions were in free verse, I put this version in more carefully structured trimeter. But I did not allow rhyme to creep in until the end. 

Joyce Wilson
November 4, 2002