(REVIEW) COW, by Carolyn Hashimoto
jac common opens up the ‘several stomachs’ of the poems in COW, by Carolyn Hashimoto (Osmosis Press, 2022), in a pamphlet that ‘doesn’t fuck around’. Here is a vision of the cyborgian dystopia of the capitalocene, present in farms, slaughterhouses and the milking pens of the supermarket pastoral, with the alongside positioning of misogyny and cow bodies.
COW opens with an epigraph from Ariana Reines’s The Cow (2006), stating the biological fact that ‘[a] cow is a ruminant’. COW is anything but ruminant. Or maybe, it is, if the meaning of rumination is situated (back) into the visceral churns of cow stomachs, ducts, and glands.
The digestion of the meaning(s) takes place in semi-real dreamscapes. The first poem ‘in my waking dream i.’ brings us a first-person that blurrily follows through the pamphlet. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s you, maybe Hashimoto, maybe a cow floating high in the sky. Species boundaries dissolve in air. In ‘chimera dream’ the visions and imaginaries of a world exactly as this one appears, netting metal into the organic, where viscera like the ‘tongue of a cow, ripped from her jaw’ is boiled in murky liquids. Maybe Hashimoto is presenting a cyborgian dystopia of the capitalocene that exists all around in the farms, slaughterhouses and milking pens of the supermarket pastoral?
Through a nightmarish tone that blends the simplistic syntax of children’s books with the cold metal grates of vertinary and agricultural terminology, Hashimoto invokes an immediacy of critique and rage against objectification and the violence it engenders. At times, the poems read as inversions of a children’s story, a hallucinatory reckoning with selective breeding, forced insemination, all the organo-metallic mechanisms of domestication and subjugation of bodies. In ‘vacuum packed’, ‘you chance upon a fistulated cow’, and a wistful and twee pastoral wandering suddenly rams against veterinary terminology. ‘a walk down the lane’ takes us from the rural to the supermarket…
Past the cheeses, the milkshakes, the yogurts, the kefir. Round the corner and into the next lane…
And then back again…
There is shit on her udders, shit on her hooves.
…in a kind of recursion of industrial-consumer geographies that begin to fold toward a point or focus of destruction, of overwhelm, of disorientation.
This focussing through apparent simplicity is the thing that resonated with me most in COW. It doesn’t fuck about. Vegan or critical animal studies discourse often fucks about too much. But this pamphlet doesn’t. It doesn’t fuck about with language, with bodies, with politics. Rather than lean into ‘philosophical gourmandizing’ on non-human animals, it reclaims rumination from theorists and brings it back down into the enteric spaces of cows where, through the several stomachs of these poems, rumination becomes the possibility of a trampling hoof of vengeance or a supernatural force of judgment. Each deceptively simplistic prose poem becomes a lens of the shock of trauma at seeing ‘a cow in the jaw of a JCB digger’. The plain and obvious facts of how cows are [ab]used are presented in the starkest of electric light, the kind found illuminating supermarket aisles and milking sheds of Hashimoto’s poems. In the glare of her poetics, you might retreat into dissonance or dismissal of the violences done to objectified bodies, but the poems demand a lingering with these nightmares.
Amongst the starkness of agricultural mechanization meeting the romantic pastoralism, animal bodies also bleed and rip and fester and shit. In ‘[fart]’, this abject becomes a kind of effluent refusal against patriarchal capitalist violence.
Your mother is lazy, she ruminates and regurgitates, and she farts’ … Don’t hurry the slurry
Is there something here about attention to shit and piss and vomit, those liquids that logics of sanitation remove literally through infrastructures of sewer systems, or aesthetically through the romanticised images of farming and production? Instead and against, Hashimoto summons them in horrendous, but potentially joyful, visible volumes.
Key to COW is the alongside positioning of misogyny and cow bodies. In ‘[ ] cow’, there is an almost barbed-wire-like weaving of the sexual violence done to farmed animals and the undergirding objectification of misogyny that it relies on and perpetuates:
sad cow poor cow fat cow old cow stupid cow mother cow child cow baby cow hungry cow cow walking in a line with other cows cow attached to metal pumps…
Square brackets populate the poems, and ‘[ ] cow’ is a kind of glossary of all the epithets you could attach to a cow, maybe inviting a return to it each time a [ ] opens up elsewhere. Are the brackets a vessel to be filled, a punctuation object that awaits meaning in a way that cows (and all bodies positioned as exploitable based on their reproductive anatomy) as ‘object … objective … objectified’, are loaded with signification?
But the ruminant and rumination becomes a metabolic and poetic process of breaking and reconstituting the languages and tools of patriarchal violence. For example, in a walk down the lane:
You’re not a fat cow You’re not a stupid cow You’re not a greedy co You’re not a vile attention seeking cow Fuck this, says you
Hashimoto shatters temporality and flows back up itself, maybe like cud is vomited back up by ruminants to be chewed again between bovine molars. Are lines like this refusing those designations, the objectified vessel of [ ]? Or are they inverting them to say you are a fat cow, that taking a ‘shit in the dairy aisle’ is a radical abject act of refusal and revolution?
In ‘holey cow’, the attention turns to fistulated cows. These are cows, and sometimes other ruminants like goats or sheep, with holes surgically cut into their side which allows ‘the scientist, farmer, curious child, to reach in at their leisure’. Hashimoto (or you, or calf, or me) asks: ‘Why does the cow not kick? Why does the cow not run?’. These could be the confusions in the unanswerable entrapments we might encounter ourselves in and with other species. But I think here a more diffuse, perhaps more urgent, question appears that recurs blurry throughout the pamphlet: what are the other taxonomies, phylogenies, genealogies other than species we might trace in building solidarity?
A possible answering to these explicit and implicit questions is given a bit later in ‘holey cow’: ‘But maybe that’s how the stupid cow likes it.’ This arrives after a sequence of fantastical possibilities of the fistula chopping off the invading scientist, farmer, curious child’s limbs. The meaning of ‘stupid’ - one of epithets offered to fill the [ ] vessel in [ ] cow - maybe takes on a new meaning, one attempting to levitate away from its ableist and sexist associations into something reclaimed by animalised bodies as a source of power. A power so strong it might ‘conspire against you’. And this reconstitution of ‘stupid’ will return later as the judgement begins (‘maybe the stupid cow[s] knew all along’).
The crux or inflection point is announced over a supermarket tannoy, about halfway through the pamphlet, in an untitled piece:
This is a message for all customers This is not a nightmare. We repeat. This is not a nightmare.’
From here on the apocalyptic Judgment begins. ‘mince’ heralds this conceptual and imaginary shift with ‘For cow so loved the earth that she sacrificed her only son…’; in ‘maybe the stupid cow[s] knew all along’, ‘the meek’ levitate away from the earth in a ‘twist of sarcastic fate’ during this animal eschaton (if they are the meek and leaving, what does that make us, you, the consumer, who now have ‘the earth as an inheritance’?)
‘clean it up’ returns to the slurry, imagining an apocalypse that’s liquefactual and visceral, where the levitating animals ‘might be halfway through a shit when they began’. Again, what would otherwise be absorbed by sewers (of many kinds) is on display in the dairy aisle, where the liquids of blood and shit and milk are not some sort of horrific inversion of animal produce but its abject totality. In ‘the end’, ‘The survivors. You - the un-naked humans’ are:
Here amongst piles of discarded waste - the spilt milk, the fetal matter, the rump steaks, the chicken thighs, the birds pecked to death in the rush, the piles of steaming shit, the quagmire, and the rising stench.
Yes, ‘This is not a nightmare’. The viscera and sewerage has leaked and flooded into y/our waking.
The not-nightmare is phantasmagoric and lit by blue fly-zapping lights. In ‘bacon’, ‘Pigs are pink because we made them that way. Pigs are pink because you made them that way.’ The consumer is directly implicated in, but more than that they’re accused of causing the deformations and mutiliations on display. However, it feels as though there could be more attention to the experiences and harm done to marginalised workers in agriculture, or perhaps a dissolution of a monolithic ‘consumer’. Because of inequalities around food access, often drawn along racist, ableist, sexist and classist lines, many consumers are also placed in positions where autonomous decision-making around food is difficult or impossible. There’s a gesture toward the alienation and harm faced by human workers in animal-based suppy chains in ‘the fish’:
The sea workers too. Sea workers die unnatural deaths too. See, workers get caught in fishing nets too.
Nonetheless, I felt the strengths of this pamphlet could be tightened even more by a reckoning-with the networks of inequality and violence that pervade all parts of the neoliberal food system.
These are poems of accusation, of jabbing, of folding negatives upon negatives. There’s something in this that might reflect the many fractal layers of capitalism’s violence upon animalised bodies (non-human or otherwise) - the further you go down the more spiralogic it becomes, a place ‘you just can’t imagine’. As the farmed animals float away, we are left with unseeing and unknowing. As COW fades out, exploited, subjugated animalised bodies levitate to a place outside of capital conception and extraction. The ‘commodious commodity’ of the cow - the [ ] - is empty.
Text: jac common
Photo: jac common