Original poem reprinted online here: "In Vitebsk There Lives a Cow" by Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Originally read: March 14, 2013
More information about the Poet: Nuala Ní Chonchúir
So this is an eckphrastic poem about the March Chagall painting "I and the Village." I'm going to write down something I haven't done in a long time -- write my first impressions of the poem, what I wrote on the page:
- Male figure taking care of the cow
- Inside further in the painting, kind of humourous
- Peace through sound and pesence
And since there's three quatrains, I think I should explore each part that I previous wrote down and see if my mind has changed.
"Male figure taking care of the cow"
Again, there's a poem in which the first line is the title. To keep the quatrain form, the writer did this -- also since the first line refers to the cow -- it's safe to assume that the cow will play a big role in the poem, at least the first stanza.
There's a contradictory image in the first line "rolling eye is as loving as a mother's" because when I think of a rolling eye there's a sense of cynicism there; however, the rolling eye could also be one that looks around but never watches.
The introduction of the "I" comes in the second line, placing the speaker inside the painting as though reporting what's going on. And the next two lines are pretty descriptive -- "breath straw and dung" (smell), "place cornmeal bread and potato scraps" (taste), "feel her spit drip onto my palms" (touch). The speaker takes the time to set up different experiences within the painting.
And rather than "taking care of" the cow or the "mother figure" the speaker is trying to create a mother figure through the simile. Or maybe not and it's a throw away image within an image.
"Inside further in the painting, kind of humorous"
Not well written there. In any case, I was wrong about the quatrains -- this is a tercet and I really didn't notice it until now. I was forcing the form onto the poem.
Rather than form, the focus here is the tactile -- the speaker places his/her cheek on her flanks and hear her "four stomachs pluck a tune" -- and here I find the lines humorous because it's so surreal; however, in the context of the poem and the painting, there's the introduction of sound from within -- and the surreal humor of the line matches the type of cubist style (I know nothing of art) that the painting portrays. I didn't look up Vitebsk lullaby, but here we go. Vitebsk is a city in Belarus where Marc Chagall was from and I think died there.
So the humorous line was an allusion not only to the style of the poem, and content, it was also an allusive line to the life of Marc Chagall.
"Peace through sound and presence"
Shtibel a Jewish prayer, Hallelujah another Jewish saying that is transposed on to the speaker. I think this goes after the lullaby -- that the song that keeps makes you asleep, the way to give thanks, and pray are all within the same scope, just different usage.
Then there's this part where "all the heads turn." Whose heads? I don't know, but there's a group of people watching the singular moment of a cow being milked by "Mama."
Looking back, I presumed that the figure in stanza 1 is a male. But what if it was a female? I think this changes the context of the poem a little -- in the sense of tenderness, represented through calm, safe images, affects the speaker. Now that I think about it -- no not really.
The main female, the mama, and the cow, contrast the harsh lines, and disruptive curves in the painting. Adding this tenderness is like emphasizing the a feeling (pastoral), that regardless of style, these traits do come through.