Life of a Cow by Lori Levy

Life of a Cow
—for David Hiskiyahu and Raquel Sobel

My family laughs at the questions I ask,
interrupting my brother-in-law, who is explaining how things work
at the dairy farm he’s managed for thirty-plus years
at Kibbutz Revivim. I feel sorry for the cows.
Is this their life? No mingling with the males,
hide pressed to hide? No sex with the bulls?
Questions of a poet, says my sister-in-law.
She works in a lab, checking food for gluten.
She asks other questions—not worried, apparently,
that the cows have no time with their husbands.
We talk about mating, which here, in this place, means
matching the best bull with the best cow.
It’s all about genetics. Sperm. Taking it, inserting it.
Sometimes the sperm is frozen and saved—injected years later,
the bull himself long dead and forgotten.

We watch the cows being milked
on the carousel machine. We visit the barn with the calves,
males separated from females, all separated from their mothers.
They are fed powdered milk, not the milk of their mothers.
My niece wants a picture with the calves.
She says she feels sorry for the inseminator.
We’re all laughing now, mostly at ourselves. The cows,
for their part, are moaning when we leave, a sound like mourning
or yearning, full of soul. Perhaps they are bellowing,
just happy to be alive. It’s the sound of my childhood:
growing up in Vermont the cows were everywhere.
Black and white. Brown. Grazing in the pastures,
a red barn nearby. I thought they were beautiful.
I didn’t worry about them then.

by Lori Levy

Editor’s Note: This narrative poem is grounded in the ordinariness of husbandry, but lurking beneath is an existential unease with which most of us can empathize, especially now.

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