On the cover of Until the Cows Come Home, a poetry chapbook by Alain Ginsberg, there’s an illustration of a cow skull sitting in some water in a field under some jagged mountains and a muted sky. The skull’s been there a while; it’s bleached and there are already things growing from it. In the title poem, the bulls there have a similar end. They’ve gone to the slaughterhouse and aren’t coming home. But these bulls are real-life victims of fatal gun violence by police and others. (Which particular shooting is hard to say; these days, there are so many.) The bodies are numerous and varied—genderless, queer, in Baltimore, in New Orleans, in Orlando, trans, and “on display.” They form a pool of blood, “big enough to swim in,” a pool so big that people are commenting “how human / you must be to swim and not also drown.” By the end, the speaker closes their eyes—
…all I see is blood,
when they open I feel it leak out of one of our bodies
and for this I should be proud, to bleed the same blood,
to outlive a foreign pack of the same beasts, to walk the streets
of Baltimore and not have people comment on how scared I am
to know how to swim
—neither and both human and animal. This queer state is continued. In the next poem, “Breathing Studies,” they wonder, “If the body is mostly water, why is it hard to believe […] I’ve never measured how much of me is drowning / at any given time.” In the next, “The Worst Part of About Being Alive Is You Can Only Kill Yourself Once,” the speaker must become (or “unbecome”) “both exit and exit wound.” In the next, they pass a chapel at the university hospital on their way to “the shock trauma” and, next, enter the trauma unit where they learn “the greatest trick” of existing “as something that simultaneously / wants to die, live, not be killed, and not exist in the same breath.” Within scenarios and “Scenarios, After Anti-Trans Legislature” in bathrooms and public restrooms, they don’t eat or drink to avoid these places, not existing in legislation or in public and also existing in it. This ends in the final poem, “A Poisonous Thing,” where everyday living meets survival myth, where the speaker’s doctor suggests they “change the gender marker / on my id from M for monster to F for feral thing. / I tell her that both will be wrong.”
The book is 16 relentless poems one right after the other. Ginsberg writes in the indicative, not about what ought to be or what something might be like, but using metaphor and everyday language so that the reader may experience this particular state of being as it is, connected to communities and reality in a way that is and isn’t shareable. This is different from confession. It doesn’t rely on a need to disclose. It’s a yelling, respiration, a (re)building through a familiar terrain of confessional pioneers and followers—depression, suicide, grief, trauma, sex, alcohol, family, religion—in a way that makes the reader wonder if they have actually ever walked through this terrain. It does not point toward resolution. The title itself recreates this experience. “Until the cows come home” is familiar, even colloquial—colloquial in that it is supposed to be a common language, a shared language, a community language. The cover and title poem may have readers believing they understand this colloquialism—the cows aren’t coming home. But is this expression only that dark? For some, they understand it to mean that the cows do come home. They just take their time, as cows do. Some focus on cows’ ability to wander off and find another place to graze, their need to be persuaded to come back “home.” Funny, the first known written usage is from the 1616 play The Scornful Lady, where the wild younger brother tells his buddies,
Come, my brave man of war, trace out thy darling;
And you, my learned council, set and turn, boys;
Kiss till the cow come home; kiss close, kiss close, knaves;
My modern poet, thou shalt kiss in couplets.
Which of these Ginsberg might believe is not settled in the book and probably won’t be settled, at least not right now. Instead of clarity, there’s a longing, a longing for some impossible common language, one that doesn’t erase identity. Ginsberg writes,
Where do you hide when
you know no one wants to
find the you that vomits
brick walls and bullet casings,
bruised faces or bruised knees,
(all choices cause some damage)
begging for a language to be
understood by anyone other than the toilet….
In Ginsberg’s book, the impossible becomes the possible, not metaphorically, but indicatively—a perspective that can only come from being in a world that is denying your very existence. In the end, this impossible state becomes “A Poisonous Thing,” as the speaker of the last poem describes themself:
a poisonous flower, call me by my other names,
call me wisteria, foxglove, rhododendron.
If the world is trying to consume me whole
than it should be prepared to feel
death in it’s body live a good harvest.
It’s a welcome poison, but not one you are going to find just anywhere. Until the Cows Come Home was published and is distributed by Elation Press, a “DIY // punk // distro // community project.” Visit alainginsberg.com for more details.