by Gillian Clarke
Q Is it a true story?
A As true as I can remember it.
Q Who’s speaking in the first two lines?
A The vet. It was my grandmother’s farm. The cow was about to calve. I’d never seen a calf born and I wanted to be there. I wanted to be a vet when I grew up. The cow was in trouble and the vet thought I was too young to watch, in case it turned out badly.
Q How old were you?
A I don’t know. 8. 10. Something like that.
Q Why did you say you were stuck with it?
A When you’ve whinged and wined for something, it’s hard to admit you’ve changed your mind. I was a bit scared by what the vet said, but I stayed anyway, ‘brazening out the cowshed and the chance of horror’.
Q Why do you use a word like brazening and what does it mean?
A Adults used to say someone was ‘brazen’, or ‘bold as brass’, cheeky, never admitting you’re wrong. I use brazening as a verb. If you use a good verb you never need an adverb. I chose all the verbs carefully: ‘brazening’, ‘gloved’, ‘wrenched’, ‘hung’, ‘swam’, ‘furled’. I think they make a difference. What if, instead, I’d used something like ‘was’, ‘went’, ‘came’, or ‘did’ instead of some of those words?
Q Why do you say the cow’s belly is a cathedral?
A I’ve often thought that walking in a cathedral is like being inside the rib cage of a giant animal. A baby is small, curled inside the bag of water in the mother’s body. Her heart beats like a bell in the ears of the baby. Bells tell us the time. It was time for the calf to be born.
Q What is the horror?
A Well, it might have turned out badly. The cow had been calling for ages. You only send for the vet in an emergency. The calf might have died. I was scared.
Q What is the pool?
A The pool is the amniotic fluid in which the calf ‘swims’ before birth. When the vet broke the waters, it became ‘a rope of water’. The rope hints that you ring a church bell with a rope. In the last verse the calf is a salmon, and the waters are a waterfall.
Q Why do you say ‘his brimming mother’?
A The cow brims with milk, like a full vessel.
Q It has a happy ending, but why did you put in horror words like knife and butchery?
A I wanted a contrast between the worst that might have happened, and the beautiful moment when the calf was born, wet and shining, ready to be licked clean and fed by his mother. Magic!