“And Also Much Cattle” by Lance Larsen

At least once a week I will be posting a poem and talking about it briefly. I hope you take these as recommendations to seek out more of the poet’s work. Although I generally think literary culture is thriving these days, with more people reading than ever before, I wish more people would give poetry a chance. To me, poetry has the ability to distill thought, emotion, and language more effectively than any other literary form. And most lyric poems are quite short. If you exchanged one fifteen-minute session of wasting time on Facebook to sit down with a poem every day, you could read hundreds of poems a year. Think of the beauty you would experience!

And Also Much Cattle

What did they look like—those cows God
took notice of in sparing Nineveh?
Bland-faced no doubt, eyes big as chestnuts.
Jonah must have loathed them. Jonah under
the gourd, Jonah in his cobbled-together
martyr’s booth, sulking and praying
for plagues. Anything to teach Nineveh
a lesson. If not a cracked sky drumming
fire, then leprosy, or wells curdled
with blood. As for the cows, if Jonah
followed their grazing too long, he must
have pictured them fasting again—tricked
out in sackcloth, ashes brindling their sides.
Such cheap theatrics. Didn’t real penitence
mean casting yourself into God’s mouth,
and waking in the nave of His bowels?
Just you and an acidy soup of sin and rotting
fish. Those three days, they should have
clinched it for him—God’s golden boy.
Now Jonah wondered. He tried shutting
his eyes, tried, but the drove wouldn’t slow.
All those hooves and splattered flanks.
Cows whose only offering was a little snot
on the muzzle, maybe a cracked tongue.
Cows milling until their moos echoed
across the fatness of the afternoon
like untuned pleas deep inside a fish.

This poem comes from Lance Larsen’s first collection of poetry, Erasable Walls (1998). Lance was a professor and mentor of mine when I was an undergraduate at BYU, and the first really accomplished poet I got to know personally. He’s now the poet laureate of the state of Utah, and still teaches at BYU.

The poem takes as its point of departure the last phrase from the book of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible. After Jonah repents in the belly of the fish and returns to warn Nineveh of God’s wrath, the people of Nineveh themselves repent and are spared. But rather than being happy about this apparent success, Jonah resents God for having been so merciful. The story ends with God asking Jonah why he should be so resentful. Isn’t it his right to spare Nineveh, “that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4.11).

The story of Jonah is remarkable, especially for the Hebrew Bible, where God so often appears wrathful and remorseless. It also reflects what I think is a common human emotion: the desire to see other people punished. What could be more satisfying to Jonah than to see a good case of leprosy, or the sky “drumming with fire,” or “wells curdled with blood,” all punishments that would already have been familiar to readers of Exodus? (And what could be more satisfying to us, consumers of apocalyptic disaster movies in which major cities are regularly wiped from the map thanks to the wonders of CGI?)

A couple of specific images and words really stand out to me in this poem. First, I love the image of the “bland-faced” cows at the beginning of the poem. I worked for a semester milking cows at the BYU dairy as an undergraduate, and I remember well the bland-faced stares I used to get when trying to corral them into the milking shed at 4:30 in the morning. Not the most expressive animals.

More importantly, I love the image of “waking in the nave of His bowels,” with the echo of navel in the word nave, suggesting that the fish was both Jonah’s church, the place where he knelt in sacred submission to God, and also the site of his rebirth. And the adjective untuned” in the final line is both beautiful and precise. The vowels resonate with the cows moos from two lines previous, and “untuned” implies both that the sounds are not attuned to God, not in harmony with Him, as well as out of tune sonically. That is the sound of resentment: dissonant and ugly.