Nancy Geyer

Nancy Geyer

In her chapbook The Cows, Lydia Davis begins with the promise of drama:

Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play.

They amble out from the far side of the barn with their rhythmic, graceful walk, and it is an occasion, like the start of a parade.

We can’t help but laugh because we know—or think we know—cows. And in this instance, anyway, we’re right:

They come out from behind the barn as though something is going to happen, and then nothing happens.

We’re only a handful of lines in, and already we can guess that The Cows will have no action to speak of—no tension, no arc—a kind of anti-drama.

When Davis moved to rural upstate New York, she longed for cows in the empty field across the road from her home. She didn’t have to wait long. Within a few months, without any prodding from her, the people who owned the land bought three heifers. Day after day, season after season, over several years, Davis observed them from her kitchen window and from her neighbors’ fence. The Cows is a record of these observations, but that’s not all it is. What Davis is really doing, over and over again—until she exhausts every perceptual possibility—is discovering new ways of seeing.

Our own focus, in this craft essay, is on language. And what we notice early on is that Davis, in her inimitable, humorous way, takes her cues from the cows. Just as a cow seems to us to live a simple life—“It is hard to believe a life could be so simple, but it is just this simple. It is the life of a ruminant, a protected domestic ruminant”—Davis’s sentences are simple. They can even be plodding and repetitive (though like the cows’ gait as they emerge from the barn, her sentences can be graceful, too):

Today, two appear halfway out from behind the barn, standing still. Ten minutes go by. Now they are all the way out, standing still. Another ten minutes go by. Now the third is out and they are all three in a line, standing still.

Very occasionally the cows will buck or prance or break into a canter, but mostly “they make slow progress here and there in the field,” which is not unlike how we read Davis. She writes as if she were a cow; we read at an ambling pace.

And then there’s the field. Because Davis’s paragraphs are short (some only a sentence long) and are surrounded by white space, the page becomes, yes, a field.*  It’s almost as if the words themselves are in a field. As if the words are cows, and vice versa:

Against the snow, in the distance, coming head-on this way, separately, spaced far apart, they are like wide black strokes of a pen.

I love how this passage, with its “wide black strokes of a pen” (my emphasis), evokes both writing and drawing. We have a terrific example of what Rebecca McClanahan calls “word painting,” the art of writing descriptively. We even have the materials of art: pen—I conjure a goose quill—and ink. The result is a pastoral sketch—the chapbook a series of sketches—albeit without the idealization (the enemy of seeing) that we find in the pastoral tradition.

I always forget that there are actual images in The Cows—photographs taken by Davis and others—because it’s the written images that stick in my mind. They linger in part because, cow-like, they are about lingering. They demonstrate, by way of example, what I think of as Davis’s subtext: that how deeply we see is a function of time—and, by implication, of the pace of our own, human, lives:

Spaced out evenly over the pale yellow-green grass of late November, one, two, and three, they are so still, and their legs so thin, in comparison to their bodies, that when they stand sideways to us, sometimes their legs seem like prongs, and they seem stuck to the earth.

One more:

Her head is down, and she is grazing within a circle of darkness that is her own shadow.


Deliberate pacing, repetition, spare pages: Davis clearly is having fun with the aptness of it all, as are we, which is no small thing. But there’s more to it than playfulness. By allowing our subject to guide our writing, we can enhance our exploration of that subject. First, though, we may have to suspend our own aesthetic preferences and notions of craft.

I doubt, for example, that John H. Culver ever aspired to write as flatly as he does in “The Final Day in Rome,” but then fate had its own ideas. (Alert: You might want to read “Final Day,” just four pages, before continuing. It’s in Best American Essays 2014 and on the Gettysburg Review’s website.)

We begin, and for the most part remain, in the waiting room of Rome’s largest hospital, which Culver describes matter-of-factly:

The waiting room in the ER at Rome’s Policlinico was a vast rectangle with four banks of chairs set facing each other in a much smaller rectangle. One group of chairs was missing a front stabilizer, which meant that any time someone sat down or stood up, the rest of the chairs moved in unison.

These first two sentences aren’t much of a hook, but the mere mention of an emergency room is enough to keep us reading, past the mundane details that follow: the “faded tan walls that were covered with a variety of posters providing health tips and warnings”; the reruns of Quincy and Starsky & Hutch, dubbed in Italian; the way a woman repeatedly wraps toilet paper around her hands and then unwraps it; the regular mopping around the chairs that “[tinges] the air with a whiff of disinfectant”—a whiff we might be tempted to seize upon as a good descriptor of the writing, a tad sterile.

The narrator, “wondering if [an unnamed] she would live or die,” records things because his mind “was not holding on to facts or the sequence of events that had brought me to a hospital in Rome at the end of what had been a glorious day.” This propensity to record contributes to a tone that is largely without affect. It’s as if the writing follows the example of the medical staff, who must calmly perform their tasks, as must the narrator hold it together during a crisis, especially given how far he is from home:

Contemporary American pop tunes were playing in the ER. The staff went about their business, giving injections, inserting tubes, and cleaning the graybrown seepage from the brain of the man in the bed next to hers. Many sets of eyes were on me as I looked at her. She was comatose, her chest rising and falling with shallow breaths, a ventilator in her throat. I said good-bye for her daughters, two grandchildren, and myself.

Though he occasionally paces the waiting room, and says at one point that he “collected himself as best I could,” the only emotions he actually conveys are the sorrow and concern that others direct toward him:

I arranged for her to be cremated and the ashes returned to me by air at an international airport, since the urn had to clear customs. I gave her clothes to a maid at the hotel who knew no more English than I did Italian, but her sorrowful look said she was aware of her morte.

On first reading, I knew that Culver’s tone belonged to a narrator who couldn’t make sense of a life turned suddenly upside down, and yet the tone still puzzled and discomfited me—more so than did the crisis at hand. But when I got to the end, where the narrator is on a plane home to the U.S., I understood, shatteringly, how right it was that the writing, too, was on automatic pilot, in keeping with the altered state that was Culver’s subject: “We were flying west with the sun. I dreaded the return to earth.”


Writing in a language that so thoroughly suits your subject doesn’t necessarily mean suppressing your own voice. In The Cows, Davis’s wit is intact, as is the Zen-like philosophical tenor of much of her writing, which finds agreement in the cows: “Just because they are so still, their attitude seems philosophical.” (Entirely absent, though, is the radical compression she’s famous for. What we have instead, in these 38 pages, is a kind of dilation, like a pupil letting in more light.)

In Culver’s “Final Day,” however, voice is suppressed, in the sense that the voice we hear is not unique to the writer. Numb, it lacks what Judith Kitchen, borrowing from the lingo of poker, would call a “tell.” It could belong to almost anyone unfortunate enough to be in the writer’s situation.

One last thing about “Final Day”: It’s written in the past tense. Present tense would draw us near, whereas Culver wants us at a remove. In an attempt to preserve the experience of being in that waiting room, the narrator recounts the scene without the hindsight usually afforded by the past tense, in a tone that conveys his state of mind more powerfully than had that state been described to us directly.


I have to admit that I’m attracted to these works, and to others like them (D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir is a great book-length example, in which the form echoes the grid of a post-war tract development outside L.A.), in part because they tend to contradict much of the craft advice I’ve heard over the years. And no wonder! Such advice is typically generic, dispensed without the subject in mind—and subjects have their own ideas about craft. They may refuse to move quickly, or allow us the time-honored techniques of storytelling, or permit us the full use of our voices. They’re willing to try readers’ patience or risk keeping us at a distance. They don’t necessarily insist on novel techniques, but they do insist on suitable ones, which can result in something novel, after all. Subjects like these demand that writers and readers alike think outside our literary boxes so that, through language, we might discover new ways to know them.

* Both the “field effect” and the photographs are absent in Davis’s latest collection, Can’t and Won’t, in which the material from the The Cows has been republished.


Nancy Geyer’s writing can be found in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, and The Iowa Review, among other journals, and is forthcoming in two anthologies: Pushcart Prize XXXIX: Best of the Small Presses, and Brief Encounters, edited by Judith Kitchen and Dinah Lenney (W.W. Norton). She lives in Washington, D.C., where she is working on a collection of essays.