By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Two-Headed Calf’ is a short poem by the American poet Laura Gilpin (1950-2007). If Gilpin had written nothing else besides this nine-line poem she would be fondly remembered by many, because in this short piece she manages to pack as much powerful emotion as we find in many longer poems.
The poem is about a calf which is born with two heads and is due to die by the morning as a result. You can read ‘Two-Headed Calf’ here before proceeding to our summary of the poem, and an analysis of its meaning and form.
‘Two-Headed Calf’: summary
The poem is divided into two stanzas: one of three lines and another of six lines. The first stanza focused on what will happen to the calf born with two heads, a ‘freak of nature’, tomorrow. The boys who work on the farm will discover the newly born animal and he will already be dead, since two-headed calves – or calves born with other genetic defects – don’t usually live for more than a day.
These boys will wrap his body in newspaper and carry him to the museum where his body will be displayed for visitors to gawp at him as an unusual specimen.
The second stanza of the poem then returns to the present moment, tonight, while the calf is still alive. He is alive, Gilpin tells us, with his mother in the north field. It is a perfect summer evening with the moon over the nearby orchard and the wind singing through the grass, so there is a gentle breeze. And when the calf stares up at the night sky, because he has two heads, he sees twice as many stars as others usually see.
‘Two-Headed Calf’: analysis
Gilpin’s poem is a short lyric which expresses a great deal of emotion in just nine lines of verse. There is much to admire in the structure of the poem, and the structure helps to unleash the quiet sadness of the poem. There is, to begin, the gentle contrast between the beginnings of the two stanzas: ‘Tomorrow …’ begins the first, ‘But tonight …’ the second.
Gilpin appears to be reminding us that we often worry about the future and, as a result, fail to appreciate, or even live in, the moment. We are all going to die: the two-headed calf’s death will come much sooner to him, when he has barely lived, but the broader point is that many of us can be so consumed with thinking about what the future will bring that we don’t stop to appreciate the present moment in all its beauty and togetherness (here it is significant that the calf is with his mother).
The first stanza is almost coldly matter-of-fact in its language, channelling the attitudes of the farm boys who will discover the dead calf, his value as a farm animal vanished in the moment of his death, the only pragmatic decision being to see if the museum will pay some money for his abnormal carcass so the farmer can reclaim something of value from him.
The phrase ‘freak of nature’ reinforces this practical, unsentimental attitude towards the two-headed calf, an attitude which is then undercut by the second stanza. The newspaper is significant, too, symbolising the ephemeral, here-today-gone-tomorrow quality which the calf, through being born with a genetic aberration, embodies.
But then the second stanza turns from such a cold-light-of-day approach and returns to the one night the calf has on this earth, emphasising the beauty of nature which is exemplified not just by the wind or the moon but by the mother-son bond which the cow and her calf share all too briefly.
The final lines of ‘Two-Headed Calf’ poetically reach for that most poetic of symbols, the stars, and adopt the calf’s view of the sky above, where he can see twice as many stars because he possesses twice as many eyes.
What might have been a glib, overly neat image is kept delicately in check by the poem’s masterly use of enjambment (of which more in a moment), allowing the tacit ‘moral’ of the poem to unfold naturally and gradually: the calf may be biologically abnormal and destined not to survive as a result, but in his brief moment of life he can use his abnormality to his advantage and see something special and unusual.
‘Two-Headed Calf’: form
Laura Gilpin’s poem is written in free verse. This means the poem has no rhyme scheme and no regular metre or rhythm. However, as so often in free verse poems, we can detect the ghost of the classic iambic pentameter verse line behind Gilpin’s poem: for example, the first line is almost a complete line of iambic pentameter, but with ‘freak’ carried over to the next line instead of completing the first.
And this carrying over is something that we see at the end of every line of ‘Two-Headed Calf’ except the final line of each of the two stanzas. This technique is known as enjambment: in other words, the running-over of a sentence or phrase from one line to the next, without punctuation at the end of the line. So we get ‘this / freak’, ‘body / in newspaper’, ‘north / field’, and so on.
This creates a fluid, gentle effect in which each aspect of the stanza is interrelated: the calf to his mother; both of them to the summer night they share together; the calf’s special (if tragic) ‘gift’ and the different view of the stars it affords him.
This is in the second stanza; in the first, the enjambment serves as a shock-tactic, giving us a moment’s pause before the killer blow is delivered: when the farm boys find, not this two-headed calf or this unfortunate soul, but this ‘freak of nature’: cold words which are all the more heartless for the pause that precedes them.
Similarly, that his body will not be ceremoniously wrapped in blankets but in newspapers, like so much rubbish, strikes us all the more harshly because we had entertained, if only for a brief flicker, the possibility of something more human and humane.
In the last analysis, then, ‘Two-Headed Calf’ is a moving poem which also celebrates the transient happiness the calf can experience with his mother. Of course, there is an added poignancy to the poem, and its ‘Tomorrow’/‘But tonight’ structure, in the fact that the calf cannot know of the fate that awaits him in the morning. Like those run-on lines, there is a bitter surprise waiting around the corner.
But the poem is bittersweet rather than bitter: it celebrates the joy to be found while we are alive even as it mourns, without quite mourning, the death-to-come.