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By Dr. Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

A Poetic Reflection on Life and Death

Laura Gilpin (1950-2007), an American poet, crafted a poignant piece titled “Two-Headed Calf.” Despite its brevity, this nine-line poem captivates readers with its profound emotional impact.

The poem revolves around a calf born with two heads, condemned to meet its demise by morning. Gilpin’s words paint a vivid picture of the calf’s unfortunate fate. However, it is in this fleeting moment that the poem reveals its true power.

“Two-Headed Calf”: A Summary

The poem is divided into two stanzas: the first consisting of three lines, and the second expanding into six lines. The initial stanza focuses on the calf’s impending destiny as a “freak of nature.” The farm boys, upon discovering the newborn creature, will find it lifeless. Two-headed calves, like other genetically flawed animals, rarely survive beyond a day.

These boys will wrap the calf’s body in newspaper and bring it to the museum, where it will be exhibited as an unusual specimen for curious visitors to behold.

The second stanza transports us back to the present moment, where the calf is still alive. Accompanied by its mother, the calf resides in the north field. The poem describes a serene summer evening, with a moon casting its glow over the neighboring orchard. A gentle breeze caresses the grass, and as the calf gazes at the night sky, its dual heads perceive an abundance of stars, twice the number seen by others.

An Analysis of “Two-Headed Calf”

Gilpin’s poem is a concise yet emotionally charged lyric, encapsulating a myriad of sentiments within its nine lines. Its structure serves to evoke a profound sense of sadness. Notably, the contrast between the two stanzas is striking: “Tomorrow…” commences the first stanza, while “But tonight…” opens the second.

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This juxtaposition reminds us of our tendency to fixate on the future, thereby neglecting to appreciate and embrace the present moment. The poem serves as a gentle reminder that mortality is inevitable. Although the two-headed calf faces an untimely demise, the underlying message urges us to treasure the beauty and togetherness inherent in the present, exemplified by the sacred bond between the calf and its mother.

The first stanza employs a matter-of-fact tone, mirroring the pragmatic perspective of the farm boys who discover the deceased calf. In that brief moment of death, the calf loses its value as a farm animal. The poem questions whether the museum will offer compensation for the abnormal carcass, allowing the farmer to salvage some semblance of worth.

The phrase “freak of nature” reinforces the coldly practical, unsentimental attitude associated with the two-headed calf. This attitude is subtly undermined in the second stanza. The use of newspaper to wrap the calf’s body symbolizes transience, highlighting the ephemeral nature of the calf’s existence due to its genetic anomaly.

However, the second stanza diverges from the detached approach of the first. It draws our attention back to the calf’s single night on this earth, emphasizing the inherent beauty of nature. This beauty is not limited to the wind or the moon but also encompasses the precious but brief bond shared between mother and calf.

The poem’s closing lines poetically reach for the stars, an enduring symbol, offering the calf’s unique perspective. With its double vision, the calf beholds twice the number of stars. While this imagery could easily become trite, Gilpin skillfully employs enjambment to provide a sense of gradual and natural evolution within the poem. The calf’s biological abnormality and impending demise become vehicles for perceiving something special and extraordinary within its fleeting existence.

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Form and Technique

Laura Gilpin’s “Two-Headed Calf” is written in free verse, devoid of a traditional rhyme scheme or meter. However, traces of the classic iambic pentameter verse line can be detected. For instance, the first line nearly adheres to the structure of an iambic pentameter line, with the word “freak” carrying over to the next line instead of completing the first line.

This technique of enjambment is employed throughout the poem, with every line except the final line of each stanza flowing seamlessly into the next. This fluidity creates a gentle effect, interconnecting each element within the stanza. The calf and its mother, the shared summer night, and the calf’s unique (albeit tragic) “gift” of observing the stars are all intrinsically linked.

Enjambment serves as a provocative tool in the first stanza, subtly shocking the reader before delivering the final blow. The farm boys will not encounter “this two-headed calf” or an unfortunate being; instead, they will find a “freak of nature.” The pause created by enjambment heightens the heartlessness of this cold description.

Similarly, the revelation that the calf’s body will be wrapped in newspapers, resembling worthless rubbish, strikes the reader even harder due to the fleeting possibility of a more humane and compassionate treatment.

Ultimately, “Two-Headed Calf” is a poignant and reflective poem that celebrates the brief moments of happiness the calf experiences alongside its mother. The poem’s structure, particularly the juxtaposition between “Tomorrow” and “But tonight,” adds a poignant layer to the calf’s ignorance of the fate awaiting it in the morning. Rather than bitterness, the poem encapsulates a bittersweet tone, simultaneously mourning the impending death while celebrating the joy of being alive.

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