WHO ever knew cows had more than one stomach? I didn’t, not until the day Timothy Dore did his cow act, chewing on grass, ruminating, chewing some more, lulled into a faraway gaze of utter contentment. No, his subject was not geography or agriculture; it was the pity of war, and the word in question: cud.
This was thirty years ago, perhaps twenty-nine, when I was a first- or second-year student in Raffles Junior College. A Wilfred Owen class was in session, and our poem was Dulce Et Decorum Est.
I remember that young soldier in the gas attack, the one who failed to slip his mask on in time. I remember the blood gurgling forth from his “froth-corrupted lungs / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues.” And yes, I remember the hissing sibilants (“Devil’s sick of sin”) and the half-spat plosives (“Drunk,” “deaf,” “blind,” “bitter,” “cancer,” “blood”), and of course, there was “cud” in line 23. That was the word Mr. Dore was trying to get at—one of several words in this 28-line poem he had chosen to dwell on, to explain and amplify, either for meaning or figurative sense, making cud something like the ninth word after “hags,” “sludge,” “flares,” “Five-Nines,” “floundr’ing,” “lime,” “green light,” and “green sea.”
We see his jaws working up a slow, deliberate chew—a rhythmic, circular grinding of the teeth. Then he swallows, his Adam’s apple jiggling a little, and his belly snaps abruptly inward so that a cough erupts.
“Then the cow coughs up everything she’s just swallowed,” he explains with a look of relish on his face. “Ahhh, and she chews it again. That’s cud.”
We turn up our faces with a sour grimace. Ew … Gross!
And so the process goes, moo-moo cow swallows chewed grass and parks it away in the first stomach (technically, the first of four chambers in the stomach called the rumen), reserving it for another joyous chew later, at tea-time perhaps. All she needs to do is cough, and voila, there’s cud.
Years hence, the whole scene and taste of bitter cud would come flooding back when I searched the word “ruminate”:
ruminate (v) [ no obj. ]
1. think deeply about something: we sat ruminating on the nature of existence.
2. (of a ruminant) chew the cud.
Who ever knew that ruminate would take me back to cud by way of a ruminant, a cow? I could see Mr. Dore’s spaced-out, faraway gaze all over again, and hear his bucolic bovine performance. Penny for your thoughts, sir?
No teacher in my lifetime at school was so devoted to semantics the way Mr. Dore was. He never spoke of vocabulary, he never ever whined that we should look up words. He didn’t have to because the way he taught, Literature and vocabulary were the same thing. Words maketh Literature, and why should he begrudge the time to explain a word, or a phrase, or an image?
Written in September 2015, this five-part essay is a toast to Timothy Dore, the Literature teacher who taught Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, Wilfred Owen’s war poems, James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and the million mysteries and joys of Literature to the class of 1986/87 in Raffles Junior College.
Look out for Part II next Wednesday, 30 March 2016: Mister Dore (Part II)
You might also enjoy: