An outline of a farmhouse over a collage of chicken photos
Miki Lowe

Hens

Published in The Atlantic in 2009

For millennia, poets have tried to describe the animals in their lives. Some of the most famous verses concern a particular creature—wild or adorable or filthy or dignified—closely observed. Take Elizabeth Bishop detailing the shallow, yellowed eyes of her caught fish; Mary Oliver looking up at wild geese sweeping across the sky; D. H. Lawrence tenderly cheering on a baby tortoise, “a tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.” Coming face-to-face with these strange beings, so seemingly separate from the human realm, poets have expressed wonder, bewilderment, and sometimes discomfort. A single animal, after all, can push us to consider our relationship to all species of this world. It can make us question how different we are, really, from the beasts staring back at us.

In “Hens,” the poet Henri Cole seems to contemplate just this. He turns his attention to a notably unglamorous animal: a squawking, glaring pullet named Lazarus. She’s the last one left in the coop, her sisters having presumably been eaten by another animal. Of course, she can’t change her situation; she just keeps clucking and laying eggs, doomed to ovulate on repeat until she dies. She certainly can’t articulate any loneliness or grief. Still, Cole thinks she seems wounded. Lazarus’s ignorance and inability to escape her fate are qualities that might make her seem stupid, brutish, and pathetic—but Cole seems to recognize them as deeply human.

Just like any living creature, Lazarus is fleshy, breakable, and vulnerable to intruders. Perhaps Cole loves her for this reason: Her helplessness reminds him of his own. “Yes, yes, everything will be / okay,” he tells her. You can imagine he might be talking to himself.

The original magazine page with a drawing of a hen pasted on

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