Friday, 17 October 2014


Just round the corner from my house is a cattle farm.  Sometimes the cattle bellow loudly, especially when the suckler herd calves are being separated from the cows.  In the morning the farmer apologises to me for the noise in case it kept me awake at night.  But it didn't.  I grew up on a small cattle farm and I never notice the bellowing - like someone who lives by a railway line never notices trains.

But reading Jim Carruth's Prodigal recently got me thinking about cattle poems.

Jim grew up on a dairy farm in the lowlands of Scotland and that background imbues many of his poems.  I was particularly taken with "Searchlight" which describes how as a toddler he was "double-wrapped in heavy woollens" and "wedged snug in the open mouth of a ten gallon can" while his parents milked their herd of Ayrshires.

It reminded me of another dairy farmer's son, Les Murray, whose poem "Infant among cattle" is the December poem in "The Idyll Wheel".  Here the small child is "safetypinned to a stocking / that is tied to a bench leg" by his parents who "machine the orphaned milk / from their cows".  The title and the month suggest a modern nativity but the poem ends with the arrival of the enormous bull who is driven away "with buckets and screams and a shovel" - he seems "a sad apparition: / a huge prostrate man, bewildered by a pitiless urgency".

You can read another of Jim's cattle poems, "Herd", at
It's a beautifully observed poem which ends with the declining sun stretching "a blessing across their backs" but also drawing the poet and reader into "the undertow / that's pulling us all back home".  It's a bringing-the cows-in-for milking poem, as is Norman MacCaig's "Fetching Cows" which features an alternative viewpoint of the collie - the cows are too obedient ("The collie's bored.  There's nothing to control").  Collie as control freak - some truth in that.

The subject of Les Murray's "The Cows on Killing Day" could not be more of a contrast.  It is devastatingly virtuosic and convincing, written in a collective first person singular cow/cattle viewpoint.  It begins "All me are standing on feed".  It is the viewpoint of the herd.

When I went to Tuscany recently I was introduced to Billy Collins' poem "Afternoon with Irish Cows" - this is an outsider's view of cows and  you will be glad to know that no cow was hurt in the making of this poem.  You can hear and watch the poet reading it on youtube

But where are the women writing about cows?  A quick search on-line threw up Red Devon (the title a reversal of the name of a breed of cattle) by Hilary Menos.  Steven Lovatt in the New Welsh Review describes the collection as "snarled in baler twine, interlarded with blood and tractor fuel, knee-high in thistles and positively slick with slurry".  Should be some cows in there somewhere.

Cows are more peripheral in some of the other poems I thought about.  Gillian Clarke's moving poem, "Marged", about women and what they do and do not share, imagines the previous inhabitant of her house, calling "through the mud ... her single cow / up from the field, under the sycamore".  Those few words convey the isolation and poverty of Marged.

Esther Morgan's "To Manor Farm Only" (Grace) is more about the absence of cows - they have been taken indoors for the winter.  As night falls "the stars [are] moving in their slow herds / as you leave the last gate open."

Then there is cow as Hebridean geography in Jane Routh's "The Red Cow" in Teach Yourself Mapmaking:
the red cow is
   "sitting on the waves and chewing a cud of tangle,
    the curve of her spine and bony haunches
    darker than a Hereford's, a rich red
    among the Glas Eileans and Sgeir Dubhs".
[green islands and black rocks]

Cows only make it by allusion into Josephine Dickinson's poem entitled "Where Were You When I Came In from the Evening Milking" (from The Voice).  The poem has an elegiac tone with the repetitions of "Where Were You?" and the heart-catching ending - "I thought for a second you were standing there. / It was not you, it was the setting sun."

It's clear that poems about cows are rarely a joking matter.  For light relief I turn back to Jim Carruth's Prodigal and "Vade Mecum", subtitled "Excerpts from the Farmer's Guide to Effective Foreplay completed in his early eighties by Wullie Douglas".  I am laughing aloud.

Monday, 6 October 2014


A person "who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority", said Dr Johnson, as a fellow Cumbrian writer reminded me a few weeks ago.  Well, now I have remedied that deficiency: I've visited the land of Dante and Petrarch at last.  

I stayed at Lippiano, a small village in the upper Tiber valley, for a week.  The village has a castle, a church, a palazzo, a post office, a bus stop and a bar.  At the weekend there was a fiesta, "The Fiesta of the Wooden Spoon" (I never found out why).  The hitherto quiet and almost deserted streets filled up with market stalls, music and dancing, and the bar did a roaring trade.  

The village is built of a beautiful yellow stone, like Cotswold stone.  Nearby are the heavily wooded Apennine Hills where wolves still live, perhaps descendants of the legendary wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.  I did not see a wolf but I did see the delightful little lizards that basked on the stones of the castle walls.  

It was a good week for working on poems.  I wrote one about the barrel-tiled roofs so characteristic of this part of Italy.  I went to see the Madonna del Parto fresco, painted by Piero della Francesca circa 1460 and wrote a poem about her too, only to find that Jorie Graham had got there first.  Fortunately her version is nothing like mine.  For some reason she titles the poem "San Sepulchro" although the fresco is in Monterchi.

When I finally got home on Saturday night there was the usual stack of bills and circulars waiting, and also a plump A5 envelope - Jim Carruth's latest poems, Prodigal, beautifully published by Mariscat press.  It's good to be home.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


A new poem on the front page of a national newspaper?  Well done to the Guardian for doing just this  last Saturday when the press were catching up with the results of the Scottish referendum.  Well done too to Carol Ann Duffy who is so successfully fulfilling her role of poet laureate.  You can read the poem at

Monday, 15 September 2014


It’s almost 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down.  I’ve just returned from a visit to my good friend who lives in Germany.  I went on a German Wings flight from Manchester.  Browsing the in-flight magazine I read that the anniversary will be marked by an art installation of 12 kilometres of illuminated white helium balloons along the route of what was the wall.  The magazine contained interviews with some of the artists involved and each of them was asked about that momentous day of 9 November 1989.  Some were at school, some were students, some were involved in political activism, some were travelling.  All of them spoke of their amazement at what happened and the sense that they were involved in history in the making.  The white balloons symbolise freedom.  Hope for a world without walls.

My friend lives in Kiel, on the Baltic coast (or the Ostsee as it is called in German).   I always find the tidelessness of the Baltic strange.  No tide to make fresh sand twice daily for the first person’s footprints or for the latest sandcastle design.  I spent a day with a couple who live near the Olympic village built for the sailing competitions in the notorious 1936 and ill-fated 1972 Olympics.  They keep a small sailing boat, called the Hela, at the marina there.  The husband, Jürgen, showed me a photograph album and told me how he came to live in Kiel.  He was born in a town on the Baltic coast near Danzig (Gdańsk) in Poland.  His home town was an important naval base and a popular tourist resort.  From the photographs I could see that he came from a prosperous family with a large house.  There were pictures of his well-dressed grandparents, parents and their children. 

Soon all this was to change.  In 1939 the small five year old boy in the photographs was lifted up to see from an upstairs window the German battleship (the Schleswig Holstein) – it was the beginning of the Second World War as Germany invaded Poland.   In 1945 his family scavenged potatoes left over in harvested fields – the only thing they could find to eat.  Stalin’s Soviet army was advancing and the winter was bitterly cold.  The family, along with thousands of others, decided that their only option was to flee.  They had hoped to leave on the ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, for Kiel.  It was luck, he said, that they were delayed by snow and ice, and missed the ship.  The ship was seriously overcrowded with 10,000 people on board.  It never got to Kiel but was sunk by torpedoes from a Soviet submarine.

The family reached Kiel by another ship, their only possessions their clothes and the photograph album which I was looking at almost 70 years later.  “The three greatest criminals of all time were Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse-tung” said Jürgen with anger in his voice.  He had told me the defining story of his life.  In the enormous upheavals in Europe during and after the Second World War his family’s experience was one out of hundreds of thousands.  This November we will celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union – events whose impact is still being experienced today.  I thought of the poem “Home” by Philip Gross, written for his father who fled to the UK from Estonia at about the same Jürgen’s family fled to Kiel.

The place Jürgen came from is called Hel in Polish.  It is a long thin peninsular in the Gulf of Gdańsk.  In German its name is Hela, the name of Jürgen’s sailing boat anchored in the marina at Kiel, the place where his family started life all over again.

Thursday, 4 September 2014


I've just listened to Norman Nicholson: Something to Tell, Charlie Lambert's recent Radio Cumbria programme to celebrate the centenary of Norman Nicholson's birth.  He explores what Nicholson's writing, especially his poetry, means to people today.  I was delighted to find that Charlie had included my small contribution to the programme (originally broadcast on 25 August this year).

The 60-minute documentary can now be heard on the BBC i-Player

Monday, 1 September 2014


I’m staying in a cottage near Aberdaron with beautiful westering views across the Irish Sea, a copy of R S Thomas’s Selected Poems in the bookshelf and a picture of RS on the sitting room wall (a late portrait with his characteristic wild man of Wales expression).  The owner tells me that RS used to come round to watch the rugby on the family’s television.

Although R S Thomas wrote his early “Iago Prytherch” poems at Manafon and spent 13 years at Eglwys Bach, it is Llŷn with which he is most associated – a “bough / of country that is suspended / between sky and sea” (“Retirement”).   So many of his poems contain Llŷn allusions and his most profound responses to the natural world were inspired by the landscapes and seascapes of the peninsula.

In my teens and twenties I was a volunteer gardener at Plas yn  Rhiw and I remember Honor Keating telling me that R S was going to have Sarn Cottage, the ancient cottage which sensibly sits sideways to the wide sweeping bay of Porth Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth is its English name).  The poet was about to become Vicar of Aberdaron, Y Rhiw and Llanfaelrhys.  When he retired Sarn Cottage was his home until a few years before his death in 2000.

I wander down to Sarn Cottage, quieter now than in R S Thomas’s day due to a couple of landslips (near the edge of which the cottage perches precariously).  The road which used to be right outside the poet’s gate has been diverted further inland through the woods where I would meet him out for an afternoon walk.  The cottage is concealed now by overgrown hedges and trees, but the grass is short on the path to the door.  Here is the source of the poem “Sea Watching” in which the poet describes himself as “the hermit  / of the rocks, habited with the wind / and the mist.”

My friend asks me what other poets are associated with Llŷn.  I can only think of two who live/lived here.  I admire the work of Christine Evans, particularly her long poem Burning the Candle and her beautiful Bardsey book (prose and poems) with superb photographs by Wolf Marloh.  I bought her collection Growth Rings on a visit this week to the fine art gallery, Plas Glyn y Weddw, at Llanbedrog.   Who else?  In the 1920s the South African poet, Roy Campbell, lived for a couple of years very near the cottage where I am staying.   He and his wife read Milton and Shakespeare aloud to each other and lived a subsistence of lifestyle.   Campbell boasted of a Hemingway-style exploit when he rowed a doctor out to Bardsey Island in a terrible storm to attend a difficult confinement.  The local boatmen refused to attempt the crossing to the island whose Welsh name, Ynys Enlli, means the island in the current.  They knew its treacherous tides too well.  Campbell likened a certain kind of poetry to the kind of self-sufficient existence he and his wife lived on the peninsula:  “Write with your spade, and garden with your pen, / Shovel your couplets to their long repose. / And type your turnips down the field in rows” (“The Georgiad”).

Alas, I am ignorant of the Welsh language poets, only reading snippets of them in translation.  But there are several poets writing in English who have visited the area and written about it – Gillian Clarke (“Fires on Llŷn”), John Fuller (“Nant Gwrtheyrn”, “Walking below Carn Guwch”), Patrick McGuiness (his brilliant “Walls Lleyn” includes spaces through which to see the sky).  I discover more writers in A Llŷn Anthology (edited by Dewi Roberts) which I buy on a visit to Plas yn Rhiw on Sunday afternoon.

Llŷn is a place of poetry.  That’s reinforced by a visit to the new Porth y Swnt visitor centre.  On arrival is,  appropriately, R S Thomas’s poem “Arrival” (painted on driftwood planks) - I suspect RS would have been horrified – “The Small Window” comes to mind.  There are poems by several writers throughout the centre and one wall has a beautiful display of poems on canvas roped to posts, suggesting the land and the sea.  The poems and their writers are listed in the information leaflet – I ask about an anthology and am told that they are working on one.  Later in the day I see a poster advertising a reading of R S Thomas’s poems in Aberdaron church – the “stone / church, that is full only / of the silent congregation / of shadows and the sea’s / sound” (“The Moon in Lleyn”). 

This is a landscape that gets under a writer’s skin.  The cottage I am renting for the week is just a short walk from Porth Ysgo where my poem “Seal” is set.


We skitter
past derelict mine workings,
scratch through gorse –
its yellow flowers
spicing the spring air –
and leap the last stone steps
to the shore.

They’re ahead of me,
tearing off clothes,
printing the soft sand
with their feet
gasping and shrieking
as their winter skin
hits the nacreous sea.

They swim
with youth’s easy grace.
The cove’s gentle arms
enclose them.
A black float
off the headland
marks where men drown
their pots each night.

A dark head glistens –
they are joined
by another.  No one
sees or hears him arrive.
They tread water and watch
a whiskered face
shining fur
heavy shoulders
the plectrum eyes of an old man.                                                                                     

Weeks later, walking
past uncut oats and kale,
I hear seals out on the skerries
half a mile away.
Ghostly, amelodic,
their voices
not a lament or cry
but a cantata

of abstract sound.
The music
of sea caves and tide race,
singing for the days
we hide inland.
I think of storms
and my two sons asleep
sailing on a sea of dreams.

© Mary Robinson from The Art of Gardening (Flambard 2010)