Friday, 17 October 2014

"NOTHING BUT CATTLE BELLOWS" (Jim Carruth)

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 www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/herd
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.
www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178026

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 www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3_LNNM2PA

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. www.gillianclarke.co.uk

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.


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