Polygon books £10.99 95pp.
Far Field is the final part of a trilogy Jim Carruth has been working on for the last twenty-five years, and forms a magnificent culmination to what feels, for more than one reason, like a life’s work. Like its predecessors, Black Cart and Bale Fire and the standalone poetic novel Killochries, it deals with farming life in rural Renfrewshire, but this volume is more personal than the others. It focuses on his own family life, the family farm, the handing on of skills, property, and tradition.
The first section, Landscape with Cattle deals with representations of rural life and features many poems about pictures by the Glasgow Boys, Crawhall, Guthrie, George Henry and EA Walton, who were famous for depicting rural life in less romantic perspectives than had been common. Yet Carruth finds even these pictures of ‘hinds’ and manual labourers self-indulgent, patronising and ignorant of the lived realities of the lives they depict, which are dark and harsh certainly, but also rich in family bonds, empathy with the beasts the farmers care for, and the beauty of accurate observation – cows standing in a river, in Crawhall’s Landscape with Cattle defy the artist’s attempt to recreate their calm presence, and the contrast with the fidgety birds that flit round them.
As Carruth’s hind’s daughter says: This painting that does not show me true.
The second part Earthstruck, builds on this sense of empathy with the animal life of the farm, the parallels between the life of the beasts and the life of the farmer, birth, death, illness, courtship, love, loss. The boundaries between animals and lovers, animals and family, blur with references to a review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a gamekeeping manual, a misread conversation where the roast lamb on the table is mistaken for a comment about the speaker’s lover, and the deaths of farm animals compared to the deaths of farmers. Some of the poems are humorous, nostalgic, sarcastic or affectionate, but most moving is Gone Out where a child’s tantrum because his father has slipped out to look at the animals without him is recalled at the father’s death.
Somewhere beyond the cries of loved onesGone Out
You’re walking your dogs in that far field
Watching the herd, waiting for the next life.
In the final section, Stepping Stones, we move out to the wider community, to the landscape, to memory, and reflections of the future, and the book closes with Planting Aspen Saplings, father handing on the tradition and the responsibility to son. Aspen is an endangered species, but an important one to the Scottish landscape:
You tell me of the tree’s offer
To gall midges, birds, hare, deer
The importance of relationships
The interconnectedness of everything
They do not thrive in shade, need light
And space to grow.
Planting aspen saplings,Planting Aspen Saplings
Son and father.
The echoes of Seamus Heaney I find in these poems do not feel derivative, but establish a connection between two poets aware of the influence of landscape and farming on their work, but each with their own different and unique perspective on it. An Irish/Scottish tradition which enriches us all.