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Jim Carruth

  • Because the Land Are We – A Review of Balefire by Jim Carruth

    cover of Balefire by Jim Carruth

    Polygon 2019 isbn 978 1 84697 500 4 81 pp. £8.99

    If you look up the word ‘balefire’ – once you get past the role-playing games inspired by the Wheel of Time series of fantasy novels – you will find that in Scotland, it is a purification fire. Houses were cleaned in spring and the dust and debris burned to clean and disinfect the houses. Sometimes there were two fires, and the cattle were driven between them to purify them from disease. Then you would light a new fire – the ‘bonfire’ to give a clean fresh start.

    This collection is most definitely a bale fire. Cattle diseases come up a lot, forming footnotes to the poems in the first section, entitled A Change in the Weather. The poems throw a grim light on what is burning up the farming communities of Renfrewshire – the grim unrelenting work, the risk from weather and disease, the isolation, which often compounds abusive behaviour and cruelty. Most telling is the alienation between the farmer and the wider community, as in A Killing, where a newspaper demonises a farmer for killing a dog, but does not mention the lambs the dog has slaughtered, or Transferable Skills where a redundant farm worker, with years of knowledge and experience behind him, finds himself judged to be without the transferable skills of the title, and or in School Milk where all connection between the produce of the farm and the packaged product given to the pupils has been lost, and Jim Carruth neatly draws a parallel between the intensive rearing of cattle and the institutionalised education of children.

    A major strand of the book is the profound and intimate love and care of the farmer for the land and his cows, demonstrated perhaps most strongly in Leabaidh na Ba Baine (the bed of the white cow) which tells of the legend of the giant Fingal shaping a valley for his cow to sleep in, this love is not without consequences for family life. In Birth Jim Carruth describes with tender detailed care the process of helping a cow give birth, but closes with the comment

    I find wonder every time in this moment,
    Just the one parent and child. I who was born
    While my father finished milking his cows.

    There are dysfunctional families portrayed here, failures, suicides, domestic abuse, as well as the timely reminder that all farmers are not male, in The Farmer Doesn’t Want a Wife. There is despair and the collection is haunted by death, but perhaps surprisingly, it is not a dark despairing collection. The middle section of twenty poems called Home recalls the Odyssey, with echoes of Circe, Elpenor, the murdered serving girls, the faithful dog and more, carefully and cleverly done, but thoroughly grounded in the Renfrewshire hills and fields. And the final section, Forgotten Furrows and Field Songs builds on this, reminding us that though traditional farming life may be declining, it leaves us a powerful cultural legacy of songs and literature, and we are enriched by it.

    Come the spring in that field,
    Beyond his boarded-up house,
    Every small word had sprouted
    With such scent and promise,

    It brought songbirds flocking,
    Eager to seek each fertile fragment,
    Working the lines day and night,
    Piecing together his forgotten tune,

    Until the morning they sang as one
    That lost farmer’s final crop.
    His harvest was their chorus.
    They feasted on his song.


  • Black Cart, by Jim Carruth

    Black Cart, by Jim Carruth, published by Freight Books 2017

    Jim Carruth describes this as ‘a love poem to a rural community in Scotland. He comes from a farming family in Ayrshire, and this collection is a mixture of description, memory and elegy for a way of life that is changing and quite probably dying out. Parallels with Heaney and Clare come to mind here. His poems are as full of affection, observation and lyric description as Heaney’s, and there is a similar sense that he is heir to a way of life that isn’t for him in Into the Blue, where the poet

    Was supposed to
    Knock an old soup can off the fence post
    But winged a cloud and brought down the sky

    with the gun that was an intrinsic part of his father’s identity, or The Trouble With Ploughing, where the young Jim has proved so inept with a tractor he isn’t allowed to try it, and the sense of his vocation as a poet in Searchlight:

    I look for them still, listen for their returning voices;
    I will them back into the light.

    But Heaney’s poetry starts very much with his own relationships, his memories and the way his past, his family, his community and landscape have shaped him – and then becomes his own way of looking at the wider world. Carruth’s is about something else. His complicated relationship with his origins comes through – as how could it not? but it isn’t the focus. The focus is on those people,that landscape, the way those communities lived, in all its beauty, crushing hard work, isolation and anxiety, its particular skills and cherished traditions and its eclipse.
    Carruth’s poetry is like Clare’s or Burns’ in that it is not (like Heaney’s or Wordsworth’s for instance), a poet’s detached observation of another way of life, but is instead embedded within that life. It’s an issue often misunderstood. Clare himself was conscious that he was a poet and a scholar, and if not a gentleman, then not a simple peasant either, and I can’t be the only one that finds the epithet ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ thoroughly patronising when applied to Burns. The difference between Wordsworth and Clare isn’t education or art or craft versus genius, or culture, it’s a point of view. I don’t want establish a hierarchy of poetic style and intent, nor to trespass into Jim Carruth’s private or professional life, but simply to say that, like Clare’s, his poetry is from the ground up, not the desk down.
    I love it. It has wit and affection and humour – how many jokes can you make about silage? It has a disenchanted eye, as in Drowning Kittens (be warned, this will upset you) but isn’t cynical or despairing, even in the bleak Farm Sale. And although it is elegaic, it also has a strong sense of continuity and tradition, that something can be kept from the wreck of a way of life that will enrich future generations if they remember it honestly.

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