Here’s the first of my reflections on chapbooks. I thought I’d start with a good one, Jim Carruth’s High Auchensale.
Jim Carruth’s first chapbook, Bovine Pastoral, took cows as its subject and enabled him to reflect on the rural world – its past and its threatened future. Cows may not sound like promising material for poems, but the book was never less than engaging.
This second volume revisits Jim Carruth’s childhood on the farms, his decision not to take on the family farm himself, and his return visits as an adult. But these are not simply dead memories. They are vivid recollections, which have living resonance for readers today, even those who live far from a rural environment. There are no romantic rural idylls here, but the harsh smell of earth. There is loss and hardship, but also humour and a stubborn commitment to the future.
The style is accessible, but not simplistic. They are obviously poems that have been lived and earned.
The first poem, Homecoming, metaphorically sets out what he is trying to do. He drives to the farm, after being away for a time, and pictures the welcome he is about to receive;
…and my words,
faltering and uncertain,
like the unsteady steps of an Ayrshire calf
staggering towards her mother
with a hunger new born.
The first half of the book concentrates on childhood – the school Robert Burns recital competition in which he is beaten by an English boy who “was modulating his voice/ in exaggerated accents/ contorting his face in false passion…” He remembers his mother's hands weaving tapestries, hands that his daughter still watches today. He recalls with a shudder the kisses of great aunts. My favourite was Dancing Girls, a poem about racing down the riverbank against cans of Tenants Lager, which were floating downstream. These cans at the time were adorned with pictures of glamorous models. The poem, typically, is more than just a memory. It acts on the present-day reader, imposes itself on the moment, by finishing:
Days when fleeting beauty
was more important
than the promise within.
In Drowning Kittens, a fine poem when the father tells his son they can't keep some new-born kittens, the son imagines his father tying them in a sack and throwing them in the river. He feels real grief. He turns to his father and:
Two kittens lie cradled broken-necked across his left hand;
the last, chapped eyes wide open against a roughcast wall.
That’s where I think it should have ended, but the poem has a final line:
We stand silent, tethered together by their mother’s cries
which goes too far in trying to milk the image. The mother’s cries have less power than the “last, chapped eyes.” There’s a climax, followed by something far less climactic. But if I whiten out that final line, it’s a terrific poem.
The second half is made up of visits to the farm as an adult. Death features prominently in many of the poems, a sense of aging and decay. In Siege, a council estate built near the farmland expands, along with the associated urban problems, brilliantly captured in the simple image:
In the woods
an old fridge opens up.
In Inheritance, he returns to the farm. He and his father, neither of whom work the farms full-time any more, help out with the cow milkings. A shared passion for the place remains, and a connection that can’t ever be broken:
And while we are able
we’ll always come back
each to be judged in turn
by what we pass on to others,
but not now as we bring in the cows
Get away back,
Two voices in the failing light
calling out together.
High Auchensale contains well-written and sharply observed poems, which repay several reads. It’s well worth the £5. One problem with the chapbook is that it contains no details about how to purchase it! However, you can buy it by credit card, cheque, or PayPal, at the Scottish Pamphlet Poetry site.