Because the Land Are We – A Review 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 oneLegacy
That lost farmer’s final crop.
His harvest was their chorus.
They feasted on his song.