Book review: Black Cart, by Jim Carruth

Jim Carruth, Glasgow's Poet Laureate
Jim Carruth, Glasgow's Poet Laureate
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My first ever paid job was a few days hay baling on a farm near Hillmorton in Warwickshire, and on the morning of the day I sat down to write this review I learned the farm I’d worked on had been sold off, and that the fields I’d briefly worked in would soon be covered with a new housing development. My sense of sadness at hearing this news was out of all proportion to my very tenuous connection to the place – I had, after all, only been there for a few sunny, dusty, sweaty, hand-sore days – so I can only begin to imagine the immense weight of sorrow that must lie on the shoulders of Jim Carruth, Glasgow’s poet laureate, who grew up on a farm near Kilbarchan in Renfrewshire, surrounded by other farms and steeped in the age-old traditions of farming, only to see much of it vanish in the space of a few short decades. This book, some 16 years in the making, is Carruth’s deeply felt tribute to this rapidly disappearing way of life, to the people and places and what they once meant, but it is by no means an idealised portrait – he forces us to confront all the harsh realities of farming life, and to mourn its passing in spite of them. New-born kittens aren’t drowned in “Drowning Kittens” – the poet’s father explains that drowning would be too cruel a fate, and breaks their necks instead. In “Trace”, when disease takes hold of a dairy herd, the cows first become “carcasses crackling on the pyre” and then merely a “lingering stench”.

The human cost of farming is counted too. In “Siblings”, the emotional toll is summed up in the line: “A life sentence of love / poured out on the beasts alone / knows nothing for kin.” Then there’s the insidious threat of suicide. In “Silence”, as a farm’s fortunes continue to slide, the farmer’s wife creeps out in the middle of the night and buries her husband’s shotgun.

The joys are celebrated too, albeit sparingly. There’s a gloriously silly ode to silage (“Oh Sweet Sweet Silage”), an acutely observed portrait of a young girl slowly finding her feet at a dance (“The Progressive Canadian Barn Dance”) and, in the title poem, a powerful evocation of a group of men letting loose at the end of a hard day’s toil, drinking and singing in the back of the miller’s horse-drawn cart on the way to a party. This latter poem is perhaps the best thing here – a piece of writing that effortlessly transcends the specific to embrace the universal. As the cart travels on and darkness falls, the young men start disappearing one by one: “So Johnny, his song long silent, must’ve slipped off / unnoticed, and the others too when their time came.”

The book is divided into three sections, Homecoming, A Time For Giving and Inheritance, and each page has a small, italicised footer. In the first section, these are the names of fields on Carruth’s family farm, in the second they are the names of grasses and in the third they are the names of nearby farms that have stopped dairying and sold their herds. Mostly these footers remain in the reader’s peripheral vision, just as the slow death of traditional farming in these islands now only very occasionally impinges on our largely urban consciousness. In this context, Carruth’s naming of them is a small but deliberate act of defiance, as is this collection.

*Black Cart by Jim Carruth, Freight, £9.99

*Jim Carruth will be reading from Black Cart at the Serenity Cafe, The Tun, 8 Jacksons Entry, Edinburgh, on 11 April at 7.30pm as part of Vespers, a new monthly poetry evening compered by Jane Bonnyman and Rob A Mackenzie on the second Tuesday of each month, www. vesperspoetry.wordpress.com