Book review: Bale Fire, by Jim Carruth

Bale Fire, by Jim Carruth
Bale Fire, by Jim Carruth
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Published in 2017, Black Cart, the last collection of poems from Glasgow’s Poet Laureate, Jim Carruth, was reportedly 16 years in the making. Bale Fire, the follow-up, has apparently taken less than two. If that dramatic speeding up of the production cycle suggests a poet hitting his stride, then Bale Fire certainly feels like the work of a writer marching confidently and purposefully into the fertile summertime of his career.

Billed as the second part of a trilogy, the book is bound together by a carefully considered, triple-layered architecture. Firstly, it is divided into three roughly equal sections: “A Change In The Weather”, dealing with the decline of farming communities; “Home”, in which themes and characters from the Odyssey find echoes in tales of a Scottish hill farming community; and “Forgotten Furrows & Field Songs,” which focuses on the cyclical nature of agricultural production. Secondly, as in Black Cart, the pages all have subtle footers in italics: common agricultural diseases in the first section; the names of farming families around Kilbarchan in Renfrewshire, where the poet grew up, in the second; and the foodstuffs and materials produced for the third. Finally, the entire collection is bookended by the same, sparse poem, “Because The Land Are We,” which emphasises the endlessly cyclical nature of life and death with which the farming life is inescapably intertwined. The overall effect is of holding in your hands not simply a randomly-assembled collection of poems, but a very deliberately designed word-machine in which everything is somehow connected to everything else.

Sometimes this precision engineering is obvious. Presented on facing pages, the two poems “The Wife’s Tale” and “Trouble At The Farm” are clearly intended to work as companion pieces, the former full of foreboding as a farmer’s wife waits up late for her husband to return from the fields, “dour as hell... more stubborn than his beasts”; the latter a cataclysmic account of a farmer’s suicide and the fiery destruction of his crops. Sometimes, the logic of the ordering of the poems only becomes apparent on a second reading: the way, for example, that the brutal black humour of “Bereavement Counselling From Murdoch Of Blackbyres” provides a little light relief (or perhaps dark relief) after the impossibly melancholy “Brambles,” in which the poet reflects on the significance of an elderly woman’s dying word, with all its connotations of sun-drenched childhood days and family mealtimes.  

In Bale Fire and in his 2015 verse novella, Killochries, Carruth demonstrated that he could tug skilfully at the heartstrings even in his most pared-back, impressionistic poems. Here, though, there are moments when the pathos is almost overwhelming, in the aforementioned “Brambles,” in “Reincarnation,” in which the stone walls of an abandoned croft are used to build a new wall, and in “Bale String”, in which a son of the soil living in the city fears he may have severed his connection with the land for good. If the way of life Carruth describes really is dying, it couldn’t wish for a more eloquent eulogist. Roger Cox

Bale Fire, by Jim Carruth, Polygon, 81pp, £8.99