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More Reviews 3

In this intense, earthy fourth collection, Sutherland digs assuredly through the autobiographical sod of a dairy farm and deep countryside. Animal, human and landscape hybrids run throughout; an opening poem glides from the image of a serpentine river to a water-snake and disease in cows is hauntingly reflected in the degradation of human bodies. Eloquently brutal, Home Farm explores life, place and family in a matter-of-fact, evocative manner and throws in several unusual surprises along the journey.

Book Reviews, Poetry Book Society Spring Bulletin, 2019 on Home Farm

...Janet Sutherland is a great craftsperson of the informal lyrical poem.

By this I mean a format of short poem which has been developed for a long time by British and American poets, steering its way between Modernism and traditionalism, sailing beyond sight of the schools of many-letters-upside-downside-ism, and has ended with the achievement of a particular form of clarity, much of the time speaking plainly and carefully but in full possession of all the properties of poetry: line-end tension, internal sound-pacing, judged figuration, metrical echoing, end-rhyme and internal rhyme as the poet wishes or not…

The book is serious by its focus on serious local events, and its theatre moves from miniature to grand.

If a quick impression is gained of linguistically uneventful writing, any attention to close detail disperses it, but it is not afraid of the ordinary. The book is virtually without punctuation and while it normally announces its subject and establishes a locality or scene for each poem, it is only “subject-bound” within a free understanding of how flexible and expansive such a focus can become. So it interrupts itself, weaves in threads from elsewhere in different voices, interpolates documentation without becoming homiletic, will expound fully and will tease the reader with extreme brevity and fragmentation. It is serious by its focus on serious local events, and its theatre moves from miniature to grand. It deals mainly in direct experience which is thought and weighed as it is being told, and will only approach politics in those terms.

The poem thus becomes a very flexible medium, ready to follow the track of thought through any twist and turn, with an eye to the balance of the whole.

'in January the water is so clear
a milky light lies on the muzzles
of the fish

they wait suspended
all the shadows    the reflections
the deceits have passed'

—is the beginning of a poem, to which this is the end—

'the slippery cold
eases through mouth and gill

a mildewed down softens
their scales to fur

their lazy fins   are fluttering
fluttering against the water'

—a poem on the death of her father, to which the sixth line is a rational link but the entire framing spreads a tense calm over the scene, with echoes, which is also interrupted five times with messages from her grandfather.

Poems can be as small as two lines, which may be a chaste notation of words awaiting their turns—

'The mouth desires the names of meadow grasses:
Cocksfoot, Cat’s tail, Dog’s tooth. Fox tail, Timothy.'

or a major instance of landscape feeding thought and creating a unity—

'a snowy field with silent rooks and seagulls
as in our awkwardness as in endurance'

Not, note, our endurance: tiny as it is the poem never stops moving outwards. There is too, I suppose, a significant move from the iambic line registering stasis, to the dactylic, the triple rhythm that in music invokes the dance on the most serious occasions, such as the move into abstraction.

And there are large structures such as the fascinating poem “Gifts for Lethe” which consists of nineteen triplets, each a different scene told only in its most strongly felt details: remembered instances through generations, places, affections, fragments of ancestors’ travel diaries, items of farm works… candidates for being forgotten, experiences which do not “add up” and are lost, except poetically, some of them taken up elsewhere in the book. And between each triplet in grey italic, are brief identifications of place-name, location, a static visual detail, the label. In a book about memory this is the poem about forgetting, and the fading identifications are as if after each triplet, each half-memory, someone asked, “Where was that?”

Janet Sutherland obviously thinks her poetry in books. Her previous book, Bone Monkey (2014) ventured, appalled and fascinated, through very different material in pursuit, and pursued by, a “trickster”, a male part-human anti-human summation of bad behaviour, but with a lot of the same thoughtful writing as here. Home Farm is about memory and record in a narrative sequence, much but not all of it focussing on the farm work, struggles with the weather, insides of cows, finance, birds, snakes, artificial intelligence…Nothing is shirked.

A great deal of the book is anecdotal regarding the farm as home, but it is neither pastoral nor anti-pastoral. The continuity with the outside is too strong for either. There is no felt need to transgress the particulars; you may be left at the end with a strong reverberation, a kind of “moral”, or with one more minute detail seeming to say in its meticulous rhythmic placement, “There you are. That was it.”

Towards the end the sequence moves away from locality towards modes of discourse and war. It is a book of endless transitions, between and in poems, of which the most unexpected must be the “appendix” of three poems concerned with Fallujah and white phosphorus (remember this?) in a controlled, not angry tone but not resigned either, bitterly noting the facts and ending with the official justification, absolutely cold—

Clearly Fallujah had taken on
some totemic type stature
as a safe environment for insurgents.
One could say in retrospect
the political decision vis-à-vis Fallujah
was the correct one.

Peter Riley,The Fortnightly Review, August 2019

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