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HELD FIRMLY IN HER SIGHTS
Janet Sutherland: Home Farm, Shearsman Books ₤9:95
Janet Sutherland and John Welch launched their most recent collections together a year ago at a reading in the Swedenborg Rooms, an occasion which made me regret my expatriate life. Home Farm is an expansive collection organized in six groups and an epilogue which expand their range of location and reference from the dairy farm in Wiltshire where Janet Sutherland grew up.The collection gradually works through memories of childhood on the farm as part of the landscape and as a place of serious work with hard-won meagre rewards towards poems on the death of her parents from dementia and cancer.However, this personal progress is continuously disrupted by poems based on history and other parts of the world ending with three stark meditations in the epilogue on the massacre in Fallujah in Iraq by American forces in 2003.
The first group, ‘Water Meadows’ might be termed the historical section. The opening poem from a childhood memory is a beautiful pastoral with the serpentine curves of the river Avon counterpointed by a swimming snake and a concluding image which might have come from a landscape painting of the eighteenth or nineteenth century:
Heifers stand in the shallows
Snorting and shaking off flies before they drink.
Four poems from local history follow, “The Drowner” from the seventeenth century practice of flooding, then draining water meadows to improve the quality of the soil, an elegy for a young girl drowned at the beginning of the twentieth century, the superb “The Eel House” and its companion piece, a visual poem, “View of a Water Mill and its Eel House” organized in the shape of the mill with different typefaces to illustrate irregularities and/or different materials visible in the walls of the mill, and are concluded with “Gifts for Lethe” a poem of multiple voices; a great-great grandfather, a grandfather, a dying father, the presence of a lover and her mother, and multiple locations; the water meadows by the Avon,Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), Greece, nineteenth century Serbia, Mallorca and East London. This beautiful poem is built up in three line stanzas punctuated by ‘refrains’ all of which contain images of rivers or watery places beside rivers. Pastoral images are set against harsher circumstances:
“You’ll be the death of me” he cried out to the doctor
when he was dying and his shit was black and foul
to us he hissed “Don’t be so bloody silly.”
Alderbury, and the goldfish pond we dug together.
I can’t praise this poem highly enough. Its multiplicity of motifs and imagistic technique are what Ezra Pound might have achieved had he not lost much of his poetic judgement in the Cantos.
The next four sections in the collection have different focuses. ‘Stocktake’ echoes the ancient practicalities of Hesiod’s “Work and Days.” There is a hint of a didactic element as we learn that livestock can contract some unpleasant illnesses and a military element appears in “On Pepperbox Hill” with the poet’s thirteen-year old self frightened by soldiers on exercise:
squaddies circling and manoeuvring
holding her in their sights
to keep her still.
‘Home Ground’ has some marvellous landscapes of which “Cows in Fog” is an outstanding lyric:
Fastened to the earth
and to the dawn through which this fog has settled
they breathe out gusts of steam
Yet the reader is brought down to earth humorously with “Scraping the Yard”, a job I would in similar circumstances probably try to absent myself from, and the more ambitious “You hold in your head a notion of the land” almost an autobiography in miniature from childhood to the mental disintegration of her mother in old age. This harrowing exploration is continued in the fourth section ‘Evenings on a farm Near Alderbury’ with poems on both parents aging and the eventual sale of the farm. An elegiac note is struck at the end of the “Dilapidations” quartet of poems following the sale of the farm:
You lean against the oak, the midges
rise from water trapped in crevices.
You see a land that is, that may not be.
‘Birds and Beasts’ is a group of poems recalling the history and a personal past, seemingly a lyrical respite from the previous section of grief. However, the final section and the epilogue firmly put the natural world behind us leaving them at the mercy of artificial intelligence (AI) and military forces. The reference to a grandfather in the First World War mistaking a pool in Mesopotamia for fresh water with a dead Turkish soldier is thrown into relief with the use in the Fallujah massacre of phosphorus explosives, possibly depleted uranium and the bland almost AI justification of the action by a British Major-General:
One could say in retrospect
the political decision vis-à-vis Fallujah
was the correct one.
Home Farm is an immensely rich and complex collection with wide range of emotion, style and form. Memory, history and their connection to this contemporary perhaps disintegrating world are held firmly in the sights of Sutherland’s poetic gift.Some of the poems are among the best in British Anglophone poetry of this century.
James Sutherland-Smith at www.jamessutherland-smith.co.uk