Originally published on everythingbutamisprint.tumblr.com in October 2010.
I first became aware of the man they call "Scotland's leading rural poet" at the 2009 Edinburgh Book Festival. Michael Russell, the then Scottish Minister for Culture (amongst other things), had already introduced a number of fine personal selections from the Scottish Poetry Library when he welcomed Carruth to the stage to read '264'. Apparently persuaded to give this impromptu reading by a glass of wine Russell had placed in his hands, Carruth captivated us with an enigmatic narrative that kept even the most acute audience members guessing until the end.
Born in Johnstone in 1963 and raised on his family's farm near Kilbarchan, Carruth's work gives voice to what he believes has become a fragile way of life. The poet calls his latest collection Cowpit Yowe (Ludovic Press, 2008) an exploration of "the changing language of agriculture and the seasons...how learning on the farm is built on the knowledge of previous generations and how this is threatened by increasing challenges facing this rural way of life." However, although I greatly admire Carruth for his active role in the preservation of agricultural traditions and practices, I must admit to preferring his poems which are only set in this rural landscape and do not deal directly with farming’s lamentable struggle to survive.
During his birthday meal
my father gives it to us as a gift.
He just announces it
in the middle of a conversation
hangs it there in mid air
above the candles
and plastic tractor on his cake
without the anchor of context:
a riddle for us to solve.
Just one number nothing else
not random either,
he’s taken time to work it out
something important to him.
So we start the guessing game.
Total days it rained last year;
minutes of sleep he takes each night;
hours between bank manager's calls;
milking cows left in the district?
To each answer he shakes his head.
After ten minutes of attempts
my family lose interest
leave the table.
I keep trying.
Something to do with
acres or tonnage
Frustrated I offer up
Cabbages in the garden;
molehills in the bottom field?
I know they're wrong.
He doesn't even answer
retires to a soft chair
sipping slow on a small whiskey
while grandchildren play at his feet
asks me if I give up, and
after a while I do.
He smiles and whispers
Seasons in my life.
(High Auchensale, Ludovic Press, 2006)
'264' is a fine example of a snapshot of the private world of the poet holding a universal relevance – it is as much about our own mortality as it is that of Carruth's 66 year-old father. Even though seasons may hold more importance for farmers than say, for example, the average office worker, everyone in this world has lived through them. If we were to measure our lives in seasons, especially those of us living in polar and temperate regions which have four recognised divisions in the year, then it forces us to consider how many winters we have wrapped up our bodies against the biting cold, and how many more chances we will have to see the trees blossom in spring before we are done.
Carruth's work is often humorous, but I find there is almost always a deeper realisation to be met with at each poem’s end. 'The Man Who Wanted to Hug Cows' is seemingly a comic poem that has resulted from a spot of people watching, but in its final stanza we share in Carruth's empathetic epiphany moment.
The Man Who Wanted To Hug Cows
His good days, he'd walk out from the village
lose himself in country lanes, drawing blood from brambles
or stare across fields mumbling to himself.
They called him professor though no one knew his past;
the postman brought rumours of separation and breakdown.
When first asked, farmers said no.
One relented, pointing him to a quiet Friesian.
"Seemed harmless enough" he told his neighbour later
but he watched him closely from the gate that first time,
uneasy at the nervousness of the stranger.
Left in peace, for long afternoons
he’d cling around folds of the heifer's neck;
whisper an echo in the beast’s dark ear,
her big eyes and soft rough muzzle would turn to him.
Slow-motion slavers and heavy breath fell across his face
To those who listen the farmer's wife still recalls
finding him asleep in the grass – a smile within the herd;
his head resting on thick-haired warmth,
lulled by the rise and fall of maternal ribs,
the beat of a larger heart.
(Bovine Pastoral, Ludovic Press, 2004)
Beyond the apparent madness of the man who wanted to hug cows, there is a troubled human being who searches for the comfort of a maternal embrace, the somewhat inexplicable feeling of safety in our mother’s arms that we all felt as children but once we are quickly thrust into the big bad world we struggle to find a means of replicating. Carruth offers us the surface as it would be seen by those who call the man ‘professor’, he presents him as the village idiot figure who asks farmers if he can hug their cows, before meditating upon the reasons behind his wanting to do so.
It is in poems such as '264' and 'The Man Who Wanted to Hug Cows' that I feel Carruth's work opens itself up to a wider audience of poetry readers. I must admit that I struggle with the meaning behind most of the poems in Cowpit Yowe, with their concrete attempts to explore the changing language of agriculture, but in the two poems I have commented upon here I hope to have shown that what I feel is the best of this poet’s work can be read, understood and enjoyed by many. Jim Carruth’s poetry has the ability to reflect back upon those who come to it, providing them with a mirror in which to see first the differences and then, crucially, the similarities between the lives of the people who populate his rural landscape and their own.
For more information about Jim Carruth and some further examples of his poetry visit http://www.jimcarruth.co.uk
Everything But A Mis-Print is a poetry-centric blog which hopes to introduce the world to the little-known poets worth knowing about. From the serial small-press chapbookers to the well-respected wordsmiths largely unread outside their own countries, the EBAM blog strives to place a spotlight on the very best poetry that swims outside the mainstream. You can visit it here: everythingbutamisprint.tumblr.com