Templar Poetry, 2010 £4.50
Reviewed by Matthew Stewart, Niall Campbell and Matt Merritt
Hilary Menos’ Wheelbarrow Farm is a thematically unified pamphlet from Templar Poetry. An intriguing collection, it’s a study in how to produce a poetic study. By this I mean that her meticulous unpicking of the relationship between observer and observed is key to many joys her pamphlet can potentially offer the reader.
Wheelbarrow Farm depicts contemporary agricultural life in South Devon. In doing so, Menos demonstrates she’s very much a ‘show, don’t tell’ poet. It’s not so much, however, that there’s an attempt at objective reportage, but that her views, conclusions and opinions are implicit. In other words, these are excerpts from life, not camera shots, as is shown by the following extract from ‘The Blue Hour’:
They stagger apart, each ram looking crossly around
for applause, perhaps, or a swift way out
or a Cut! From the director, but there is none. . .
Menos makes use of a number of techniques as she offers the reader ways of responding to scenes, but juxtaposition, in many forms, is crucial. For example, she places formal vocabulary alongside local dialect, farm slang and colloquial terms. We encounter “Grant don’t do horoscopes”, while there are also notes explaining “fouette” and “lamping”.
The paradoxes and contradictions of agriculture, meanwhile, are also evoked via the use of this same device. A cow’s carcass, for instance, performs that afore-mentioned “fouette” while being loaded into a “tatty van”. Menos hints at a mixture of love, disgust, unease and affection for the events, settings and characters of Wheelbarrow Farm, often by bringing the out-of-the-ordinary and exceedingly ordinary elements of a farmer’s life together in a single poem, as in ‘The Harrowing’:
(He). . . opens the kitchen door, a dark hulk against the light,
hair that no human can comb, a mud-spattered troglodyte,
and sits down with a slice of pizza in front of Countryfile.
In the same way, she draws out the clash between modern and traditional ways on the farm. ‘Colin’ finds both an “old plough” and a “quad bike” getting a mention in quick succession.
An extremely light touch is required to pull off such a delicate balance between the observer and observed, and Hilary Menos proves she has one in this pamphlet. We are provided with the chance to gain an insight into life on ‘Wheelbarrow Farm’, and this insight gifts us the chance to develop our own perspectives via the innate generosity of good poetry.
In Wheelbarrow Farm, Hilary Melos has created a fictional farming community thick with rhythm and routine. The activities stretch from early morning to late nights where, “Headlights blazing, mind a blank, he ploughs/ long after dark. Post on the doormat, untouched.“
We bear witness to individuals such as Grunt Garvey and John Teague and their honest but perhaps feckless existence, their meditations and their farces. Despite the wealth of these characters, I feel the finest parts of this pamphlet are when the poetry shines through unencumbered by narrative or story-telling:
Tall bull thistle, creeping thistle, tuberous and woolly,
nodding in the pastures, inching his red loam,
crowding the shaled edge of the old quarry,
sharper than hoof picks, tougher than baler twine.
Blessed and bitter, cursed and holy, milk and melancholy,
Lady thistle, slender thistle. . .
Here, as often elsewhere, Menos displays careful use of sound and texture, balance and cadence. Similarly assured is the final poem ‘Charm’, with its bold lines, unbroken by pause or caesura:
He brings me a gift from last night’s shoot,
stamping his Wellington boots at my kitchen door.
Soft bodies tied with twine bump at his thighs,
their blackberry eyes shot blank.
Wheelbarrow Farm is a cohesive collection, comprising poems that feed and draw off each other. The characters are detailed and refined, their lives broadening with each new line.
However, I have reservations about how each poem might travel outwith the boundaries of this construct. I found myself yearning for the immediacy of an ‘I’ or two—something less grounded —something that might travel more freely with the reader after the book has closed.
In spirit and construct, though, this is an interesting pamphlet. A task undertaken and achieved—creating a poetry landscape and community—the natural world detailed beautifully and honestly and brutally. I especially enjoyed the dearth of sentimentality, the way Menos never positioned the slaughterhouse too far from the farmyard, deftly balancing how often red is blood and how often it is wild roses.
Poetry about the harsh realities of hill farming life is nothing new—it’s a subject that both Ted Hughes and RS Thomas returned to again and again in their best work—but it’s still a world away from the concerns of many contemporary poets.
In poems such as ‘Being Grunt Garvey’ and ‘Knackerman’, Hilary Menos does borrow some of the gritty reality that Hughes was known for (although it would be hard not to, of course), but she combines it with her own musicality and a sparing use of irony and humour.
‘Fat Hens, Few Eggs’, for example, consists of nothing but proverb and folk wisdom. Whether it’s all real or partly invented is beside the point—the pleasure here is both in plain-speaking lines such as “A goat in silk stockings is still a goat”, and more oblique ones like “Nearest the heart comes first out.”
Or you get a poem like the wonderful ‘Woodcock Hay’, which almost seems to turn a mundane task into an act of ritual, then both confirms and undermines the impulse to look for the transcendental in its closing lines:
This is grace consecrated in metal,
grab arms scraping the ground, the ram shunting wads of hay
onto the needles, knotters, cutters, in precise sequence,
their neat fit the only magic we know or need.
Elsewhere, for example in the title poem, or ‘Colin’, Menos does cover some of the same ground as Thomas, describing the grinding daily routine of some of her vividly drawn characters. But there’s no obvious intent to draw wider significance from the realities she describes—it’s left to the reader to do that—and she’s sympathetic towards the people in the poems, without becoming in the least sentimental.
‘Charm’, which closes the book, moves into the first person in describing a gift of a rabbit from a neighbour, and does suggest a certain ambiguity about the lifestyle described.
I stroke the soft pelt. Too late to save this life.
I draw out a tendon, string it with feather quills
and rabbits’ feet, eye teeth and small bones,
knot it round my wrist and run for the hills.
This is a fine, cohesive collection, with something to say, and a consistently engaging way of saying it—I recommend it highly.