Review: Killochries by Jim Carruth

Lifting the Dank Curtain

I really shouldn’t like this book. Sheep play a significant role, there are whole pages devoted to quotes from St John’s gospel and one of the two main characters is staunchly religious.  It’s a ‘verse novella’. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Yet it is wonderful.

The protagonist, an angry urbanite, has a legacy of drink and money trouble and ‘something not true’ about him. He goes to spend time drying out, escaping perhaps, on a remote hill farm with an older relative.  This relative is a pious shepherd, and the protagonist dries out with the shepherd, his bedridden mother, three dogs, some cows, chickens and sheep. The story happens over the course of a year and, season by season, the relationship between the two men unfolds. There is mutual scorn and inevitable conflict, and then spring comes. The troubled poet gains respect, first for the shepherd, and then, for himself.

The narrative is simple, gently paced and told through a series of short-lined poems in sparse, clear language. It feels utterly assured, like the telling of a parable. From the first few brushstrokes, we know we are in the hands of a masterful painter of nature and rural people. Here, for a flavour of the clarity of writing and vivid characterisation, is the poet’s first meeting with the shepherd;

“He looks me over –

a new ram

he might bid for

at some local market….

He tuts and turns,

expects me

to come to heel.”

Here’s an attempt at fence maintenance:

“Tight wire snaps,

lashes back,

its ravel and grasp

wraps fast.”

Such taut, crisp language paints a picture of a stark place and an austere life. Reminiscent of some of MacCaig’s desolation at what he perceived as the end of crofting, this story honours the shepherd’s doomed livelihood. Although he doesn’t get into the politics of this demise (which is perhaps a shame), the poet asks:

“But what use am I to him?

My poems cannot stretch a helping hand,

my words will never fill his run-down barn,

my lines cannot defend his fragile land.”

Such despair about the demise of hill farming, and the resultant grief, loss and suffering are leavened by humour. For example, there is a superb vignette of a country fair. At another point, the city poet’s first attempt  to milk  the cow is so bad that the shepherd remarks, ‘A’ll mebbe hae ma tea black the night.’ The shepherd speaks in a ‘dank curtain’ of Scots, his words few but always significant and, although not always necessary, there is an excellent glossary.

Religious disagreement between the two characters drives the story, yet this is not a critique of dogma. It explores with real open-heartedness what faith might be able to offer: even to a hardened non-believer. Wild nature is a balance to the religion of the shepherd, and an alternative source of solace and inspiration. At one point a waterfall skeins across the page, like a kind of prayer to the wild for freedom of mind and expression. There is an echo of Ted Hughes in the  fox that appears repeatedly as a symbol of poetry and a spirit presence throughout.

This is not only a story, but a sequence of delicately crafted poems. The characters grow and change which is an exceptional feat across a volume of poetry. It even won over this sheep-loathing atheist.

– Spectacled Bear

 

Freight Books, RRP £8.99, 160pp