Jim Carruth’s collection, Rider at the Crossing, provides a fairly different style of writing from the Renfrewshire farmer’s usual pastoral concerns. Although not his most recent work, the poems compiled here represent the ever-changing, yet compelling style of Glasgow’s 2014 Laureate. In Rider at the Crossing, the poet examines a darker, more unsettling set of themes – including death, solitude, human cruelty and fragility. Those familiar with his work will recognise concerns which have endured for the poet since his debut pamphlet Bovine Pastoral. Combined with his largely free verse style, this subject matter contributes to a hauntingly intricate whole.
Winter and the cold run through several of the poems. Most often Carruth uses the season to highlight the isolation of his persona, whether to emphasise the destruction of a pre-existing relationship or to expose a simple lack of much-needed human companionship. Such is the case in the opening poem “Travelling North”.
to end up in the company of strangers
in frozen lands, hundreds of miles apart…
This blatant reference to a frigid world where two people ( presumably lovers ) end up separated largely as a result of their narrow focus on their own lives, is only the first of many allusions to the nature of winter as a separating force.
The poet uses the season’s chill in several of his other poems, and to similar ends. “The Chance of Snow” and “Fear of Heights” also use pathetic fallacy to display the inner numbing cold arising from feelings of isolation.
The white face turning to snow, engulfs me
and I’m stuck too, unable to traverse the gap,
the mountain latte untroubled as the past.
Beyond this, the subsequent poems focus on human’s cruelty to animals. This shocking change seems distracting at first, as the reader is forced quickly to adapt – viewing humans as the antagonistic force rather than as the objects of sympathy in the earlier sequence. “La Corrida”, “Poem for Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon” and “Straight Flush” are only a few examples of cases where the poet overtly and poignantly blames humanity for the suffering of the animal kingdom.
The precision of extinction
counted down by man,
then counted out.
In the first of the aforementioned poems, Carruth also introduces an aspect of bilingualism into his poetry, creating a more global awareness. The incorporation of Spanish, as well as his use of Scots in poems such as “Bethlem”, is both atmospherically captivating and linguistically challenging.
Editorially, some of these poems appear unrelated to the others, both thematically and structurally – consider “The Poem Is”. This jagged feeling of the entire anthology mirrors the imprecise, fairly free structure of each of his poems, creating a distracting disorder, which might easily deter the less resilient reader. However, the diligent reader’s persistence is rewarded in the discovery of the titular and final poem; “Rider at the Crossing”, which appears to tie together all the disparate themes, creates a coherent, yet ambiguous story, which can easily be interpreted: the experience of dying.
a clue to the other side, some shape forming or lifting-
when all that’s left to wait for is the change in light.
Thus Carruth’s anthology is, in this final poem, morphed into an exquisitely scattered yet cogent entity. The simultaneously confusing and unsettlingly exploratory nature of the collection allows the reader to examine the negative themes represented, and at the end set it down with a relieving sense of closure. Although not an easy collection to read, the Rider at the Crossing provides a valuable insight into the horrors of our world in a refreshing and unique way.