Killochries has been termed Jim Carruth’s first full collection which is possibly unintentionally misleading. Five chapbooks, an illustrated fable and numerous awards lie between this and his already assured debut Bovine Pastoral. The inside cover’s description of a “verse novella” is considerably more accurate.
This is a narrative, yet Killochries is neither quite a single narrative poem nor is it a series of poems piecing together a tale. Carruth perhaps challenges expectations here with a continuous, chronological thread working through several poetic shapes and voices in the narrative as a whole. Other than the apostolic twelve “Reflections”, each page brings an untitled poem set in its own whitespace rather than a completely uninterrupted flow. The language is pared to the skeletal, but the reader would be unwise to read quickly.
The jacket design’s linocut (alas, unaccredited) of a shepherd’s crook, also a crosier, is significant. Like Spencer, Clare and many more before, Carruth’s tale follows the sheep year. Autumn sees the prodigal city-dweller attempt to escape his unresolved crises to live and work on a hill farm with an elderly, deeply Presbyterian shepherd – “St Francis of the crows/in a skewed bunnet” and his bedridden mother. Inevitably the city boy’s mentality and his host’s Calvinist’s beliefs are deeply opposed; how they forge their strengthening respect is Killochries’ quiet core. In softer hands this might have been a simple story of conversion, or indeed rejection, yet Carruth is too skilled a poet and observer for anything so facile.
Is silence not always
the church’s answer?
Better tae hae belief in ane hersh god
than tae hae lost faith wi many.
It would be wrong to spoil the narrative by revealing its subtle twists, and the poet is right to build pondering time into his structure. Surely this is what the pastoral does so well; we learn not only of the rural year but through it we understand the patterning of our own very human condition. Of late and too often “pastoral” has become a devalued term, conjuring some artificially bucolic utopia. Carruth is the genuine article. If we can feel Renfrewshire’s damp roll in his lines it is because he is born and bred to farm life at High Auchensale. Those who have been reading his work since Bovine Pastoral will see a natural progression. The poet’s deep love of the land and of working it lives here in unsentimental lines. Reading Carruth, Les Murray and more I begin to suspect that no-one will ever write pastoral quite as meaningfully as those who have farmed, and whose ancestors also farmed. That kent land goes deeper into their DNA than in it can into any other onlooker’s.
Killochries is a Renfrewshire farm name but the reader may also trace what that word’s subtle etymology gives this narrative. In a house without television or internet, the verse is furrowed with the poetry of the old man’s only book – his King James Version Bible, the New Testament being paralleled throughout Killochries. The “Reflections” offer the narrator’s changing views of the shepherd, from “Scarecrow”, “Salesman” to “Healer”. In time, the urbanite mirrors his near-adversary as “poet”
Today I lecture him
on sonnet construction,
compare it to the dyke
we are building back up.
It’s the weygate spaces
that lat in the life.
Neither of the two central characters is ever named. Running throughout is every farmer’s enemy, the fox, an untameable wildness in the younger man’s mind. Hughes’ “thought-fox” is close.
There are list poems, beautiful with plant names, poems of various shapes and forms, blank pages for the unsayable, but it is in the unfolding of the human condition through the pastoral pattern that Carruth gives us his spare and poignant verse novella. Some suggest comparisons with Heaney, but Killochries’ terse armature of words will lead most elsewhere, to other contemporaries, to Gillian Clarke and to Kathleen Jamie especially.
How relevant is the genre in 21st century Scotland? In the Glasgow Makar’s gnarly hands, powerfully so.