Image by Caroline Forbes

Poem introduction

The pieces I'm now going to read come from a journal I kept on and off over a number of years. Mostly they concern events on a farm in the middle of Devon. Farming being the absorbing business it is I've never written about it systematically but occasionally, after some striking happening, I've goaded myself to set down the details. The idea of such notes is to get the details down fresh, to make an archive of such details that might someday supply material for something more considered. Like most journal keepers, however, I'm remiss: idleness isn't the only obstacle. Very often what stands in the way looks like conscience: over several years of collecting these pieces, I made only thirty or so entries. They're written in rough verse. To begin with I used the ordinary journal prose, the shorthand, sort-of jotted details, relying on these things to bring the memory back. Then I happened to write one in rough verse and at once discovered something that surprised me: in verse not only did I seem to move at once deeper and more steadily into re-living the experience, but every detail became much more important. I experimented, switching to and fro between verse and prose, and it was a curious thing to note the physiological change in myself at the switchover. After that I stuck to verse. The pieces make no claim to be poems of any kind. When I wrote them, as I say, I had no thought of ever publishing them and it wasn't until a year or two ago when someone asked me for a pastoral poem and I went back to these entries to see if I could dig up anything that might lend itself to re-shaping into a poem that I discovered what had happened. It wouldn't be too difficult to take a passage, such as these are, assault it with technical skills and make of it a reasonably acceptable poem in one of any number of styles and my first idea, in the poem I chose, was just to tighten it up, try to find better words and so on. What I discovered immediately was that no matter what I did I destroyed the thing I most valued; the fresh simple presence of the experience which, since it was my own, I didn't want to lose. So I let them lie in their rags and tatters...Most journals are full of what goes wrong and mine was no exception. Of all the mistakes a lamb can make the worst is having got himself conceived inside a rather small mother, then to grow too big before being born. He can compound this error in the crucial birth moments by neglecting to keep his front feet up under his nose so he can dive out slowly and gracefully into the world. If his feet trail behind, his shoulders come up behind his mother's pelvis and are trapped and he will end up with his head born but his body unborn and stuck. His mother can't help and if the good shepherd isn't nearby it's the end. If he is nearby then he catches the mother and with a gentle hand feels in past the lamb's neck to find maybe a crooked leg or a half-way hoof - so with this he can help the lamb out. If he can't find anything down there, then the technique is to push the head back inside and feel around in there for front legs, work them into position and so lead the lamb out with the mother's help naturally. But if the good shepherd's a little bit late the lamb's head, trapped at the neck, will be too swollen to be pushed back in - the shepherd can still try to find a hoof but if he's not very quick, he's much too late and the lamb is dead. This happens now and again and then the lamb has to be got out of its mother. The setting here is a high slope looking south towards Dartmoor on a very nasty February morning.

February 17th

February 17th

A lamb could not get born. Ice wind
Out of a downpour dishclout sunrise. The mother
Lay on the muddied slope. Harried, she got up
And the blackish lump bobbed at her back-end
Under her tail. After some hard galloping,
Some manoeuvering, much flapping of the backward
Lump head of the lamb looking out,
I caught her with a rope. Laid her, head uphill
And examined the lamb. A blood-ball swollen
Tight in its black felt, its mouth gap
Squashed crooked, tongue stuck out, black-purple,
Strangled by its mother. I felt inside,
Past the noose of mother-flesh, into the slippery
Muscled tunnel, fingering for a hoof,
Right back to the port-hole of the pelvis.
But there was no hoof. He had stuck his head out too early
And his feet could not follow. He should have
Felt his way, tip-toe, his toes
Tucked up under his nose
For a safe landing. So I kneeled wrestling
With her groans. No hand could squeeze past
The lamb's neck into her interior
To hook a knee. I roped that baby head
And hauled till she cried out and tried
To get up and I saw it was useless. I went
Two miles for the injection and a razor.
Sliced the lamb's throat-strings, levered with a knife
Between the vertebrae and brought the head off
To stare at its mother, its pipes sitting in the mud
With all earth for a body. Then pushed
The neck-stump right back in, and as I pushed
She pushed. She pushed crying and I pushed gasping.
And the strength
Of the birth push and the push of my thumb
Against that wobbly vertebrae were deadlock,
A to-fro futility. Till I forced
A hand past and got a knee. Then like
Pulling myself to the ceiling with one finger
Hooked in a loop, timing my effort
To her birth push groans, I pulled against
The corpse that would not come. Till it came,
And after it the long, sudden, yolk-yellow
Parcel of life
In a smoking slither of oils and soups and syrups -
And the body lay born, beside the hacked-off head.


from New Selected Poems 1957- 1994 (Faber, 1995), by permission of the publisher, Faber & Faber Ltd. Recording used by permission of the BBC.

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