Poem introduction

In Madness and Civilisation, Michel Foucault relates this anecdote about a farmer in the Highlands of Scotland renowned for his ability to cure the mad. I have transferred the tale to the landscape in which I now live.

The Wise Farmer

It was said, between Tinwald
and Torthorwald, lived a farmer
who could cure the mad. A Hercules
of a man, he yoked two to the plough –

and if one shrugged at the traces
he larded the stick across his back.
They were kept naked
and dark as the earth itself

and, as the plough thrust in –
cleaving to one side clods,
roots and rocks - the tendons
of their necks were guyed like ropes,

the clenched muscles of their flanks
clear as if they’d been flayed.
In the cloudbursts of spring
blindly they lifted their faces

and the rain washed them
like stones. They were as nothing
from where the rains came - as peewits
in the vast open rigs of sky.

Madness, the farmer instructed
his neighbours, is the bestial
raised in man. The trick’s to restore
to man the animal that rages

in his heart. With Reason beaten,
docility’s assured. Below Torthorwald,
come evening, the Lochar Moss
is groomed with gold. He unshackles

his pair and leads them to the byre.
After feeding, they crouch down
together in their stall. They tend
the raw burns on their shoulders,

the welts across their backs. Neighbours
claim they hear them howl – insist their door
is firmly snecked. Still the wise farmer
has his champions and it’s said,

if you travel between Tinwald
and Torthorwald, it’s hard to tell
which half of the men might be beasts -
or which of the beasts be men.


first published in Dear Alice: Narratives of Madness (Salt, 2008), from In The Becoming - New and Selected Poems (Polygon, 2009), © Tom Pow 2008, used by permission of the author

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6Dear Alice

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23The Wise Farmer

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