Review | Home Farm by Janet Sutherland


Hugh Dunkerley

Home Farm

Divided into seven sections, this moving and formally restless collection delves into the life of the farm in Wiltshire where Janet Sutherland grew up. The book is, in many ways, an elegy, both for the farm itself and for Sutherland’s childhood. Running through the book are a number of powerful poems about her parents as they succumb to illness and death. The collection is anything but mournful, however. Light and dark are balanced in poems which evoke the joys of nature and family, as well as pain and suffering.

Water is a recurring theme in the collection. In the first section, entitled ‘Water Meadows’, water is something that both gives life and takes it away. Sutherland’s experimentation and skill with form are immediately evident in ‘View of a Water Mill and its Eel house’. On one level this is a concrete poem in the shape of the mill. Sutherland describes the mill using technical and architectural language: ‘Mill on River Avon, now disused. English bond brick, stepped plinth’. The use of different fonts within the poem allows the reader to piece together other poems which lie within the apparently architectural narrative. It is as if the ghosts of past lives lost in the mill are hiding between the lines.

‘Gifts for Lethe’ is a series of tercets intercut with italicised single lines and couplets. The poem brings together many concerns of the collection in a brilliantly multifaceted form. The effect is that of a contemporary renga in which water is the connecting force. The poem opens with a childhood memory:

the water bailiff thought I was a boy
the water bailiff who was
bitten by a grass snake

Later we encounter moments from the lives of Sutherland’s grandfather and great-grandfather: memories of farm life; the names of rivers, both local and distant; familial deaths. The overall effect is that of a mosaic of moments connected to water, memory and loss.

The restless experimentation with form continues in the poems about farming. The opening piece of the ‘Stocktake’ section is entitled ‘Mum’s Accounts’ and is a list of the lives and deaths of cattle over a twelve year period. As a found poem, this is both shocking and moving, detailing the multiple deaths of cattle, but also hinting at the toll this must have taken on Sutherland’s mother and father. This matter-of-fact tone sets up the approach Sutherland takes to the often blunt brutalities of farm life. There are descriptions of bloat, warble fly eradication and, in ‘Braided Wire’, the cutting out a calf dead in situ.

The brutal side of farming cattle is countered in the next section by two poems about individual cows, named in the titles as ‘Florence’ and ‘Topsy’. The necessities of farming are there, but there is also a tender relationship between animal and human, as in the final sentence of ‘Florence’. ‘Florence / would let you lie against her back and didn’t / seem to grieve the calves we took.’ The poem ‘You hold in your head a notion of the land’ is a child’s eye view of growing up on the farm, learning to drive the tractor and to stack hay, but also to ‘set that grief aside’ and help the calves to feed when they are separated from their mothers. It ends with the mother of the family beginning to fail. The power of this final section is the way in which the mother is, in some senses, another animal worn out by the farm.

You’ve seen your mother fall and fall
and fall and fall and never cry, although
you’ve heard her slur,

you’ve heard her sentences disintegrate
and you’ve interpreted. You’d like to hear
her voice again, its undertow has faded.

You’d like to milk the cows with her and wash
their filthy udders with a cloth. You’d like
to tell her what you should have said before.

The section titled ‘Evenings on a farm near Alderbury’ further details the decline of Sutherland’s parents with heartbreaking imagery. ‘Dilapidations’ is a series of four short poems. ‘Dilapidations 1’ describes the physical effects of hard labour on the humans on the farm, while ‘Dilapidations 2’ is a list of the costs of repairs required at the end of the farm tenancy. Once again, the people who work on the farm are another thing that wears out. ‘Measures of distance’ beautifully interweaves imagery of fish with narratives of Sutherland’s dying father, and within this, quotes from a letter Sutherland’s grandfather sent to her father when he was a boy. The result is a subtle and moving poem which evokes the sense of a person’s life folding in on itself as it comes to an end.

The poems in the next section, ‘Birds and Beasts’, are nature poems rather than poems about farming; they also play with history and sexuality in fascinating ways. ‘To the Nightjar’ uses the text of a will from the sixteenth century to contrast a domineering husband’s instructions to his wife therein, with the quiet memorial of the voice of the nightjar singing for the wife. ‘Foxed’ recounts a meeting with a fox on a suburban road, description of which leads back to a memory of sex and the ways in which we are animal too. ‘all the junk’ is a nature poem for the Anthropocene. Here nature is not separate from us, rather it is in the abandoned spaces we leave behind. So the grass snake and the slow worms coil ‘in the space behind the tipped / up paving slabs’ while ‘the quince / transplanted at the wrong time of year / opens a hundred blushed slack / petals wide onto its downy leaves’.

Towards the end of the book are three poems apparently written by an AI. These are witty and fascinatingly playful. ‘Is it possible to fold a watermelon?’ ends with these humourously inhuman lines:

                                    When people are folded
the unfolding may require a stay in hospital
or a trip to the funeral home. The AI is curious
about the concept of a ‘funeral home’ (it seems counter-
intuitive) and has noticed that people appear
to exhibit less malleability than water melons, though
clearly, the numerical values will be constant.

In the final section of the book, the tone changes again. Three poems, called ‘Listening to Fallujah 1, 2 and 3’, use the language of military, medical and parliamentary sources to construct chilling indictments of war and the lengths to which we will go to disassociate ourselves from the consequences of our actions. In the third poem, Sutherland takes the words of a Major General, Nick Houghton, recorded at his examination by the Select Committee on Defence. The chilling way in which language can be used to avoid responsibility and the self-questioning this would cause, is shown here in verse three of the poem.

The assessments for determining
whether or not it was a correct political thing
to prosecute the clearance of Fallujah or nor
were essentially political in nature, not military.

Sutherland writes nuanced, formally ambitious poems about subjects vital to us all – how we treat animals and wider nature, the death of parents, loss, war. But her voice is also subtle. She never trumpets her opinions and there is a remarkable lack of any self-pity in the work. This is the power of the poetry, the way the poems demand that the reader engage with them on a deeper level. At a time when both politics and performance poetry seem to be about who can shout loudest, Sutherland’s is a quiet and necessary voice.

Words by Hugh Dunkerley.

For more information and to buy Home Farm, visit Shearsman Books’s website.

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