Authors: Hilary Menos
To organic farmers and smallholders everywhere
Seren is the book imprint of
Poetry Wales Press Ltd.
57 Nolton Street, Bridgend, Wales, CF31 3AE
The right of Hilary Menos to be identified as
the author of this work has been asserted in accordance
with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
Â© Hilary Menos 2013
ISBN print: 978-1-78172-054-7
ISBN kindle: 978-1-78172-056-1
ISBN e-book: 978-1-78172-055-4
A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted at any time or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the copyright holder.
The publisher acknowledges the financial assistance of the Welsh Books Council.
Cover photograph: Shastajak
Printed in Bembo by Berforts Group, Stevenage.
The Ballad of Grunt Garvey and Jo Tucker
The secret of a good ley is a firm bottom
â Devon farming proverb
Being Grunt Garvey
Winsome is sixteen today. She sprawls
like a crumpled ballerina straddling the drainage gully
while her sisters mill around and munch hay.
Grunt brooms slurry off the concrete floor.
There's more than one way to skin a cow
but, this being Grunt Garvey, he will do it the one way
and sling her from the spike with webbing strops
like the special delivery under a stork's beak
or Darcey Bussell performing a grand jetÃ©.
It could all go wrong. I see her paddling the air,
the noose â which it is â too high, too low, or both
and, this being Grunt Garvey, things don't go to plan â
she proves to be quite the Houdini, although
it's rather more than two minutes thirty-six seconds
before she hits the straw with a wet thud.
Grunt goes for the JCB with the gap-toothed scoop
to shovel her up like chippings, or so much grain.
Of course it can't go wrong, but this being, etc.
she rolls in like a set of bagpipes with a low moan,
steam from her paunch soft-focussing her face
and more than a little damage to her tail bone.
Midday tomorrow, if she's not on her feet
if you're chasing the extended metaphor)
the local knackerman will bring his gun
and attempt a short duet
before Winsome struts her stuff for the last time
along the tightrope of his winch and chain
into his tatty van. For those familiar with the charm
of a cow's final
this is a good time to look away.
* grand jetÃ© â
a ballet term indicating a long horizontal jump
* on pointes â
dancing on the tips of the toes
* fouettÃ© â
a quick whipping around of the body from one direction to another
Rattling down the lane comes John Teague,
eager to please, eager to do his job,
partly because he is four days late
and the ewe dumped by the shed is on the turn.
Don't ask him what he knows,
John Teague, with his aura of flies,
one eye up the chimney, one eye down the pot,
leaving nothing but a damp stain on the road.
He knows the inside of a pig's mind.
To put his gun to the back of a ram's head.
How a cow falls to her knees as if in prayer
in this reverse nativity in a half-dark byre.
“You got livestock, you got dead stock,” hollers Grunt.
He slams the tailgate, waves Teague off the farm.
Stan from Stags has come to talk about forms
and how everyone's going to die of BSE.
In the kitchen Stan's telling Dad about New Variant CJD.
Grunt makes mugs of instant on the Rayburn.
Mum says she knows a man with a sponge for a brain.
Dad says he knows a mad cow
but they must be proper mental in Kentucky,
eating road-kill varmints in a stew.
“A few ears short of a bushel,” says Stan,
“and five of them dead too.”
What sort of varmints, Grunt wants to know.
“Used to be squirrel or possum,” says Stan,
“but these days it's beef or lamb.”
New Variant burgoo.
“Eggs and brains,” says Mum, “the butcher's treat,
we had that every week when we were young.”
“No wonder your brains are scrambled,” says Grunt,
and throws his slops down the sink.
That night they sit out, skimming stones on the slurry.
Teague says, “Remember the road-kill kid,
spit-roast rats, hedgehogs wrapped in mud,
what happened to him?”
“We had a fight in woodwork once,” says Grunt,
“he tried to cut off my head with a junior hacksaw.
But he got diabetes and moved to Ugborough.
What goes around comes around.”
“After all that squirrel stew,” says Teague,
“reckon he's not coming round no more.”
* burgoo -
traditional North American stew made with whatever meat is available
* BSE -
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a fatal neurodegenerative disease in cattle
* CJD -
CreutzfeldtâJakob disease, a fatal degenerative neurological disorder in humans
* New Variant CJD -
When BSE infects humans, the resulting disease is (new) variant CJD
One foot in the furrow, one on the grassed ridge,
he strolls lopsided, sniffs at pineapple mayweed,
listens as stonechats crack pebbles in the hedge,
counts on his fingers how thistles annex his land.
Spear thistles rattle their sabres in open scrub.
Dwarf thistles lurk in the couch, planning a raid.
Spotted thistles infest his set aside, their sly lobes
and pale flowers colonising his waysides.
Tall bull thistle, creeping thistle, tuberous and woolly,
nodding in the pastures, inching across his red loam,
crowding the shaled edge of the old quarry,
sharper than hoof picks, tougher than baler twine.
Blessed and bitter, cursed and holy, milk and melancholy,
lady's thistle, slender thistle, each and every one Grunt's bane.
When hell freezes over, he swears by three things.
Lard on the lips. Two pairs of socks. His wheelbarrow,
good on the steep when even the Ford won't grip.
This morning he opens the door to a clean sweep
right up to the dairy's cracked slate step, frost
spangling the tank and, briefly, he's ten years old
but now it's taking the piss. Grunt glares at the snow
and it glares back. He kicks the water trough,
heels a hole through the ice. First floods, now this,
the daily round, in arctic sludge. Milk substitute
for the calves, a brick of pellets for the fowls.
He rolls out a silage bale in the cubicle house
and forks it to the cows, sets a can at the yard tap
drumming up chilly water for the dogs,
for the lambs in the barn, the fifty hogs on the hill.
A neighbour phones on the scrounge for a box
and a tow out of the ditch where he spent the night.
Grunt goes off to do what he does best â
apply excess force with a tool. He's back at noon
to fix a burst pipe, by which time two sheep
haven't moved for an hour, are past fixing.
Snow starts to fall as he toils up the slope,
hauls one sheep into the wheelbarrow,
picks his way down, then moils up again.
Grunt's not any sort of man.
But if he was, he'd be the sort
â if you were digging a hole â
not to sit back and watch the show
but to step up to the mark,
place his hand gently on your arm,
take your spade and offer you
the key to his digger. Mates Rates.
The Blue Hour
The fence between Pullheads and Hatchet came down,
each post rottener than the last, and both flocks together â
ewes, lambs, wethers â and there on the high ground
centre stage, the two rams squaring up to each other
each without armour or lance, just a curled helm
and the action between them unfolding.
Grunt's seen year-olds jockeying in a pen â the short run,
the butt and buck and high kick, the gradual retreat
that heralds a new order in the fold â and he's seen
the old ram in the orchard earnestly thumping the trees
until small green apples pelt the barreners beneath,
and all from a standing start. So he's drinking his tea
and starting to think about getting the dogs
when a noise he associates most with a scaffold bar,
or a length of four by two, fractures the scene.
They stagger apart, each ram looking crossly around
for applause, perhaps, or a swift way out
or a “Cut!” from the director. But there is none.
So they back up and do it again, shoulder to shoulder,
lurching into each other like Friday night drunks,
or huddled like boxers against the crowd's urging
and each one's nervous twitch sends the other
further up the field and a little further
until each backs up almost out of the frame
and they do it again, only better, and this time both
fall, a double whammy in long shot slow motion,
and the lights all dim, and the evening rolls on in.
* barreners â
* wethers â
castrated male sheep
Up at four to milk and the Dartmouth lights
glow yellow down the valley. Hay for the calves,
barley for the pigs and the yard to scrape.
Clouds of mist form with each breath.
He picks out lambs for market. Backs up the box
and shoves them in by hand. For once they're quiet.
Then out with the old plough bobbing behind.