Orbis review: A Sense of Farm

REVIEW BY LYNNE TAYLOR

A themed collection in three sections, the first is signposted by a Devon proverb: ‘The secret of a good ley is a firm bottom’, which sets the tone; the weighty subject matter is aerated with dry humour. ‘The Ballad of Grunt Garvey and Jo Tucker’ is a fictional tale of an incipient relationship between the aforesaid farmer and haulier. Dickens would have approved: characters evoked simply by a name.

The opening, ‘Being Grunt Garvey’, sets up the denouement: ‘this being Grunt Garvey, things don’t go to plan’. The bovine Winsome, being prepared for her demise, ‘sprawls / like a crumpled ballerina’ and comes to a sorry end; sadly prophetic. In ‘Tercio de Muerte’, Grunt is found ‘crumpled in all the wrong places’. Romance will never blossom.

For the second section, ‘Shambles’, Menos has a polemic, addressing the effects of scientific invasion on global agriculture, the casualties being Nature and mankind. Pollutants are the invaders and assault in tides, so in ‘Red Tide’, ‘a river of blood / bled from efflorescences of force-fed algae’ is a killer. In ‘Pieta’, another biblical reference, ‘there is a kind of plenty / in the blue of the babies’.

The final section, ‘UK 364195’, which is their farm’s DEFRA herd/flock mark, considers her family’s move from Camden to rural Devon. (‘Red Devon’ is the type of cattle they bred.) It records their early struggles with typical Menos drollery, and witnesses the conflict of traditional versus commercial farming. That too results in human and animal cost.

But back to drollery. From ‘Stock Take’:

At first he can’t understand how we have another ten
cows this year when we haven’t bought any in.

‘The Organic Farming Calendar’ consists of three line stanzas for each month: for April: ‘The cruelest month. / Our neighbours’ NPK grass / is always greener.’ And for December, an image like visual onomatopoeia:

Seven in a line
goose goose goose goose goose goose goose
the barn door a quilt.

Farming is a profession born of experience, attentiveness and commitment. In poetry about farming, there is no place for the vagaries of free verse. Menos adheres to a polyculture of poetic form including rhyming couplets, terza rima, sonnets, and balladesque quatrains. Their conversational tone renders the timbre of folklore. They could be lyrics; think Johnny Cash: understated; resonant; powerful. Definitely earthy.

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