Salt Publishing, 2010   £6.50


Reviewed by Emma Lee, Fiona Sinclair and Ross KightlySphinx seven and a half striper



Emma Lee:
It was difficult to pin down the mood here: not quite nostalgic, definitely not hagiographic, certainly downbeat and almost self-pitying in some places. I suspect the poet has tried to come at a topic obliquely, at the risk of creating a sense of being bereft and missing the real topic of interest. The Nettle Fields’, for example, starts



.......We had to clear two fields
.......on a bitterly cold November morning.
.......We had to clear two fields of nettles.


“We” are the poem’s narrator (and poet) and his father. It’s not spelled out why the fields have to be cleared and the repetition suggests an urgency that’s not in the poem. Nettles suggest neglect—neglect of the father/son relationship—and the “we had to clear” suggests a clearing of the air, of family topics skirted around. The poem ends,



.......Later the white smoke from the bonfires
.......seeped through the poplar trees
.......and hung like mist over the river.

.......He started telling me about a German fighter
.......that came down over his village
.......trailing thick white smoke like silk.



I want to know more about the aeroplane or what prompted the father to suddenly mention it. The “like silk” alludes to parachute silk without clarifying whether the pilot was still on board or bailed out and so the real topic of interest isn’t explored here. What’s more the three stanzas quoted could easily be re-written as prose, it seems to me, without losing anything.



In ‘Following the Map’, I wondered about “spun web of praises”:



.......Our neighbour’s son now sells Porsches in Sweden
.......with handshakes and brochures pushed into the palms
.......of businessmen whilst I sit here, stalled again.

.......Down the road his mother is pruning roses,
.......netting another passer-by in her spun web of praises.
.......How well he’s done, how far he’s gone, the wages.

.......I stare at the aluminum garage doors, litter, beer cans.
.......Thirty-two years old. Can’t drive.
.......Worrying about the days slipping off the map.

.......Plans broken like crazy paving.



The “spun web” suggests a trap, as if the success of the neighbour’s son is just as much as trap as the failure of the poem’s narrator. This is interesting, but not fully explored within the poem and I wanted it to be. It’s as if the poet is aiming to draw two parallel lines and inviting the reader to fill in the space between but the line representing the narrator is thickened with detail whilst the second line can’t decide whether it’s about the mother or her successful son so begins to irregularly zigzag.


The poet’s reach is not confined to the autobiographical or seemingly autobiographical, nor to farming and countryside concerns. There is a good range. However, many of the poems seemed to me somehow confined, forced to conform to the poet’s agenda instead of being what they wanted or needed to be.

Fiona Sinclair:

The Last Farmer has an almost prophetic tone as it witnesses the demise of rural life. When recalling his childhood the narrator is not sentimental, rather he portrays farmers engaged in a battle to yield crops from over worked land. The poems of the present are far from bucolic as they describe abandoned farms that ceased to be competitive and  ‘pretend farms ‘ that are little more than chemical factories forcing arid land to mass produce food. Ironically some of the sweetest and most poignant images of nature occur in urban poems where a bird or a shrub is exiled to the city, much like the narrator.


The first poems in the collection have the narrator time-travelling between his youth and the present. It’s an effective device:  we see the comparison between the care-free child who plays with his tractor in the dried mud and the man trapped in the city who is reduced on Sundays to  seeking his nature ‘fix’ in the brown land that fringes  the urban  sprawl.  I got the image of a person trapped in the past unable or unwilling to move on largely because he refuses to accept social change. This is best exemplified in the poem ‘Following the Map’. Here the narrator describes two friends content as boys to



.......jostle and race Corgi, Matchbox and Dinky
.......through those hot July afternoons



However as adults, the narrator recounts that his friend has abandoned rural life for a better future and sells Porsches in Sweden
.......with hand shakes and brochures pushed into the palms
.......of businessmen whilst I sit here, stalled again.


The tone subtly reveals the narrator’s belief that the friend has sold out, mixed with envy that the man, unlike himself, has been able to adapt and move on.




The poet makes effective use of the ‘I ‘throughout the collection. The result is an isolated figure whose world is populated only with characters from his past. There is mention of a ‘we’ or ‘you’ but the brevity and rareness of the references only enhances his loneliness.



Such isolation reinforces the idea of a prophetic voice warning against our dislocation from the natural world. His argument seems to be that our society is sleep walking in to a partitioning of the countryside every bit as devastating as the enclosure acts of the 18th century. He portrays cities that either consume the landscape as they spread out or surround rural areas so that



.......tarmac roads, steel rails
.......and winding streams and tributaries
.......mesh with hedge rows and power lines a cats cradle of communication links



At the same time the poet has no illusions about the current state of the countryside. ‘Flint Field’ paints a grim portrait of land stripped of its fertility by over production where “we force plenty with additives and pesticides’’. What is striking though throughout the collection is the narrator’s radical point of view that this plundering of the land’s fecundity has ‘’grown poor through centuries of tilling and reaping’’.



Significantly the poet lays the responsibility as far back as the 18th century, blaming the Industrial Revolution for changing irrevocably the shape of the landscape and creating cities with vast populations that continue to demand increasing food production. To argue his point the poet skilfully juxtaposes past and present in many poems, allowing the reader to see both historical cause and effect.

Ross Kightly:
I am sure this collection will not leave too many readers indifferent. There is an angry and bitter flavour to many of the poems and the themes such as change (mainly for the worse) and loss of past innocence—or at least dignity in adversity—are not comfortable ones.



In several poems the narrator is drawn back by an older person's recollections to the Second World War and some of the best imagery is to do with that experience. For example, in 'The Nettle Fields':



.......He started telling me about a German fighter
.......that came down over his village
.......trailing thick white smoke like silk.



This quotation illustrates also the deliberate and measured rhythmic quality of many of these poems—clearly Belcher has a good ear for the music of the line, the stanza and the whole poem: that is one of the great pleasures of reading it aloud.



At one point in 'Following The Map' this reviewer had the strange feeling that his own life was being described:

.......We'd jostle and race Corgi, Matchbox and Dinky
.......through those hot July afternoons until light faded
.......from the downs and flickered on vapour trails.



Sometimes a poem just pushes all the buttons—'Clinker' with its packed imagery of youth on motorcycle goes from 0-90 in thirty seconds! Certainly, the girl with her "wide grin/ framed by hair dyed to the colour/ of the amber slag we'd find by the rails/ and think was something precious" may be back with her boyfriend pushing a pram, but in one of the best concluding stanzas I've ever come across:



........ . . that's later.
.......Right now that grin won't fade
.......and he's hardly holding on
.......and in front of them
.......there's every part of England.



Not every poem strikes me with such force and I found the generally melancholy tone sometimes oppressive, but this is a matter of personal taste and in the case of my difficulties with the metaphorical animals in 'The Ice Horses' the barrier is my problem, I suspect.


There’s not much cheerfulness in this collection, but the anger is mostly well-directed: targets such as the imperialist past and its legacy certainly deserve some of this attention.



I am genuinely looking forward to Shaun Belcher's next book: The Drifting Village. Can't say better than that.