Behind the Idyll, Mary ThomsonThe title of the pamphlet, in large white caps, is superimposed over a full colour painting of a farmhouse, just a modest white building, with a yard and chickens.

Mary Thomson Books, 2016  

Facing the farm facts

Growing up on a dairy farm in Cheshire more than half a century ago was not idyllic – that’s the sub-text of this pamphlet. ‘No wonder,’ says the poet (in the opening poem ‘Farm Yard’) ‘I dreamed of escape’.

But the detail is fascinating: the reader is drawn into an everyday interaction of life and death, where a child’s favourite cow is ‘shoved’ off to the slaughter-house and the hens peck a porridge pan until it’s as clean as the bones of one of their own number – ‘the broody one we ate for Sunday lunch’. Harvest is associated with the men shooting the rabbit fleeing from the ‘last triangle to be cut’. The corn in the granary runs down a chute into the grinder ‘like golden water’, but the child knows

If I stepped into that stream,
fell into the shuddering maw,
my legs and arms and body and finally my head
would become a chewed bloody mash
poured into a sack.

Mortal risk crackles between the lines of these poems like an electric fence.

Towards the end, there is joy too – in a fishing escapade on a cousin’s farm, and in the final piece of text – three prose paragraphs about milk. Although ‘Milk’ is clearly not intended as a poem, it is every bit as intense in its evocation. The author remembers the meticulous ‘morning and evening cleaning of the cooling equipment and milking machines’ as the process she ‘most enjoyed watching and helping with’.

Her own method in the poem pages is just as meticulous. She writes cleanly and clearly, and as a result, the reader pays attention. This is writing that compels you to take note and watch your step. There are dangers here, and all of it is true.

Helena Nelson