Reviewed by Helen Addy, Jon Stone and Helen Evans
Reading Rider at the Crossing, I found myself at a crossroads. This is my first experience of reading Jim Carruth’s work. I was immediately struck by the way these poems didn’t just plant beautiful images in my head, or lead me to experience the world in a certain way, but left my mind ajar, with Carruth welcoming me in like an equal.
I found myself poring over the work trying to identify how he manages it. His poetry possesses an almost imperceptible magic where I am encouraged to make myself at home in my own thoughts, yet remain spellbound within his world. It was a steady-handed generosity I hadn’t encountered before.
‘The Balemartin Bard, is a poem about a travelling bard’s long absence from home and his sister’s attempt to fill the silence he leaves. The lines fall in couplets, apart from the first and the last, which stand alone. I liked the sparseness of this and how the blank lines felt like the silence needed to enhance a piece of music:
Even in his absence
they came to the croft,
the daughters and sons of cottars,
appearing in ones and twos
from the long grass of the machair,
ragged and hungry for new words.
Leaving the chores
his sister welcomed them all.
‘Kalashnikov’s Mower, is a beautifully wry poem that springs from a quote by Kalashnikov himself, regretting he didn’t invent something to help people. The language is mechanical and methodical. The tone feels both admiring and chilling because each description can fit both the innocent mower and a weapon (“It’s amazing what can be done/ when you put your mind to it.” The domestic backdrop of the poem, a neighbour leaning over his fence to observe the mower in action, in all its ordinariness, lends an unsettling air when Carruth introduces the word “witness”. The final couplet is a killer (no pun intended) with its well-aimed alliteration and quiet irony.
Whether using the space on the page to deepen a poem’s meaning, or employing vigorous Scots for humorous effect, Carruth is a poet I can trust. I knew his poetry would move and stimulate but the real treat was how I felt carried along by his words, a fellow traveller negotiating my own crossroads.
The last time I reviewed Carruth, he’d just released two pamphlets in quick succession: a collection of concrete and found poetry, and a single long narrative poem accompanied by woodcut illustrations. Rider at the Crossing finds him residing in relatively benign stylistic territory – 24 no-nonsense lyrics – but abandoning the major theme of those two books, the decline of agriculture, and setting off on a journey. Or rather, several journeys, since this latest pamphlet is peopled largely by travellers – circus folk, bards and musicians, soldiers, the titular rider and so on.
Several poems speak to Carruth’s empathy with animals, echoing the rural concern of earlier work: March of the Beasts is quietly heart-rending in its pared-back descriptions of mistreated circus creatures:
The scabby lion trails;
the zebra limps behind,
bares its broken teeth.
Dead Horse is a play on the metaphor (itself flogged to death) coloured with unsettlingly realistic imagery, while Straight Flush deals with extinction and La Corrida relates a bull fight from the point of view of the bull’s son. These are, to my mind, among the best poems in the collection – simple in terms of their language, but difficult in terms of the themes they tackle.
Elsewhere, the subjects and influences are more varied – Greek myth and Goya, tribespeople and historical juxtaposition, two poems in deep, crackling Scots, one built around the conceit in its epigraph. It’s a rich haul, albeit comfortably within the established remit of contemporary poetry. The weight of the poems is always expertly judged, and there is a strong consistency of tone and mood running through the whole book that builds like a storm. There are weaknesses: The Last Biram Player in the World requires a note to explain its context, but in that context it loses all of its mystery, merely rehearsing the facts with a poetic turn of phrase.
The last poem, which is the title poem, seems closest to being written from the point of view of the poet himself. It is one perfect extended metaphor, describing the arrival of horse and rider at the water’s edge, and the moment in life when – well, actually, I don’t want to spoil the last line, whose impact is best felt after reading the whole poem, and indeed the whole collection.
The first thing I noticed about this pamphlet, Jim Carruth’s sixth, is its openness to a variety of form: free verse; longer poems (a couple of them in Scots); and even a sonnet or two. Many hover around 12 to 15 lines and these can work extremely well: ‘Travelling North’ and ‘Dish’, for example, illuminate failing or failed relationships by using metaphors that sound clichéd – the journey embarked upon with hope, the meal lovingly cooked but criticised – yet are written with sufficient care and imagination to be fresh, as in ‘Travelling North’:
One talked of magnetic attraction,
the swing of a dancing needle.
The other, unfolding a map to mark a route,
spoke of the future, of remaining true.
For me, the very best of these compact poems is ‘Coastal Distractions’. It’s too tightly interwoven to quote, but it’s one of those simple pieces where meticulous attention to description and respect for tiny detail summon a whole world beyond.
When you’re revitalising cliché, of course, the risk is that it sometimes doesn’t come off and, for me, ‘Poem for Martha, the last passenger pigeon’ and ‘Dead horse’ didn’t. This makes the collection feel a bit uneven to me but when it works, it’s spectacular.
Which brings me to the free verse and the longer poems. I don’t have space to consider these in detail, but want to mention three favourites. ‘The promise of ice cream’ is a funny and self-aware take on human motivation and political power; ‘Straight flush’ (Great Auk takes on Man at poker) extends the treatment to the natural world; and I can see why ‘Rider at the crossing’ was chosen as the title poem. It resonates beyond the conscious mind and ends with four lines I love:
.........you’re stuck in this moment, no longer moving,
staring into an absence, straining for the faintest sound –
a clue to the other side, some shape forming or lifting,
when all that’s left to wait for is a change in the light.
The pamphlet begins with some words of Chief Seattle’s: “Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself”. What holds the collection together is concern for the cruelties human beings inflict upon each other, and upon the creatures that share this planet with us. This compassionate wisdom is what I’ll remember.