"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
A toddler double-wrapped in heavy woollens,
wedged snug in the open mouth of a ten-gallon can,
I’d watch my parents work down the stalls of Ayrshires,
drawing off milk along the cobbled byre.
Over hunched shoulders they’d check on me,
high up in my watchtower in that hall of shadows,
before bending again to attach the next machine,
and the next, till the far end swallowed them in its dark,
leaving me for a cluster’s regular heartbeat
with nothing but cattle bellows, the rattle of chains.
I look for them still, listen for their returning voices;
I will them back into the light.
Poems about childhood and deceased parents can descend, more quickly than any other subject, into sentimentality. In trying to do them justice, it’s tempting to give the reader lots of information which is actually only of interest to you. The trick is to make the details of your own life relevant to the reader, rather than simply giving a snapshot of your own family. A good poem turns that snapshot into a mirror, so that the reader finds something in it which relates to their own experience.
Jim Carruth (not to be mistaken for Jim Caruth, also a fine poet) belongs to a dairy farming family. His new book Black Cart, which this poem comes from, is much concerned with memories of his parents and of the farming community he grew up in. He bears the same relationship to the land as Seamus Heaney did – drawing subject matter from the landscape and people he knows best, and returning to them as a way of honouring them.
Is this poem just a snapshot from his own life? Yes. And of course, no. Searchlight is a good illustration of ‘show, don’t tell’. Don’t tell us you miss your parents; that’s sad but commonplace. Show us how it feels. Make us feel it. Take us with you; then we can empathise with your experience, as well as remembering our own.
Almost the whole poem is a description of an actual incident. We see the whole incident through the eyes of baby Carruth. He doesn’t give us any back story, such as ‘my mother double wrapped me in woollens and wedged me….’ We see it as he sees it, the toddler transfixed by the sight of his parents disappearing into the dark. It’s a very powerful recollection; we all remember that small anxiety – will they come back? so it stands for anything in life that might make us feel like that.
Everything in it is a straightforward description of what he sees: but of course he is selecting the right words to create a mood of menace and darkness. Sometimes, to understand why particular words have been used, it’s helpful to think of alternatives. The cattle shed is literally a ‘hall of shadows’ – but there are other phrases Jim could have used. He uses that one because it suggests mystery and half-shapes. Likewise ‘watchtower’, a word suggesting constant vigilance. He could have said ‘vantage point’ or ‘cockpit’ and each would have created a different mood. He wanted that sense of scanning the horizon, being a lookout.
There’s little rhythm or rhyme in the poem, though there are chimes (woollens and gallon, Ayrshire and byre, cattle and rattle) and of course the rhythm of milking gives its own sense of repetition (‘bending again’ to attach ‘the next machine, and the next’). I’m not sure why it’s in couplets but the space between them slows the incident down and draws it out, keeping it quiet and slow. By the time the baby is left ‘for a cluster’s regular heartbeat/ with nothing but cattle bellows, the rattle of chains’ I have a complete sense of the moment. The child is perfectly safe – ‘double-wrapped’ and ‘snug’, and we inhabit the space with him – the clank of chains, the feel of cobbles which have been succinctly pencilled in.
In the last three stanzas, each line break highlights a tiny moment of anticipation. Finally, the toddler ‘wills’ mum and dad back into the light. It is all a description of one moment, many years ago. Except that of course, it isn’t. The one word that tells us this whole poem is a metaphor is ‘still’ in the penultimate line. ‘I look for them still.’ This is not the toddler but the man, wanting his parents back as the child did before him. In the cattle shed, presumably they did come back into the light and rescue Carruth Junior from his milk churn. In life, of course, they can’t return. But by careful selection of the moment to tell, and the language in which he tells it, Jim Carruth makes this a poem about people we’ve lost, as well as his own parents. It’s that act of generosity, of giving something to the reader as well as recounting his own experience, that makes a poem more than anecdote.