Sprouting bulbs in a pot: ruddy and greenish and smelling of earth and growth, and a label that entices with the promise of Delft Blue, evokes the headier smell of hyacinths in bloom.
The last of January's small stones.
|Alice Neel: The De Vegh Twins, 1975|
So begins a poem that Jackie Kay wrote after attending the exhibition of Alice Neel's paintings in London last year - one of many quite magical poems in her new collection, Fiere.We are the same; we are identical.We are sitting on the piano stool;our portrait is being painted by Alice Neel.Be yourselves, don't feel obliged to smile.
" The more rules a society has, the more deviant characters it produces, and the same goes for cows. The grids and turntables of the modern [milking] sheds necessitated the cows walking through in the same order each time, and some were unable to get used to this, even after weeks of training.
The cow that would not tow the line was the same cow who used to scratch itself on the gate, or lick the farmer's trouser leg. The farmer would give the beast a smack on the horns to push it away, half-chastising, half-affectionate. Now I heard formers referring to them as useless cattle and they had them put down. "
How can the city-dweller have any relationship with cows that isn’t contrived and self-conscious? Well, I remember… I remember resting my head on the warm flank of a cow I was milking, and feeling (oh dear, how do I put this without being ultra-twee?) calm and contented in the midst of all the fears that assailed my twenty-one-year-old life - growing estrangement from my family, dread of academic failure, a difficult love, what to do with my life. I remember this and smile at myself and set myself up for ridicule, but it’s such a lovely memory.
It was the Easter holiday before my university finals. I visited friends in France, where I’d spent my language student’s ‘year abroad’ the previous year, went with them to Jean-Marie’s parents’ village in the Ardèche. A golden place of old stones and sunbaked mud and buzzards wheeling in wide skies. A tiny place, a few tumbledown houses around a square. A lost place, poor and crumbling, almost all the paysans gone to work in factories, only the feckless and the none-too-bright not rushing off to better themselves.
Just the one house was still inhabited in the traditional way by family upstairs and cows below. A beaming, sleazy family, still working their land, tending their few vines, milking their two cows, scratching a poor living and I fear too often passing out under the apple trees drunk on their homemade wine and spirits. Not a romantic decay. Growing poverty. Premature ageing. Fear of the authorities – all too aware that the two little grubby sparrow daughters were seen as deprived and potentially at risk. Alcoholism is alcoholism, even if passing out in the orchard is a lot less dangerous and dreadful than passing out on a city street. But still, a defiant love of the land and of a dying way of life.
I never opened my books. Walked in the countryside until I was shattered, sat on the base of the war memorial in the little square watching my friends’ kids rush about and when they were tired sat them there beside me and told them stories in the quiet dusk. And I hung around in the cowshed until Pierre offered to show me how to milk the cows. My friends tittered, but I said yes. For once I brought no tension, no learner’s anxiety, sat down and did it, found the rhythm easily.
Every day I got up early, drank strong, viscous black coffee and a shot of rough spirits (good grief) and milked one of the cows, while Pierre milked the other. A gap-toothed grin: Bon Dieu, she likes it - that’s a rare thing these days! You should marry a paysan! No irony, but genuine surprise and gratification. No irony on my side either.
It was a good time, much needed, never forgotten.
" You made sure you had a little foam, and then you carried on milking, you just carried on milking. And then you let your thoughts wander. You thought about the new day, the weather, the birds. Your thoughts skipped from on thing to the other. What is happening to the world? Why do things turn out the way they do? "
This poem is old-fashioned. This poemI love this book. It is sure to grip readers, from many religious traditions and none, who yearn, in these speeding, drifting times of ours, for a way into ancient and enduring songs and stories.
is being written right this second,
each breath a new letter on the unrolling page.