Thursday, 12 September 2013

The deft peeling of euphenism, Hilary Menos' Red Devon

In her second full collection, titled Red Devon (Seren, 2013),Hilary Menos builds on the achievements of Wheelbarrow Farm, her 2010 pamphlet fromTemplar poetry, adding further texture and counterpoints to what was already a highly individual and thought-provoking poetic view of modern agricultural life.

Red Devon is far from being some evangelical vegetarian crusade. Instead, it brings us face to face with what we are and what we’ve always been. Let’s take this example from “Stock Take”:

“…And I feel I’m not being euphemistic enough

when I explain the absence of four or five lambs
by saying we ate them…”

Of course, she’s being the opposite of euphemistic throughout this collection. In fact, Menos peels away the layers of euphemism like the plastic wrapping on a supermarket pack of chops.

Red Devon continually challenges us. We’re never told what to think. Instead, the reader is allowed to roam and explore possible reactions. For instance, “Long Pig”, about cannibals, seems a long way removed from the West Country poems at first sight. However, the contrary is true, as the following extract shows:

“We eat the flesh only in wartime, when enraged,
and in a few legal instances. Theft. Treason.”

The reader is implicitly being invited to compare attitudes towards eating humans with attitudes towards eating animals.

This theme of comparisons between humans and animals is crucial to the book. It runs through all the poems, sometimes underneath them, sometimes as a clear driving force. One such piece is “Shambles”, in which the slaughter of animals is compared to the execution of people:

“This is the goat that, incompletely stunned,
Offered his throat to the knife
And said, like Walter Raleigh mentally thumbing the axe,
“So the heart be right, it is no matter which way the heart lieth.””

Any review of Red Devon wouldn’t be complete without mentioning “The Ballad of Grunt Garvey and Jo Tucker, the sequence of poems that lies at the book’s core. Like so much of Menos’ work, it highlights contradictions with a deft touch, never hectoring, always encouraging reflection. For example, its title is traditional, yet much of the versification subverts any pigeonholed expectations. What’s more, any romantic connotations are quickly dispelled.

In other words, tradition is juxtaposed to modernity, thus enabling contrasts to arise. The final (and title) poem of the sequence manages just such a feat,
beginning with…

“Oh for a story as simple as boy meets girl…”

This fairytale content is combined with a sing-song rhythm, setting us up for a shift in the second stanza to…

“At eight Jo parks, unfolds and folds the map,
listens to the metal tick as the big truck cools…”

The inanimate, modern sound of the metal is layered by the size of the vehicle. Modernity is clashing with tradition and the consequences are tragic.

Red Devon is an example of how a pamphlet, already excellent in its own right, can provide a springboard towards the larger canvas of a full collection that’s even better. Hilary Menos writes poetry that is specific in place. However, the key to her achievement lies in her ability to coax interpretation instead of forcing it. As a consequence, I’ll carry Red Devon in my mind for a long time. 

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