Poem of the week: Before the Map by Carola Luther

An uneasy kind of pastoral looks back to the discovery and rediscovery of language

Before the Map

At night, I feel at home
with these hills. They lie down beside me like cattle
in the dirt they are in.

I call them in the dark and they shift
like cattle do,
Sanga cows, or Highland cows, like kine, like kin.

I know I’m not the only one.
Secretly at night they settle down by each of us,
keep us warm, and in.

These are the names I give them: Kith. Oom.
Sough. Ox.
Gert. Brute. Tlou. Seth. Olifant Cough. Olifant Bone.

Carola Luther was born and brought up in rural South Africa, came to England in 1981 and currently lives in West Yorkshire. When writing about her local environment in her third collection, On the Way to Jerusalem Farm, she often senses complications in the pastoral scene. Besides forebodings of ecological disaster, anxiety flows in from current world events and takes hallucinatory shape: in Balance, for example, an abandoned tractor becomes “a wrecked boat leaning / under the weight of birds”, while in Sheep, the single, terrified animal racing towards her begins to resemble a young woman fleeing for her life. Luther’s pastoral is prone to disorientation and estrangement. But such estrangement has a positive side: it heightens colour and light, and sometimes sets a strand of mythic-animal storytelling in progress. In this week’s poem, Before the Map, enrichment flows directly from the past, both in terms of pre-linguistic consciousness and the discovery and rediscovery of language.

Feeling “at home” with the hills depends on the writer’s not having found out their written names. The map is still close-folded, places haven’t been dislodged or penned in by naming. The hills “lie down beside me like cattle / in the dirt they are in”. They are “of” as well as “in” the dirt. Their presence prompts an early memory, and the speaker seems at home with the way “they shift” when their names are called in the dark. Two breeds are mentioned, “Sanga cows, or Highland cows …” Sanga cattle are the indigenous cattle of sub-Saharan Africa; Highland cattle originally migrated from Africa and Europe to settle in Scotland and the Outer Hebrides. The difference between the breeds is unimportant. The hills resemble both, and, as “kine” they evolve easily into “kin”.

“I know I’m not the only one” seems a glad rather than grudging recognition. Humans become herd creatures now in the third tercet, linked in wider kinship. The cattle “settle down by each of us” like protective ancestral spirits. The last line of the third tercet satisfyingly takes up and revises the preposition (“in”) from the first line. People are safely contained. The hills “keep us warm, and in”.

Luther’s assortment of names emphasises consonantal variety. The sounds slumberous cattle make are evoked in “Sough” and “Ox”. “Gert” shortens the old name “Gertrude”, that of the German Benedictine nun and saint, adding various associations of female strength and tenacity. “Kith” echoes with the earlier terms, kine and kin; “Brute” has the heft of a bull. “Seth” has biblical connotations: it was the name of Adam and Eve’s third son, thought by Eve to be God’s replacement for the murdered Abel. There’s also a working-class ring to these once popular English-adopted Christian names.

Luther draws some of the cattle names from her South African heritage. An end-note tells us that “Oom” means “uncle” in Afrikaans, and that “Tlou” and “Olifant” mean elephant “in Sesotho and Afrikaans respectively”. Even in this gentle pastoral, death is present. “Olifant Cough” may suggest that the animal, displaced in a northern climate, has caught cold, and “Olifant Bone” inevitably signals either natural death or the work of hunters and poachers. At the same time, the cough may simply be a harmless sound, and bone might indicate the living structure that has sturdily made its home in the changing hills of Luther’s imagination.

• A spelling mistake in the caption has been amended. It previously read “Ilkey”, not “Ilkley”


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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