One of the great advantages of reading poetry collections is that there is no need to start at the beginning. This volume contains stunning pencil illustrations by Thomas Lauterbach and so there is a strong temptation to flick through the pages. As I did, my eye was caught by the title of one poem; Sheepworld. I was instantly transported to a venue in the Dome Valley, just north of Warkworth. A visit with my daughter, aged about five or six. The sheep, the dogs, the menagerie of small animals. I started reading there.
A great poem to begin the journey with, but what a shock it turned out to be. The poem starts as I would imagine. Bill, the aging shepherd, sheerer and sheep wrangler putting on the display for the tourists. All beautifully described in part one. But then comes the second section. Not the show this time, but the refugees, huddled together on their visit. The same spiel from Bill and the call for anyone who wants to try their hand at sheering. Forward steps a shepherd from Afghanistan. Starts the job, ‘looking full of class’ before he crumples ‘a map of misery’, ‘a grimy stream of tears soaks his greying beard’. And then the ending:
I pull him up, hug him tight
feel cold terror calm its way
through his skinny frame
beyond the stage in tiers
his friends stare straight ahead
and fill the sheering shed
with helpless silent weeping.
I would never have picked the direction that poem was about to take. I had no suspicion that we were about to leave our comfortable world behind in such an unexpected way. Suddenly I was alive to everything that was happening in the small book of verse.
The short biography of the author, Bill Bradford, shows a grinning white-haired character, while close reading reveals that he has been a community and trade union activist. In his short book we cover great distances. We are out early in the Otago hill country, in southern England and in Spain. We see a man at one with his horse and with a wonderful understanding of his dogs. A life time of different dogs are brought to life in a poem called Workmates which begins:
There’s Storm and Breeze and Tuke
black and tan with white
Blue and Bo and Bet
the ring tailed one called Duke
each different dog a mate
I can recall them all.
But it is the final verse that says much more about the intimacy of that working relationship than the words on the page:
At end of the day each will get
a stroke, a pat, a ruffle
words of chat about the day
from their boss the shepherd
juicy feed tossed their way
meat and bone to chew
clean water to wash it down
now they sleep
and dream of work that’s play.
One of the joys of this collection is how easily we are transported from a simple but hard life, with horses, dogs, and sheep, to one which is all about human troubles. With titles like ‘Union Meeting’ and ‘False Friend’ we see quite different aspects of life. In a short piece called ‘HR Business Partners’, Bradford parodies the trite slogans, buzz words and management gibberish that office life can often throw at us. Here is a great example of corporate gobbledygook:
Consider the benefits of HR in a holistic way going forward to ensure the best outcomes for a fluid and transformational workplace focused on enhancing and exposing personal limitations in a truly supportive environment.
The injustice of trying to exploit workers is strong on the page, and especially in the case of Julie, who after an unpleasant incident at the Christmas party, thinks the kindly words of the HR lady will help her. But the HR lady is being paid very handsomely by the same boss who made a pass at Julie. While Julie and her children end up living in their car, there is talk of a settlement in a year or two and the boss receives his knighthood. We leave these experiences behind to hear the secrets of processing firewood, making sure that the next winter night you spend in a freezing hut, there is enough dried firewood to last the night.
These juxtapositions of corporate and natural world are some of the great strengths of this collection, along with the simple language in which Bradford brings the scenes from his life into ours.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Mary Egan Publishing