‘Her poems bring as powerful a sense of farm, animal and land as the best work of Ted Hughes.’ – PN Review
‘Robust, relevant, witty, technically adept writing.’ – Artemis Poetry
In the late 90’s the poet Hilary Menos moved from Camden Town in London to a farmhouse two miles from a small village in Devon. Over the next ten years, together with her husband Andy Brodie and three sons, she turned this into a 100 acre organic farm with a herd of pedigree Red Devon cows and a flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep.
In Red Devon, her second collection, Menos reveals her experiences as a “blow in” from upcountry moving into a tight-knit rural community and seeing at first hand some of the human and animal costs of the conflict between traditional farming methods and the demands of modern commercial agriculture. She also tells the story of a burgeoning love affair between farmer Grunt Garvey and haulier Jo Tucker, a romance which ends in tragedy. Alongside these two stories, one fictional and one very real, runs a concern for farmers around the world whose livelihoods – and lives – are threatened by global changes in agriculture.
Red Devon New Welsh Review
These rural poems of irresistibly coarse vitality comprise a collection that is dark, taut, crafty and entirely compelling, enthuses Steven Lovatt, heralding an unmistakeable voice in contemporary poetry.
In the spring number of this magazine (NWR 99), Jasmine Donahaye criticised Gillian Clarke’s recent poetry collection Ice, charging Clarke with inaccuracy for presenting a sanitised account of rural life, without ‘silage or slurry’. Donahaye ought to be delighted by Red Devon, which is snarled in baler twine, interlarded
with blood and tractor fuel, knee-high in thistles and positively slick with slurry.
Between 2004 and 2001, Hilary Menos, with her husband and sons, ran an organic farm in Devon. The majority of these poems are ‘about’ farming, but Red Devon is no pastoral. In the collection’s opening poem, the farmer Grunt Garvey slings a diseased cow ‘from the spike with webbing strops…’ before
she hits the floor with a wet thud.
Grunt goes for the JCB with the gap-toothed scoop
To shovel her up like chippings, or so much grain.
The scene is gruesome, but the indecently spry syntax is horribly exhilarating. Menos is a master at this trick (we quickly learn that she is not a one-trick poet), and repeats it elsewhere to reliably unsettling effect. This coarse vitality is one of the most irresistible hallmarks of Red Devon. Transitive verbs are strewn about to emphasis sudden or violent motion, entirely in keeping with the hard lives and uncouth natures of the poems’ personas. Grunt Garvey could be an archetype of sorts, but he is no Iago Prytherch: the farmers of Red Devon idolise their tractors, watch Countryfile and use online dating sites to arrange rough trysts.
A great source of energy for these poems is fecund Old English in which Devon landscape was named. furrow ridge, pebble, hedge, wool, bull, shale and loam- these words ground the poems topographically and semantically, clotting the stanzas and denying air to refined Latinisms.
Menos is attentive to the cadences of demotic speech. Proverbs and idiomatic banter threaten to burst out of their tight metrics, but behind the roughshod rhythms and the line endings that seem to hobble along awkwardly on weak, slant and semirhymes there is a sly and surefooted poetic intelligence at work. Menos is precise in her descriptions of machinery – of tools, guns and the paraphernalia of the mechanised farm. Into the seasonal human cycles she inserts the disruptive rhythms of machine kinetics, further enriching the texture of her lines:
This is grace consecrated in metal,
grab arms gathering, hydraulics shunting the hay
and the needles, knotters, cutters, in precise sequence
There is the occasional jarring note. The bravura use of borrowed slang words – ‘dude’ and ‘varmints’ – can seem forced, and at times a slack couplet falls flat. The haiku (the most awkwardly ill-fitting of imported forms, inexplicably beguiling to poets in English) is given its moment, with predictable consequences. For the most part, though, the writing here is dark, taut, crafty and entirely compelling.
Not all these poems arose directly from Menos’ experiences in Devon. The collection is divided into three parts, and several from the second draw attention to the human and ecological cost of globalised and profiteering agribusiness. This section of the book is entitled ‘Shambles’, which seems an accurate judgement upon a ‘free market’ that is often callous in its indifference to the health and livelihoods of rural communities. As urgent as these problems are, though, they are unrelated to what is valued in poetry, and the poems in ‘Shambles’ are, with a few exceptions, weaker than those in the rest of the collection. Poetry (contra Donahaye) not only has no dues to pay to naturalism; it also often seems overstretched and thin when used as a tool for social criticism. ‘Pieta’, which deals with human birth defects caused by pesticide use in Paraguay, fails to contain (despite Menos’ attempt to ‘tell it slant’) the horror of its subject matter, and the poet’s and our own helpless anger is felt too nakedly. The best of Menos’ poems treating problems of contemporary farming (such as those on the subject of badgers and TB) are memorable for reasons that have nothing to do with today’s headlines.
The pessimism apparent in this collection will be off-putting to some, but there is also much humour and tenderness here. Not all of the poems are rumbustious, and many of those in more reflective vein contain moments of quite startling beauty. The last two lines of ‘Colin’ could have been translated from Wang Wei, such is their quiet simplicity and humane evocation of a moment of life:
Headlights blazing, mind a blank, he ploughs
long after dark. Post on the doormat, untouched.
Red Devon is not flawless, but it contains some of the most moving and exciting poems that I have read in a long time. Having established herself as an unmistakable voice in contemporary poetry through her farmyard and slaughterhouse odes, it will be fascinating to see where Menos turns next for subjects robust enough to contain the invigorating energy in her writing.
Review from Stride Magazine
In very obvious contrast, Hilary Menos (b.1964) is a narrative teller, a finely observant poet living and working on a scaled-back farm - 'the organic market in decline', which I didn't know - with her family in rural Devon. What seems to be her one brief YouTube appearance, speaking a poem not in this book, she reads in a measured, caring way, boldly-quietly, which is the tone of her written word, in the book's three sections variously grounded in everyday experience and having fun with a 32-part sequence titled 'The Ballad of Grunt Garvey and Jo Tucker'. This could be a once-read-soon-forgotten fun and games but it is at heart more serious than that and I find I care what's going on there. No few lines get into it properly, but here's the opening of 'Badger Season',
Grunt has Dad's old Webley & Scott twelve bore
with the dinged end and the open scroll chasing on the stock,
the right barrel choked by three quarters,
the left chocked by a half, for close work.
And on through ten and a half more stanzas, and every poem in the sequence a surprise. The other sequences have what are, I assume, a more everyday for real 'I' and 'we' and 'you' and 'your', more personal and locally observant. Throughout the book the poems are in regular stanza forms as work best for narrative. There is throughout a liveliness of spirit, and an orginal imagination. She is at heart, it seems, a chronicler. These lines open a poem called Milk Fever, from a sequence called, 'UK 364195:
There's a downer cow in the yard next door,
legs akimbo, black and white body slack.
she's sinking by degrees into the dirt floor.
her calf hungry, her calcium reserves sapped.
Review from The North
Red Devon is a book with a lot to say – and a writer with the ability to say it subtly and engagingly. Hilary Menos introduced us to Grunt Garvey and his tough ( and hazzardous) working life in her 2010 pamphlet, Wheelbarrow Farms; she’s re-grouped, and often re-written, many of these poems in Red Devon to play a fresh role among new poems.
I Imagine readers might have asked her ‘what happened to Grunt Garvey?”, a man who struggles all day with his ractor and a long-buried wire fence, to return as ‘a mud-reamed troglodyte’ so exhausted he can only ‘sit down with a “value” pizza in front of countryfile’. ‘The Ballard of Grunt Garvey and Jo Tucker’ is her answer, with Grunt’s mates and family, work talk, animals and more rendered in poems which areeconomical but unforced ¬– not least because Hilary Menos has such a good ear for rhythem and for her characters natural speech. Heres a visit from a mate in ‘Burgoo’:
In thr kitchen Stan’s telling Dadabout New Variant CJD.
Grunt makes mugs of instant on the Rayburn.
Mum says she knows a man with a sponge for a brain.
Dad says he knows a mad cow.
The mate, the warmth of the Kitchen, the style of banter among the family- as well as the ‘Mad Cow’ disease that hasn’t gone away, all in poem’s opening scene. Hilary Menos is particularly skilful at writing within the register of her characters world: ‘Jo clocks Grunt unloading fat lambs in the pennage’ – the verb at the beginning of ‘Once upon a Time in the West’ catches Grunt through Jo’s eyes, not the poet’s.
Highly readable in themselves, together the poems build a compelling narrative which as the cover says – ends in tragedy. In spite of the blurb giving the game away like this, it’s so well conceived, the last poems still shock. Although Hilary Menos ends ‘The Ballard…’ quietly, changing the register to ‘I wanted so much more for Jo than this’, you’ll have to put the book down a while before turning to the next section.
The ‘Shambles’ section ranges world-wide, rooting out disasters and diseases that can often be laid out at the door of global industry. Hard hitting, yes – but not heavy going, thanks to the variety of voices and forms Hilary Menos uses, and to the humour that’s always elbowing its way into her writing. ‘ Pig Out’ is written in the voice of a Chinese pig on clenbuterol (found ilegaly in Chinas pork in 2011):
Yeah you bet I had hypertension, the pressure
To be bigger, pinker, leaner – you get nowhere
as a natural these days…
The books final section re-lives and reflects on Hialry Meons own time as a small farmer in Devon. In ‘UK364194’, she addresses the reader directly with this summary of ‘what we’ve achieved’:
Tinkered here and there; let well alone
(though more by luck than judgement of design);
larend more of what we can’t do than what we can:
passed on just a little of what we’ve learned.
Red Devon is so coherent and satisfying a collection, I cant find anything to dislike, so I shall complain of the footnotes. They annoyed me – not because as in all good writing the context explains an unknown word or phrase perfectly well. Ignore them and you’ve got a great book.
Jane Routh, The North