Poem of the Week: Before the Map by Carola Luther | Poetry

Before the card

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

I call them in the dark and they move
like cattle,
Sanga cows, or Highland cows, like kine, like kinship.

I know that I am not the only one.
Secretly at night they sit next to each of us,
keep us warm and inside.

Here are the names I give them: Kith. Oum.
Murmur. Beef.
Gert. Brute. Tlou. Seth. Olifant Cough. Os Olifant.

Carola Luther was born and raised in rural South Africa, arrived in England in 1981 and currently lives in West Yorkshire. By writing about his local environment in his third collection, On the way to the Jerusalem farm, she often perceives complications in the pastoral scene. In addition to the forebodings of an ecological disaster, anguish springs from the world news and takes hallucinatory forms: in Libra, for example, an abandoned tractor becomes “a wrecked boat leaning / under the weight of the birds”, while in Sheep, the unique and terrified animal running towards her begins to look like a young woman fleeing for her life. Luther’s pastoral care is subject to disorientation and estrangement. But such a distance has a positive side: it enhances the color and the light, and sometimes sets in motion a thread of mythical animals. In this week’s poem, Before the Map, the enrichment flows directly from the past, both in terms of prelinguistic awareness and the discovery and rediscovery of language.

Feeling “at home” with the hills depends on whether the writer has discovered their written names. The map is still folded up, the places have not been dislodged or registered by name. The hills “lie down beside me like cattle / in the land where they are”. They are “of” as well as “in” dirt. Their presence elicits an early memory, and the speaker seems comfortable with how “they change” when their names are called in the dark. Two breeds are mentioned, “sanga cows, or Highland cows …” Sanga cattle are the native livestock of sub-Saharan Africa; Highland cattle originally emigrated from Africa and Europe to settle in Scotland and the Outer Hebrides. The difference between the races is irrelevant. Hills look like both, and as a “kine” they easily evolve into “parents”.

“I know I’m not the only one” seems a happy acknowledgment rather than reluctance. Humans become herd creatures now in the third tercet, linked by a larger kinship. The cattle “settle in by each of us” as ancestral protective spirits. The last line of the third tercet takes up and satisfactorily revises the preposition (“in”) of the first line. People are safely confined. The hills “keep us warm and inside”.

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

Luther derives some of the names of cattle from his South African heritage. An endnote tells us that “Oom” means “uncle” in Afrikaans, and that “Tlou” and “Olifant” mean elephant “in Sesotho and Afrikaans respectively”. Even in this sweet pastoral care, death is present. “Olifant Cough” may suggest that the animal, moved to a northern climate, has caught a cold, and “Olifant Bone” inevitably signals either natural death or the work of hunters and poachers. At the same time, the cough may just be a harmless sound, and the bone may indicate the living structure that has taken hold in the shifting hills of Luther’s imagination.

A spelling error in the caption has been corrected. He used to read “Ilkey”, not “Ilkley”

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