Evening all – if I have done this right, this will be published on Sunday at 5.30pm, while I am away in Crete. The wonders of technology. I’m actually writing this blog on Friday night just after midnight. I’ve been away all week tutoring on a week-long residential course with Carola Luther. We had 16 lovely, talented poets signed up for the course and it has been a great, if intense week.
My lovely friend Lindsey Holland is staying at my house this week, looking after my dogs and she picked me up from Grange and gave me a lift back to Barrow. I slept for about an hour and then since then I’ve been packing. Our flight goes pretty early in the morning – we are having to leave at 2am so it seemed pointless to go to sleep and then wake up feeling terrible.
So this week’s Sunday Poem is appropriately set in another country. Peter Jarvis was born into an early-settler family in Mashonaland, Zimbabwe and was educated there and in South Africa. He did postgraduate studies in Scotland at St Andrews and later Stirling universities. He worked in African education in Zimbabwe, then in Fife for 25 years. In 2000 he returned to Botswana as part of a team of British Council teachers and enjoyed a thorough immersion in African village life. There were two further postings in Namibia as adviser and teacher.
I first met Peter at the birthday party of a mutual friend, Antony Christie. Back then, my pamphlet had just come out, and Peter’s was, I think in the pipeline with Happenstance. I saw Peter again at Stanza this year, when he introduced the event that I read at with John Dennison and was really happy to finally see his finished pamphlet Nights of a Shining Moon which I read in one setting.
The poems are set in Africa and are beautifully written. They have a calmness and sureness about them which I think you can see in the poem I’ve chosen. I like this poem because of its story though, told in the voice of a Lesotho shepherd. I thought I’d post this today because we’ve been looking this week on the course about the different ways we can tell stories in poems, and this poem uses one of the oldest, and best tricks in the book, which is to write the story in the voice of a character.
Although this isn’t a long poem, the characters have real colour and presence. I like the mother who runs and shouts at the owner, and the kindness of the owners wife. I like the consequences of the kindness, that the dogs go hungry. There is also that lovely line about learning to sleep with hunger, and teaching the stomach not to want food. This poem is not just straightforward though. It has an air of strangeness to it in that line ‘The lightning means the witches want to kill us’. My favourite part of the poem though is the list of useful things. I love that finding water and finding food is given the same importance as making music and taming animals.
If you would like to order Peter’s pamphlet, you can order it through Happenstance and make lovely Helena Nelson, his editor a very happy lady. Thanks to Peter for letting me use his poem.
A Lesotho Shepherd – Peter Jarvis
(He speaks at his mountain cattle post)
When you are a shepherd
the owner of the animals
must give you gumboots and a kobo.
At the end of the year he pays you
a cow, or two or three sheep.
Once, when I was six, I lost
a sheep in rain. They ran
and scattered. Sheep are silly –
cows are not so difficult.
All night I searched.
I was sjamboked.
My mother brought me water
to wash in and she boiled
plants as medicine for my cuts.
She ran and shouted at the owner.
For the next sheep I lost as a boy
I was not allowed food.
The owner’s wife, sorry for me,
gave me the dogs’ food.
That night the dogs went hungry, not me.
But I am used to sleeping with hunger –
I can teach my stomach not to want food.
If you lose a sheep far away at the motebo
you can say a jackal took it.
Your shepherd friends may back you up.
Here at my motebo on the mountain
I leave behind village noises, village smells.
But shepherds fear thunderstorms.
The lightning means the witches want to kill us.
So I wear a rubber necklace.
I’ve learnt in a difficult school.
I know useful things:
where to find water
how to find food
how to make music
how to tame animals
kobo = blanket
sjambok = rawhide whip
motebo = cattle post