‘The Soil Never Sleeps’ Adam Horovitz
Palewell Press www.palewellpress.co.uk
ISBN 9781911587248, 166pp
Adam Horovitz was approached by the Pasture-fed Livestock Association to visit some of their farms as a poet-in-residence. The result was ‘The Soil Never Sleeps’. This is a second, expanded edition with inked illustrations by Jo Sanders and includes poems from two visits to farms in Exmoor, England, to cover the lambing season. The opening poem “I Believed I Understood the Land”,
‘If you’ve listened, you’ll know we’re balanced on the edge
between oblivion and life and that the only charm
for our salvation comes in the moments when we pledge
to do no lasting damage, cause as little harm
as we can manage in field or office, city street or farm.’
The project started in spring and an early visit to a Cornish farm leads to a poet’s confession. He was charged with holding a wire fence while cows are moved, but, unaccustomed to standing still, he checks social media on his phone and allows three cows to escape over the slackened wire fence,
‘Ashamed of my inattention,
I put aside phones and photographs
of sunlight on pasture, let go
the poet’s tendency to wander
and hold the wire hard. I run
my imagination through it as electricity,
attempt to keep the remaining cattle
bordered in by thought.’
As a farm hand rounds up the escaped cows,
‘It takes mere minutes for the deserters
to return glum-faced and sulky to the last gate
left between hedge and electric fence’
‘If they’re good for feeding pigs,
they’re quite good enough for us,
he’d said as he scooped them,
mischievous, from the sack
at lunchtime. His son,
home late from school,
sits and wolfs his plate of chilli down.
That was great, he says.
What meat did you use?’
None of the farmers appear to try to convert him to eating meat. There is a defence of pasture-led farming in ‘Post-Mortem’, set in Wales, which starts, ‘Mountain sheep taken from the mountainside/
to dance, constrained, to the tune of supermarkets,/ the need for larger lambs to fill their shelves’ and continues with the discovery of three dead, grain-fed ewes,
‘So we called the vet. Who sliced skin open
to the flesh, pronounced it perfect, no trace
of excess fat. Peeled back the flesh to ribcage.
Again: No problem there. But beneath
the cracked-open cage of bone sat a white heart,
consumed with fat, the consistency of lard.’
The poem concludes with the sheep taken back out to the mountainside where the ewes start to lamb later and only during daylight hours. As a bonus, the sheep suffer fewer infections. There’s a reminder of a darker side to nature in ‘Bella in the Farrowing Quarters’ when a sow gives birth,
‘Matthew, later, counting heads. Eleven, he whispers.
There were twelve before. One, born weak and wet,
has not made it over the pass across her legs.
Where’s it got to? I ask, in slow confusion.
Matthew just looks at me, eyebrows raised.
I remember the power structures of the pigs, their hunger.
They’re better recyclers than us, says Matthew.’
Bella instinctively knew the piglet that was too weak to suckle wouldn’t survive. The poem ends with the last line quoted, allowing readers space. There’s meditative space in ‘4 Minutes 33 Seconds ‘, a poem that deliberately shares its title with John Cage’s ‘4’33’, the average length of a track of canned music,
‘Almost asleep beneath a lippy bulge of wall, I listen for the landscape’s orchestra of supposed silences: the litany of sheep; the creak of a cow’s tongue as it pulls at high grass, risen from this tight soil like an inverted dream of rain. A percussion line of startled birds far up the lane divides earth from sky, opens into an unstrung Gore-Tex hum of distant tourists sleepwalking over rocks. Insects, grass and water hiss in harmonic shifts. Somewhere, the farmer sits at the keys of the land. He listens to the field’s cage, his fingers, for these few minutes, still.’
Throughout these poems are updates on an orphaned calf named Adam or, occasionally, ‘Bloody Adam’ after his tendency to explore and get trapped in tangles of brambles and hedgerows. Adam Horovitz helped hand feed the calf. Later in ‘Bloody Adam in the Winter Pasture’ the growing calf, ‘leans in, sniffs and licks. A brief memory of milk/ smeared across a vague, familiar scent, I think,// too ready for the luxury of attachment/ in ways more numinous than by a name.’ By summer he’s lost the first part of his name, in ‘Bloody Adam at High Summer’, ‘Almost wild at last/ he comes cautious to my proffered hand.’
The additional section, ‘Exmoor’ is focused on lambing. ‘Counting Sheep’ in April on a moor ‘dusted so white it’s hard/ to tell what’s sheep, what’s gorse/ until something bleats and moves.’ In ‘Early Lambing’ a stray newborn has the farmer check
‘for signs of life. It’s breathing!
He stands the lamb upright. Too weak
to feed he says as it stumbles, bleats.
That one faint cry alerts the lone ewe,
ten yards away, out of grassy reverie.
David guides the lamb towards her’
Once reunited, the farmer leaves the ewe and lamb explaining he’ll check later. Too much interference may lead to the lamb being abandoned by the ewe and in need of hand-rearing. Leaving them alone gives instincts chance to kick in and the lamb being raised by its mother. The final poem considers ‘Three Options for Farmers’, one of which is to go into towns and mingle with urbanites ignorant of how food gets to the table,
‘Too much fact runs off busy people
like water from compacted soil.
Learn how to open them
to the seeds of ideas.
Water them with stories.
Watch them grow.’
The strength in ‘The Soil Never Sleeps’ is that is does not create a divide between those who live and work the land and those based in cities. The poems record and work towards and understanding of those working with respect for nature. These farms are small-scale, enabling farmers to get to know their livestock. Accounts and profit are beyond the scope of the book; the emphasis is on the quality of the animals, the do as little harm philosophy of the opening poem. There’s little surprise here for those already raised or working in the countryside. Adam Horovitz provides a bridge between urbanites and farmers, recording and exploring how quality meat is produced and the value of respect for nature.