I’m lucky if I’ve got the milk and nappies to see me through the day and, where I once tried to stem the rising tide of plastic fantastic, I’m now resigned to sit in the surf, knowing that to put a be-socked foot wrong will result in howling pain (the smallest toys are the deadliest). So, I’d rather assumed that poetry magazines were a luxury for the time rich. However, I was recently sent a copy of Butcher’s Dog and it has changed my mind. Butcher’s Dog is biannual and was founded in the North East of England. The magazine carries work written across the UK but has a special interest in work from poets based in the North.
Issue 4 is edited by Sophie F Baker, Will Barrett and The Poetry School Co-editors. The Editor’s Note asserts that the poems are ‘delightfully eclectic in length and style, form and freedom, subject matter and voice. There are poems of great sadness and poems of joyful, tail-wagging exuberance; of lust and longing, and of satisfied companionship.’ This is no grand claim: I have been living with the poems in this issue, on and off, for a couple of months now and they have made excellent companions.
I live in suburbia, not the Hebrides, yet Seth Crook‘s Imitation still resonates (although, on this estate, it’s car alarms we’re treated to): ‘The corncrake is here. 3 am. / It will stop calling // for about thirty seconds // but it will start again, / serious about / this mating business.’ The poem’s taut lines, often amounting to no more than a word, agonisingly and intermittently disrupt the page’s placid whiteness. The emphatic certainty of Crook’s ‘will‘ is implacable and, faced with this natural onslaught, what chance do we stand? Sooner or later, at least the neighbours will start screaming and hammering. The car alarm will be switched off. However, Crook’s poem had me laughing out loud as, ‘Inside, / it is so tempting to wake her up / with your corncrake. // So / tempting.’ ‘Inside’ deftly illustrates the degree to which we are insulated from the natural world, even on the Hebrides. Yet, even today, nature finds a way to impose its rhythms on us and we’re not as unlike the humble corncrake as we like to think we are. Stuart Pickford‘s My Life in Contraceptives rings no less true but reaches different conclusions and his stanza break hints at decades of bored, mechanistic intercourse, as he writes of, ‘Those sweet days of sin before kids. // Now, an economy pack with the shopping.’
On the facing page, in John Wedgwood Clarke‘s Barber, balding middle age is treated rather differently. ‘He couldn’t bear to look at himself in the mirror. / The clippers buzzed behind his ear. / The barber’s fingers firmly swivelled his head, / pushed it forward, forcing him to bow.’ In this context, ‘bear’ suggests self-disgust but it also suggests a weight, a burden – faced with the mirror, the customer has lowered his own head. On a first reading, the poem appears to be about the indignity of being manhandled: ‘now he took it // personally when the barber tried to dip / his head.’ However, in stanza one, the barber has forced the customer to bow to a reflection he is too disgusted to face, suggesting that the real indignity is a kind of coerced blasphemy. Clarke’s poem is suggestive and resonant: the unwelcome cutting of hair takes me straight to the Book of Judges and I’m left wondering how this dark story ends.
It’s hard not to love this magazine. You can enjoy the beauty of nature and language in Jane Burn‘s Froghopper, or take a walk in the company of Helen Mort and Tony Harrison in Kay Buckley’s excellent Opus Anglicanum. My wife has been asking me what I’d like for Christmas for ages. A subscription to Butcher’s Dog is the only thing on my list.