Lifesaving Poems: Hilary Menos’s ‘Slaughterhouse’

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I have said before that one of the most useful things I have done in my life was to be a member of a group of poets who would meet to workshop each other’s poems, between 2003-05.

Every five weeks or so the poets in the group would meet in my kitchen over coffee and Danish to discuss poems which we were drafting. Each poet would read out their poem and then listen, in silence, while the rest of us made observations, comments and criticisms. Only when the rest of us had finished were authors allowed to respond. The format never changed.

Rather grandly, we called ourselves the South West Writers group. The group comprised serious poetic talent and range, namely: Andy Brown, Ann Gray, Candy Neubert, Christopher Southgate, Hilary Menos and Julie-ann Rowell. The purpose was not become like each other, but to enable to become more like ourselves. Julie-ann writes differently from Ann and from Candy, who in turn is different from Hilary. There’s room for all of us.

I first read ‘Slaughterhouse’ at my kitchen table, in the company of these great people. There is always a special kind of hush, filled with nervousness and expectation, that descends as a new poem is brought to the table.  In the cases of poems as rare and exciting as ‘Slaughterhouse’ it is especially freighted with anticipation.

Memory being what it is, this is far from reliable, but I think it may have been one of the especially rare poems from that time that we did not want to see changed at all.

What I love about the poem is the way it moves from warmth to coldness without ever raising its voice above a tone of voice which is closer to the intimate whispering of secrets across a pillow than it is the finality of a last will and testament.

I take great pleasure from the poem’s plain diction spiced with words like ‘rollicking’ and ‘striating’. I love the singsong music of ‘nudge’, ‘truck’ and ‘crush’; and ‘face’, ‘gates’ and ‘race’ masking the ‘necessary force’ and logic of the poem’s grim subject matter. There are also great phrases here: ‘the captive bolt’s blind kiss’; ‘the precise and subtle use of knives’; ‘couched in the companionable chill’.

I find the latter especially arresting, for it seems a summary of how the poem has created its effects upon the reader. For one thing, ‘couched in the companionable chill’ is extremely difficult to say out loud. It is as though the clot it creates in the throat mimics in the body the slow realisation to the mind the finality of its setting.

And what brilliantly odd words they are to put together. ‘Couched’ has a sense of something being put to bed, and of carrying extra meaning. ‘Companionable’ and ‘chill’ bounce off each other, rather like the carcasses the poem describes, each echoing the other’s ‘i’ and ‘l’ sounds, but incompletely, reminding us that however satisfyingly the poem serves up its pleasures, it can inevitably end only one way.

Slaughterhouse

 

Let it be done here, here where death

is all in a day’s work, and by men who deal

in the thing itself. Spare me a slow decline,

years of pain and pills, months in bed,

weeks of too few visits, then too many.

 

Instead, give me a brief and rollicking rise

through Devon lanes, sun striating my face,

a gentle nudge out of the truck and into the gates

of the cattle race, the open arms of the crush

and the captive bolt’s blind kiss.

 

Roll me over the grid in the next room

into the warm and expert hands of these,

the last men on earth to hold me; men skilled

in the precise and subtle use of knives,

the exercise of necessary force.

 

Then winch me through to where the others hang,

trimmed and tagged, bumping haunch to haunch,

couched in the companionable chill.

 

Hilary Menos, from Berg (Seren, 2009)

Lifesaving Poems

4 comments

  1. evelyneholingue

    Beautifully written and yes, a little chilling, and especially interesting to me today since I had a very recent talk with two Californian ranchers about the topic of cattle slaughter. Somehow disturbing, even for omnivores.
    I also like what you have to say about belonging to a group of poets. “There’s room for all of us” is the best thing that can happen in a writing/critique group. Some writing groups feel threatened when one member doesn’t write the same genre or doesn’t pursue the same goal.
    I find interesting, especially for poetry, that the poet reads his or her own work.
    Recently my writing group experimented a new approach. We send our work in advance and nobody reads her or his own piece. In my personal case, I found it valuable as it forces me to pay more attention to the words and the way they work together. But again, this is not poetry.
    Thank you for sharing the poem with us today.

    Like

    • Anthony Wilson

      I like the sound of what you are trying out as a group. Maybe it will send your work in a new direction? As Richard Ford says somewhere, no one involved in literary friendships ever really knows what is going on in them, it is just too layered and complicated. Once I realised this years ago (the painful way) it helped me relax.
      With thanks as ever
      Anthony

      Like

  2. Ellecee

    A beautiful poem in the sense of what it conveys, ” Spare me a slow decline,
    years of pain and pills, months in bed,” it seems a quick public transition trumps the alternative the poet sees. It’s wonderfully written. I, too, belonged to a group of writing poets. It was a challenging time for me. We were a competitive group, although we didn’t want to admit it. It was difficult at times but it also made for more focused work by all of us.

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  3. Anthony Wilson

    I think being in a group is still a really useful testing ground for what you feel you are up to, or want to be. It can be competitive, yes, and this can also be useful, for a time at least. The New York poets had it, the Beatles had it, Picasso felt it with Matisse, why shouldn’t the rest of us have it?
    With thanks as ever for your kind comment
    Anthony

    Like

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