The pile of cuttings puts on dreadful weight,
swelters in the season, and leaks treacle.
Beside it, the tractor and the cutters drip oils
in the earth floor, in a shed where cobwebs
link the roof to the wired window and the oil drums.
The twisted blades and the spiked roller
rest from the nibbling and pricking of the pitch;
and in the corner a white liner, clogged white
round the wheels, darkens towards the handles.
The quiet men whose stuff this is
have the next shed along. Their door shuts
neatly to, unlike the tractor shed
where the door drags and billows against the bricks.
It was a secret kingdom for a boy.
I envied them their work; lending out bats,
lowering the posts, the twirl of the cutter
at the end of a straight run; and their shed
at the edge of the known world.
David Scott, from Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1998)
I came across ‘Groundsmen’ reviewing books of poems for Rupert Loydell in the late 90s. Among the many highlights of that job was the Selected Poems of David Scott. (It is now out of print and has been replaced by Beyond the Drift: New and Selected Poems.)
I relished his extraordinary evenness of tone, control, and meticulous eye for detail. There is not a poem in the book which is not at once deeply felt and completely suited to its occasion and subject matter. ‘Groundsmen’ is a good example of everything he does so well.
The poem opens in situ with a level and personifying gaze that flowers into sudden poetry: ‘The pile of cuttings puts on dreadful weight,/ swelters in the season, and leaks treacle.’ Not just ‘puts on weight’, but ‘dreadful weight’. ‘Swelters’ chimes distantly with ‘dreadful’ and alliterates with ‘season’ expanding the sensation of heat. Then the delicious and full assonance of ‘leaks’ with ‘treacle’. ‘Treacle’ is marvellous, unexpected and brilliantly exact. I think it’s as good as MacCaig.
Everything here is at ‘rest’ and apparently stationary: the dripping tractor, the cobwebs linking the roof to the windows, the ‘clogged’ liner. Men are nearby, but they are ‘quiet’; their door ‘shuts/ neatly to’.
The poem turns on ‘It was a secret kingdom for a boy’, from patient accruing of detail to reminiscence, announcing the Speaker Has Been Here. It shouldn’t work, but it does. In less deft hands this nevertheless rueful intervention of memory could presage commentary, or, worse, commentary about feeling.
The final four lines comprises one sentence, spoken by the ‘I’, who we now know is the boy. The one flash of emotion is of envy. Gently it appears to raise the poem’s energy levels, prompting the active verbs ‘lending’ and ‘lowering’ and that gorgeous ‘twirl of the cutter’, even as it comes to rest at ‘the edge of the known world’. This works against the deadening effect of the repeated ‘e’ sounds in ‘lending’, ‘end’, ‘shed’ and ‘edge’, which just as gently slow the poem down to its quiet conclusion. You can see so much at the edge (or from it), the poem seems to say, even more, perhaps, than from a ‘straight run’.