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Agri culture by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

Agri culture by Mike Ferguson (Gazebo Gravy Press)

Before Mike Ferguson became an English teacher (he’s now retired), he tried his hand at farm work, imbued with the back-to-the-land enthusiasm of the 1960s and 70s counterculture. Having emigrated from the USA, Ferguson took a job for three years near Ipswich, and then lived and worked part-time in the Chiltern Hills whilst he studied at Oxford. 

Although perhaps the reality of labouring, even within agriculture, hit home, and Ferguson followed his degree by training as a teacher, eventually moving to Devon, and then engaging with the Devon reading and publishing literati, especially in the context of readings, workshops and magazine & booklet production within education, Ferguson still goes slightly dewy-eyed and nostalgic about farming, as evidenced by this beautifully produced, austere pamphlet.

Much of Ferguson’s current writing is process-driven: he uses erasure, pattern, word-shapes, Humument-type explorations and collage to write through and from writing both old and new. Here, this type of work shares its pages with more lyrical free-verse and prose poetry, and occasional haiku-esque (or imagistic) work.

There are stories here, poems full of characters and events – J. H-J. ‘tending the grain dryer’ but also trying to put out a barn fire with a hose in the other hand; the narrator proudly taking his heifer to the County Show but ending up flat on his arse in cowpats – but also frozen memories and moments, such as this brief, evocative and personal poem:

    Not Shearing Sheep

   For me, it was rolling wool

   and then my lanolin arms

   wrapped around

Elsewhere, acclimatisation to the smell of silage has the effect of changing it to the ‘candied whiff / of a sweet dessert; mucking out the pigs wrecks a pair of DMs; and we are asked to stand still and briefly listen to ‘the heron / miscalling / our names’.

Other poems are more playful, presenting the swirl of crows or the laying of irrigation pipes by hand as simple and effective shape poems, boldly set on the page; with some evidencing the author’s educational knowing and critical distance in poems such as ‘Farming Without Derrida’, where ‘[t]here is nothing to deconstruct’.

Obviously, Ferguson also has the gift of distance in time to look back at himself then. In ‘Agrarian Creed’ he notes that he 

       didn’t preach

   Marx on the farm back then

   as we were

   comrades when

   collectively hand-hoeing weeds,

   or sharing the

   three-bar electric fire

   for our morning breakfast toastings,

   or freely passing on

   the skills and

   wisdoms acquired over time.

and admits that even many years later, when a teacher in Devon, he would visit the Honiton (agricultural) Show – ‘still drawn to / tractors’ – only to find new models with air-con and stereo systems, which prompts a reimagining of possibilities, with ‘Hendrix feedback up cultivated rows, / or Dylan // defiant in ignoring Maggie’. (A reference to both Thatcher and the song ‘Maggie’s Farm’.)

The book ends with a confessional poem and then an observational comment and statement. Having written earlier in the book that ‘Hunting and gathering was / never going to be enough’, ‘Fault’ admits the agricultural failing back then was the poet’s, in an erasure poem rather appropriately sourced in Richard Jefferies’ The Toilers of the Field:

   Fault

                                                                                       the fault of

                                                     th       is

                                                                                       agricultural

        labourer

        is                                     poetical feeling

                                                                                                         of

        beauty

The closing poem, ‘Residual Revelation’, is more nostalgic and accepting, although it starts by noting that

   In ’73 I thought this would be

   my pastoral idyll, an agrarian

   nirvana after LSD

   with no need for a degree.

On some levels it clearly was an idyll, but studying literature, teaching and writing has clearly changed Ferguson, even though the poem states how he still gardens and grows crops. Although he suggests that he ‘could claim / how studying, in the end, taught / [him] a thing or two’, the poem ends by contradicting or qualifying this, revealing that it was

   Scrivy who coached me in how to

   look and look all those years ago and

   find revelation in the simple things. 

It is that sense of revelation and simplicity, an attention to the world – remembered, reinterpreted, deconstructed (or not) – that is most evident in this engaging, entertaining and clear-minded collection, which evidences an open-eyed, thoughtful and sure-footed writer at work. Even when standing in animal shit or recalling ‘the butt-end of a / tedium of days’.

Rupert Loydell 23rd August 2022

The Lonesomest Sound by Mike Ferguson (Knives, Forks Spoon Press)

The Lonesomest Sound by Mike Ferguson (Knives, Forks Spoon Press)

In a previous short collection, Professions, Mike Ferguson took a series of individual professions – butcher, baker, fireman, policeman etc – as a starting point for a playful exploration of identity, language and a meandering discourse which was always entertaining and often informative. He’s extended that process here with a wider brief where he takes a phrase or word, for example, ‘Not Amused,’ ‘Tarrying’ and ‘In the Palm of a Hand’ and extrapolates in a manner which is equally effective. Each prose poem occupies less than a page and some are much shorter. If there is a more questioning nature to these pieces, and I think there is, then it’s all done with a lightness of touch which makes them such fun to read. 

          Inside a Cloud

         To cool a cloud of its atoms is to swagger in the atmospherics.

          An artist who makes indoor clouds has discovered the texture

          of transience. Is it a  cult of our new  technology to store such

          faith inside the Cloud? Swelling and thickening and rolling and 

          sculpting  invisibility of vapour. A realistic  rendering of clouds

          has an  abstract. This twee  metaphor of bedsheets  in the sky.

          You can fly a plane directly into and along yet only words shape

          within and with. Anisotropic here too – scattering – and future 

          mash-ups are being mapped as I compose. Thank you George.

It’s a beautifully put-together piece and in that sense is typical of the entire collection. Ferguson’s commentary on his own process (‘future / mash-ups are being mapped….’) is never intrusive and also suggests to me that the further into this way of working you delve the more you are forced to engage with the nature of the endeavour itself. I’ve certainly found this in my own work, though our practices are not entirely the same I suspect, and the trick, if it is such, is to embrace such ‘meta language’ while not being overwhelmed by it. Or to put it as Martin Stannard does on the back-cover blurb – ‘ that relationship between enjoyment and the serious might be what you perhaps most remember, and might take it into your future days.’  

     There are around 90 poems in total and there are recurring hints or themes which interrelate between titles/subjects but the main thrust of each piece is generated by the title. Literary references return – Beckett and Coleridge occur, often as amusing asides and there is some lovely wordplay amid the puzzlement and occasional abrupt moments. Memories are evoked – ‘American cursive in my mother’s letters will always remind how / close we were in writing across miles and time and belonging.’ – and then disappear while associations of words and themes keep sending the ‘narrative’ off into different spaces and occasionally into outer space. The actual choice of title in each case is intriguing and may be arbitrary or indeed indicate some form of pattern. Here are a few which I’ve picked at random (?) from the Contents page: ‘Now I Lay me down to Sleep,’ ‘Whiskers in the Sink,’ ‘Purple Turbines,’ ‘Electracy,’ and ‘About Writing Poetry.’ Subjects can be everyday trivia, if you like’ or puzzling encounters, all is grist to the mill. You could certainly spend some time, if you wished, putting together a speculative account of the author’s interests and passions or you can just go with the flow and enjoy these pieces for what they are, language games which intrigue and provoke thought and pleasure in just about equal amounts, I’d say. Not that thinking has to be ‘unpleasurable’ of course! Here’s a second poem for you to encounter:

          You Cannot Live on Beauty Alone

          Because what you hear as the sound of children playing is just the

          calls of  seabirds. A home resurrected  after drought and  lowered 

          waters is  still a relic.  Romanticism  was a power of light until Sara 

          intruded with her orthodox  diss. Beauty  in  loneliness can be self-

          indulgent. As Monroe purred, a career is wonderful, but you can’t

          curl  up  with  it on a  cold  night. I  think  Curley’s  wife  too   knew

          a dress and  sunlight  was never  enough.  Sustenance groomed  is

          still potatoes. Has anyone mentioned the folly of this?

The penultimate line is wonderfully puzzling yet you can just about link it to the previous line if you try. The final line is a wonderful example of juxtaposition, just leaving it all up in the air. The reader is as empowered as the writer. I simply love this kind of material. 

Steve Spence 28th November 2021

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