The Scythe and the Slaughterer

Our second themed book, Dark Mountain Issue 10: Uncivilised Poetics, is now available. Over the next few weeks, we're going to share a little of what you'll find in its pages. Today we bring you poems from Emma Must and Vahni Capildeo.


Formerly a campaigner on environment and development issues, Emma is completing a PhD in the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queens University, Belfast. Vahni is a British Trinidadian writer whose book Measures of Expatriation won the 2016 Best Collection Forward Prize,

Notes on the Use of the Austrian Scythe

Emma Must

You can no more lend a man your scythe
than you can lend him your false teeth,
so take my day instead, borrow this meadow.
I’ll heap sheaves of hours inside your ward
then babble about what I’ve learnt of mowing:
nibs and tangs and snaths, heels and toes
and edges – esoteric glossaries
for parts of tools grown rusty through disuse;
the sharpening of blades; and principles
of movement, trimming techniques, windrows, spill.
I have a hunch all this might interest you –
who drove us at weekends to run round woods,
who pointed out sea-birds, steam trains, castles –
and knowing your appreciation of the technical,
if I can communicate how vital
it is to keep the hafting angle tight,
and how though the neigung doesn’t simply
translate it can be altered with a shim
of plywood, it might transport you for an evening
from your fixed intravenous
existence where time is marked by the sickly
drip, drip, drip of antibiotics
disrupted only by the clatter of supper
sharp at six, the tea-girl’s cheery ‘Cuppa?
Orange squash? Hot chocolate? Champagne?’
I hesitate to dwell too long on sharpening
the blade … I’ll paraphrase: with a quality
natural whetstone, never a klumpat,
make one complete pass from beard to point.
That’s honing. Then there’s peening:
to trick life from the scythe for years to come
tap the edge of the blade with a hammer,
tease it out like pastry… But time is getting tight
so what I want to finish on tonight
are those principles of movement: staying true,
the simple shift of weight from foot to foot,
keeping give in the knees and judging the lean,
meditating on how we breathe
so we avoid those unexpected blips,
the woody stumps that send our pulses skittish.
Let’s focus now on minimising spill
as late sun curves around the outfield,
concentrate on holding a line,
get satisfaction from a job well done,
hope that we have learnt enough to guide us
through the mass of grass as yet uncut.[/poem_content]


 Vahni Capildeo


The tears curled from the cattle’s eyes, their horns curled back, their coats curled like frost-ferns on windshields or the hair on the heads of Sikandar’s soldiers. Two of my grandfather’s sons, when he knew he was dying, took him from his bed. They supported him out of the doorway so he could say goodbye to his favourite cattle. The cattle wept. They knew him. They are not like cattle here. They live among the household and on the hills, which are very green, and they eat good food, the same food as the household, cut-up pieces of leftover chapatti.

You do not get stories like that in books. I am telling you because you only have things to read. Whenever anybody tried to make me read a book or anything, I would fall asleep; my head would just drop.

What is the use of reading books? What can you do after that but get an office job? Do my friends who stayed at school earn as much as me? They all have office jobs; could they do a job like mine? Could they slaughter for seventy hours without getting tired or needing to sleep?

It was hard at first. I used to dream the cattle. They would come to me with big eyes like mothers and sisters. After a few weeks, they stopped coming to me in dreams. After about five years, I stopped feeling tired: I do not need to sleep. We do three or four thousand a day in Birmingham, only a thousand a night in Lancaster.

Tonight I am going to Lancaster. I will talk to you until Lancaster. Where are you from? You are lying on me. No, where are your parents from? Are you lying on me? I came here as a teenager, and at once they tried to make me read. How old are you? Why do you only have things to read? I am sorry I am talking to you. You have brought things you want to read. Beautiful reader, what is your name?

You can feel the quality of the meat in the animal when it is alive: the way its skin fits on its flesh. You can feel the quality of life in the meat. The cattle here are not good. They inject them. Their flesh is ahhh.

Look, look how beautiful. I’ll show you pictures of the place. Look, it is very green.

Image: Kit Boyd
Another World
Etching and aquatint

‘Inspired by the Antony and the Johnsons song of the same title, this elegiac image of an imaginary landscape distils the essence of the British countryside I love into another world. Finding refuge in the subconscious, I create images 
that are a balm to the harsh reality of our modern lives, and which I hope lead the viewer down winding paths into a protective, womb-like environment.’Kit Boyd lives and works in London and shows at galleries across the UK. Before becoming a full-time artist, he worked for many years for the Campaign to Protect Rural England and then the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales. He maintains strong links with Mid Wales where he gained his degree in Visual Art and has recently lived. His work follows in the British romantic tradition and is inspired by neo-romantic artists of the 1940s and Samuel Palmer.

You can find more where this came from in our latest book.


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