new zealand electronic poetry centre

S o m e   s h e l l s   i n   a   t o b a c c o   t i n

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                                                          Harvey McQueen

Milking Before Dawn


In the drifting rain the cows in the yard are as black
And wet and shiny as rocks in an ebbing tide
But they smell of the soil, as leaves lying under trees
Smell of the soil, damp and steaming, warm.
The shed is an island of light and warmth, the night
Was water-cold and starless out in the paddock.

Crouched on the stool, hearing only the beat
The monotonous heat and hiss of the smooth machines,
The choking gasp of the cups and rattle of hooves,
How easy to fall asleep again, to think
Of the man in the city asleep; he does not feel
The night encircle him, the grasp of mud.

But now the hills in the east return, are soft
And grey with mist, the night recedes, and the
The earth as it turns towards the sun is young.
Again, renewed, its history wiped away
Like the tears of a child. Can the earth be young again
And not the heart? Let the man in the city sleep.

Ruth Dallas Collected Poems 15

Not only is this a fine poem, it is one for which I have a deep affection for as it is the first New Zealand one I ever taught. A rookie teacher at Morrinsville College in the Waikato, dairy heartland, I had trouble establishing rapport with a low ability fourth form English class. Many students came from dairy farms, often, share-milker’s children who’d worked in the shed before catching the bus to school. Poems from the Old Country, smugglers and highwaymen, daffodils and swallows were not their glass of milk. One of the first books I’d bought on leaving university was Chapman and Bennett’s anthology of New Zealand poems, well-thumbed from the start. I’d loved Milking Before Dawn and decided to risk sharing it with this class. I handed out copies of the poem and had hardly finished reading the poem aloud when a boy excitedly said ‘it’s just like it is, sir. People in the city don’t know what they’re missing.’ A gusher from the first well – a teacher’s satisfaction, plus pleasure at the common currency between the Deep South poet and cow cocky territory.  The poem’s intoxicating tone wiped away the boy’s knowledge of the hard slog in the shed. The age-old myth about the morning’s renewing freshness proved captivating and the ensuring discussion was lively. The image of cows as wet rocks led to a heated debate, quickly sorting those with imaginative minds and those of a more realistic bent. To top it all off, through the windows we could see the distant Kaimai range half-shrouded in the clinging wisps of mist that follows summer rain. Would that all lessons went as well. That one shaped a career. Thank you Ruth Dallas. Down the years this poem and others of hers have provided stimulation and solace to me.