Robert Frost once said about writing poetry, ‘You gotta get dramatic’. Caroline Ross’s poem, ‘Cocky Farming’ dramatically enacts the hardship, fight and struggle that can beset Australian farmers, the worst foes being harsh weather and unsympathetic banks. I enjoyed the way the poet comes at her subject matter from an aerial view, looking down upon the landscape and noticing all that is happening over a wide vista. The tone and shifting perspectives in the poem are mainly what deliver the drama, as does the imagistic acuity. Her selection of details creates a compelling sense of the futile endeavour of trying to make a living when faced with immutable forces. The hardship extends also to birds and plants. A terrific touch in the poem is the vernacular use of the term ‘cockies’, so that the birds mentioned in stanza one seamlessly transfer over into farmers: ‘Cockies fight against/ the sun, the wind, the Banks, all threatening/ to snatch away the living/ clawed and scratched each day// from basalt rock.’ The word ‘cocky’ is also not without a certain irony.
The quintessentially Australian flavour of this poem is a highlight and the contrast with English farms gives added intensity. Towards the end of the poem, the long panning shots give way to a more intimate focus, and the image of the farmer holding a grand-child’s ‘tiny hand’ is moving and poignant. I also enjoyed the way the short and long lines seem to imitate and embody the visual movement of the poem from wide to closer perspectives. The voice is strong, authoritative, convincing.
Cocky Farming White cockatoos swoop down from morning’s unsuspecting dawn and land, as if one wing, in the eucalypt. Dirt’s brown odour floats up from caked, cracked earth while what will later be a scorching sun rises above the roses . Mulberry trees extend their hands one to the other, seeking shade even from the dawn. In England, farms have sheds snuggled neatly to the side of great estate homes. Inside these huts, machinery is hidden by labourers who sharpen, oil, and maintain the country idyll’s image guarded by generations’ mute agreement; owner, farmer, worker, serf. Australia’s country life is less genteel, the homestead’s haunted by a bleakness born of desperation. Cockies fight against the sun, the wind, the Banks, all threatening to snatch away the living clawed and scratched each day from basalt rock. Here, machinery rusts in yards, vegetable gardens are bordered by fences invented from dented cans filled up with cement and steel posts like prison walls built to keep out goannas. Low crawling vines sacrifice rockmelons’ babies to shrivel in the dawn; decoys they hope will distract predators while the mother ship hides many more under fat green leaves growing close to the ground. In the end, all of this is just a place for the elderly farmer to show the grand kids; a place to hold a tiny hand and deliver sermons on the way of things in this country, a wisdom bequeathed from his life of holding back the dragons of sun and wind and Banks.