And this was known as the milk room,
the coldest room in the cool house.
There, on a paint-stained table,
Jugs and bowls and basins of milk
in all the stages of turning,
cream, butter, crowdie.
An absence of sun on the green lino,
the narrow north window
with a view of hill-slope
where the giver of this bounty
Year on year
they took her calf away
after the first suckling;
she bellowed the loss for days,
through the wall his thin crying,
the birth-right of his soft warm mouth
curdling in this cold room.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2012. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editors in 2012 were Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh.
In the first stanza we wonder who might live in such a ‘cool house’, and we worry that that milk can turn too far, and sour. Sure enough, the second stanza brings out the emotion of the poem; the mother’s annual sacrifice is enforced and ‘the birth-right’ of milk, and perhaps love, is left ‘curdling’ in the ‘cold room’.
In the island village where I was brought up, most families had at least one cow which provided them with plentiful milk...butter and cheese too. Every year when the cow gave birth, she and her calf were quickly separated so that the household’s supply of milk could continue with little interruption. As a child I was grieved by the separation distress of the animals and by the calf’s struggle to drink its rationed milk from a galvanised iron bucket.
When the prompt of Bodégon (a style of still-life painting which usually depicts items relating to a pantry or kitchen) was offered in Donny O’Rourke’s weekly poetry class, I knew immediately that I would write about this room. The poem came easily. I guess it had been waiting a long time for the nudge.