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 p15
I’m sometimes asked ‘which is my favourite New Zealand poem?’. It’s an unanswerable question for it’s a moveable feast. There are so many. Not only is Milking Before Dawn a fine poem, it’s one for which I have a deep affection for it is the first I taught.
A rookie secondary 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. I loved this poem and decided to risk sharing it with them.
I handed out copies and had hardly finished reading it aloud when a boy 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 heartland. The poem’s intoxicating tone wiped away the boy’s experience of the shed’s hard slog. The age-old myth about the morning’s renewing freshness proved captivating and the ensuring discussion turned 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 the scene off, through the windows was 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.