Song of the Battery Hen
We can't grumble about accommodation;
We have a new concrete floor that's
Always dry, four walls that are
Painted white, and a sheet-iron roof
The rain drums on. A fan blows warm air
Beneath our feet to disperse the smell
Of chickenshit and, on dull days,
Fluorescent lighting sees us.
You can tell me; if you come by
The North door, I am in the twelfth pen
On the left-hand side of the third row
From the floor; and in that pen
I am usually the middle one of the three.
But even without directions, you'd
Discover me. I have the same orange-
Red comb, yellow beak and auburn
Feathers, but as the door opens and you
Hear above the electric fan a kind of
One-word wail, I am the one
Who sounds loudest in my head.
Listen. Outside this house there's an
Orchard with small moss-green apple
Trees; beyond that, two fields of
Cabbages then, on the far side of
The road, a broiler house. Listen:
One cockerel crows out of there, as
Tall and proud as the first hour of the sun.
Sometimes I stop calling with the others
To listen, and I wonder if he hears me.
The next time you come here, look for me.
Notice the way I sound inside my head.
God made us all quite differently,
And blessed us with this expensive home.
-- Edwin Brock
Hap Notes: Edwin Brock (1927-1997) idly read a poetry anthology when he was waiting to be demobbed (demobilized) from the Royal Navy in 1946 in Hong Kong after WWII. It changed the young man's life. The idea that verse, with it's often terse and condensed words, had communicative possibilities far beyond any other form of the written word inspired him to write. (He was from a distinctly un-literary South London family and he'd only gotten school qualifications from grammar school.)
He pursued writing as he worked as a policeman. When he was first published in the Times Literary Supplement the editor, Alan Pryce-Jones, had no idea that the young poet was a Bobby. Much was made of this in the British press, but Brock was unaffected by the ballyhoo and continued to read and hone his craft. He eventually became an advertising copywriter. He was quite good at it although he hated it as he hated anything that interfered with his reading and writing.
Brock had more than a dozen books of poetry published in his life time as well as a novel and an autobiography. His divorce, his remarriage, the birth of his children and other aspects of his life were all covered in his somewhat "Confessional" poetry. Today's poem, along with "Five Ways To Kill A Man" are two of his most famous and oft-read poems.
I suppose, one could make a case for the poor chickens in this poem. You'd have to be a complete numb skull not to know about the treatment of chickens raised for meat in today's market. Here in America, their beaks are often cut so that they won't hurt themselves or other chickens while penned up. So that's the first layer here. A battery is a large group of cages for the raising of poultry.
But there's something haunting in this poem that has to do with more than just the plight of animals we raise for food. There's an element in this poem that speaks directly to all of us who feel penned in and, even more startling, the rationalization we go through to defend our positions. That world out there is different, beautiful, calls to us but it is dangerous.
Here's what Brock had to say about today's poem at a reading: "It was written... when I was staying on a farm in Worcestershire. The farmer showed me his battery house with some pride and when I made the usual cliched comment about the poor bloody hens he said "Do you know we had an experiment one day, we left the flaps of all the cages up to see what the hens would do. Well, they looked around and walked right back in." At that point I said to myself, " Christ, he's just written my autobiography" and that afternoon I wrote "Song of the Battery Hen."
You can find more Brock here:www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=7496