Perhaps it started with a book I was given at the age of 8. The wind in the willows. I’ve still got it. What lodged in my imagination were the end-paper maps of the River Bank , of Toad Hall, Mole’s house. I knew where they were, how to get from one to the other. For me, via the Narnia Books, The Lord of the Rings and the rest, a map has always validated the story, put it in a navigable place. And then there was Treasure Island, where maps were the clue to treasures that might be dug up and make me richer. When there were no maps provided with a story I would draw one; it was the way I could visualise the where of the what. I once devised a cross-sectional drawing of Alderley Edge so I could figure out the underground journey in The weirdstone of Brisingamen. It didn’t work too well because it needed to be 3-dimensional, and I reckoned that was a step too far. But you get the point. I love stories and poems rooted in place ( like Jane Clarke’s The River, say), and maps make places real.
Why am I telling you this? Well, because of a close encounter with our guest today. I met, and didn’t meet her, on Arran, at the McLellan Poetry Prize awards evening. There we were with Simon Armitage, and although Di Slaney wasn’t there, her commended poem Ingar’s Holt was, and Simon read it out. I didn’t pick up the poet’s name, but like Simon Armitage I was much taken by the fact of an OS map reference, or, more accurately, a reference to an OS map in the title. It was a short poem, but amongst other things it taught me just how a title can grab your attention. And I remember that U.A.Fanthorpe has a poem with an OS grid reference for a title, and that it once sent me off to write a landscape sequence based on notes made once a month for a year from the same place on the OS Map Sheet :110.
This poem isn’t the one I heard on Arran, but it’s the one that gives the third sequence of the collection its title:
He ran from the farm like he was learning to slay,
great grandfather’s hounds snouting his heels
with low battle howls, an invisible axe twirling
through grass downhill to the ditch. The half-
remembered hearthtale of severed hands
hovered somewhere north, somewhere hard
and cold and red, somewhere near a shore
far from here, when boats were more
important than carts and jewels as big as
skimstones pinned the eyelids of the dead.
Nothing was owned or held, only wanted.
Movement was everything and settlement a
rumour of old age few would see, or wish for.
He ran from the softness of straw and the comfort
of cattle. He ran because his mother called him
darling, kept him closer than the hounds and
tighter than the bindings on his fox fur boots.
And as he ran, something small and fierce burned
through his chest until it burst on his tongue,
sprayed through the story of the morning in
one long eulalia, herald warrior in waiting
for a past buried under this rocky mound, safe
behind the ramparts of his father’s steading.
There I was on Arran, aware, and unaware of Di Slaney. It was only retrospectively that I realised I’d met, and not met, her before, at an Interpreter’s House launch at The Fenton in Leeds, I think in 2014. (I met Maggie Mackay there for the first time, and Maria Iasakova Bennett, too). And Di Slaney, who I actually remembered because I had never before seen a poet turn up at a reading to perform AND to sell wool. I still haven’t properly met her, but we are Facebook Friends, and after reading and re-reading Reward for winter I feel as though I know her pretty well, as you will when you buy her book and read and re-read it yourselves.
So, by indirect and serpentine ways we come to the poet and her poems. Di Slaney lives with her husband in the Grade II Listed, 400 year old Manor House Farm in Nottinghamshire with more animals than is sensible. If you look up a site called Historic Nottinghamshire, you come to the image of the farmhouse, seen from the churchyard. The post, written in 2003 describes it as ‘sadly empty and delapidated’. Which is an important nugget of information when you come to read the collection. She runs an Egg Club to raise funds for British Hen Welfare Trust and sells speciality yarn from her small flock of rare breed and rescued sheep under the name Hooligan Yarns. Di has a degree in English and European Literature from the University of Warwick, an MA in Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University and has co-owned Candlestick Press since 2010. She has been a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing for over 15 years, and founded Nottingham marketing agency Diversity which employs 70 people. Her poems have been anthologised and published in various magazines as well as being shortlisted for the Plough Prize and the Bridport Prize, and commended in the McLellan Prize. Two of her poems won joint first prize in the 2014 Brittle Star Poetry Competition and she won first prize in the 2015 Four Corners Poetry Competition. Her debut pamphlet collection Dad’s Slideshow is available from Stonewood Press, and her first full collection Reward for Winter is available from Valley Press.
Let me tell you what I like about Reward for winter. One thing surprised me; I’m not an animal lover, or, I’m not someone who is comfortable around animals, apart from cats, who don’t give a toss anyway. But I have to say I was sideswiped by How to knit a sheep, not just for its wit and invention, but also for its knowledgeableness, that works much as Ted Hughes’ poems in What is the truth do. As do the poems in the sequence ‘Washing eggs’ which will teach you as much about chickens as you are ever likely to need to know.
I’ve written in another post [Matters of fact: August 22, 2015] about how I like poems that grow out of absorbed research. It’s why I like the poetry of Julie Mellor who explores the esoteric side by side with the everyday, and of Christy Ducker, and her painstaking discoveries of Grace Darling. I love the way the language seeps into the fabric of the poetry and fast-dyes it With me it’s been John Prebble’s Glencoe, and Highland Clearances, and Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, Mountains of the mind, Landmarks..except, of course, it’s their research and my reading of it, and their language that colours and forms my writing. I think this is partly what happens in Reward for winter, which has 7 satisfyingly packed pages of Notes at the end. I enjoyed them enormously.
What else? I like writing that grows out of specific, realised places. I think that it probably started with Akenfield, which took me to reading work like Twenty years a-growing, Roger Deakin’s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (which, like Di Slaney’s collection, grows out of living in a place that has been been restored to life by the writer), Adam Nicholson’s Sea Room; Ted Hughes’ Remains of Elmet; Norman Nicholson’s poetry of Cumbria , Roethke’s of market gardens and greenhouses, all suffused with the language and textures of loved, known landscape. Let’s add to that stories that evolve through generations lived in a single place. The Rainbow, and Alan Garner’s wonderful Stone Book Quartet, and the more puzzling Thursbitch.
I thought it best to explain why I’d be personally well disposed towards Reward for winter. Maybe it were well to offer more generally accepted criteria. For a start, Di Slaney writes what Jonathan Edwards has described as ‘sophisticated and dexterous poems…..beautifully crafted and very moving’. There are terza rimas, every conceivable variant on the sonnet (and faux-sonnet) with crafty and elegant rhyme schemes. The poems have a sure-footedness that lets you know just where you are, and how to hear them; there’s a precise ear for line breaks, for diction, for rhythm, and so much richness of rhyme; slant rhymes, internal rhymes. So much music.
Two more things. Clive James nails it for me when he writes about how you ‘hear the force of real poetry at a glance’, ‘the stanza held together by its rhythmical drive’, and how ‘everything…depends on the quality of the moment….it’s the moment that gets you in’. I know when I read Reward for winter just what he means. My copy bristles with Post-its where I’ve wanted to highlight an image, a moment.
Like this from How to knit a sheep: each click a kiss, / each gartered purl a sweet low / riff to make him give it all’
You see what I mean about diction, about line breaks, about texture?
Or this image of the mother cat in Muck and straw: ‘watchful that her babies stopped / fawning on the quiet girl nosefirst in a book.” I do like that ‘nosefirst’,
and I like the surprising physicality of the dark in Doubtful words: Then we lie / fallow, cut off by the dark with nights slamming / like sashes. It’s the guillotine slam of a sash window that’s memorable.
As is this from Bildr’s thorp:
……….when boats were more
important than carts and jewels as big as
skimstones pinned tothe eyes of the dead.
How precise and unexpected is that ‘skimstone’, that ‘pinned’
I realise I said ‘two more things’. The second may not win universal approval, but I like a collection in sections when the sections illuminate each other as they do here. Part One, ‘How to knit a sheep’ settles you into the landscape and the house as the poet has grafted to make it hers and sit happily in it. Part Two: ‘Washing eggs’ celebrates (often ruefully) the business of rearing chickens which justifies the work that’s gone into the house. If I have a reservation about this sequence it would be about the first-person testimony of the chickens, and I wondered how it would have worked in the second person. But maybe that says more about my own lack of comfort with the anthropomorphic; which is ironic give how much I loved ‘Wind in the willows’. I just wanted to put it up for discussion. Part Three ‘Bildr’s Thorp’ is perhaps my favourite, because of the way it celebrates the imagined history of the village where the farm and its chickens belong. This sequence inhabits the kind of territory that Steve Ely’s poetry does, where the past elides with the present, and where it isn’t hard to believe in ghosts.
So, there we are. I’m enthusiastic about this collection. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to write about one I didn’t care for…I just want to share a pleasure. So I guess this isn’t a proper review. It’s a recommendation. If you are doubtful, even after you’ve read Bildr’s thorp, let’s see if we can convince you with a selection that Di Slaney has sent me to share with you.
A sonnet, first, to prove everything I said about the confident handling of rhyme, and because it makes me laugh.
Look, I have to do this in the dark
where it’s quiet, free of all your
brainless interruptions that mark
and mangle every minute. The score
of stupid questions asked today is ten.
I’m getting to the point of no return,
brewing on the brink. Remember when
I said don’t bother me in here? Learn
to fend more for yourself? Which bit
of ‘leave me’ can’t you understand?
You’ve always been a selfish shit,
get it in your dimwit that you’re banned,
banished, binned and duly bollocked. Cough
and mutter all you like, as long as you fuck off.
and then three poems that encapsulate all I feel about this poet’s absorption in the overlapping and eliding histories of a place that she so obviously loves.
Inside this plastic barrel, on this
playground, I see all the colours
of summer spin by like the kaleidoscope
in Mrs Blatherwick’s art class. They
roll me over and over and over. I know that
the marks on my legs and moles on my neck
won’t be any smaller when they let me out, so
I don’t make a sound. If I squeak or cry
from fear, they will tip me all the faster
and they’ll win. Even though the pounding
of their fists and the hiss of ‘witch, witch, witch’
makes them seem older, stronger,
harder, they are only five, just like me.
I am Joan Bettyson of Bilsthorpe, healer of
cows, gatherer of herbs, loyal daughter and
god-fearing, church-going wife, falsely
accused this day by friends and neighbours
of the Devil’s work.
Shame on you – shame on you all,
who drink the milk and take your calves to
market with sleek round bellies
filled by their mothers’ flowing teats.
If I were what you say – and I protest
I am not with every breath, every
paternoster ave, my knees creaked to the floor
to crawl to Jesus – if I were such a woman,
then by God you would know a reckoning that
would make the church tower tremble as it
did in the day of Gilbert de Gand,
warmonger and whoremaster of this parish.
But I am not, and the earth and sky are
quiet, and light with summer, and
the scent of rosemary fills the air.
Smell it now, my good friends, and then
When she rang the bell, I really was
up to my oxters, between six different,
pulled from pillar. So it wasn’t a lie
to say I didn’t have time to buy, or offer an
upturned palm for forecast of doom or
happiness, depending on her taking of me.
And she took it well, looked me down and up,
saw the day’s stress in the falling hairgrips,
the mess of mud and straw on knees, the top
lip only pink stain and smeary specs.
But I was ready for her. I’d rehearsed, was
quite prepared to catch her curse and blow it
back through tunnelled fist, with a gentle
whisper to be careful who you mess with.
Oops….With all the distress and confusion of losing this post in its near-entirety, and having to write it again from scratch, I almost forgot.
Dad’s slideshow, of which Helen Ivory wrote:
“The pictures in this book are unfixed. Even though the shutter has clicked and folded its arms, the work of recounting a family’s history is still ongoing in Di Slaney’s sequence. These tender and questioning poems work at filling in the before and after of the decisive moment that Cartier-Bresson spoke of – that ‘dry silence after the shutter closes’, when a smile falls from a face, or a girl, turned woman, walks back into the fields she was born from.“
I couldn’t have put it better. Obviously.Thank you so much, Di Slaney, for being our guest in this not-exactly-a-review-review. Next week we’ll be revisiting a guest from two years ago, and finding out what he’s been up to. And I promise you, it is amazing.
In the meantime, you can do no better than buy your copies of Di Slaney’s collection and give yourselves a treat; and a double treat if you buy her Pocket Book of dad’s slides.
Reward for winter [Valley Press 2016. 98 pp] £8.99
Dad’s slideshow [Stonewood Press 2015 40pp] £4.99 (Thumbprint Pocket book)
STOP PRESS: as part of a book festival in June (here’s the link : : http://www.newark-sherwooddc.gov.uk/…/lowdhambookfestival/ ) you can actually meet Di Slaney , in situ. She’ll read from the collection and show you round the farm. How good is that! Details as follows:
Wednesday 22 June
Reward for Winter farm tour with Di Slaney – a trip to Hooligan Yarns at Bilsthorpe!
2pm to 4pm Manor Farm House, Church View, Bilsthorpe NG22 8TB
In 2005, Di Slaney abandoned her urban existence to become the custodian of an ancient farmhouse in Bilsthorpe, plus 150, mostly rescued, animals. Di’s debut poetry collection, Reward for Winter,tells the story of the earthy triumphs and tribulations of a novice smallholder, the history of Bilsthorpe from Viking settlement through Civil War to coal mining in the 1920s, and the quirky and affecting biography of one of the farm chickens. www.dislaney.com
Tickets: £5 each – please note that this event is open to a maximum of 30 people and there will be a possibility of mini-bus transport at an extra cost depending on numbers.