Catching up: Di Slaney’s “Herd Queen”

Spoiler alert. If you follow the cobweb regularly you’ll be aware that I’m very slow at getting over a course of chemo that ended in April. One of the side effects of coming off the steroids that accompany the chemotherapy is increased joint pain due to inflammation. Pretty well everything hurts in varying degrees and in different places during the day. It’s not severe, but it’s debilitating, and at the moment, my hands are particularly arthritic. My keyboard skills have never amounted to much, but I’m more clumsy than usual, and there are likely to be more typos that usual. I religiously proofread before I publish, but invariably miss stuff. So, apologies in advance.

So. Here we go. Over the last few months I’ve become addicted to the TV series The Repair Shop. In a world that appears committed to trashing anything that works, including language itself, here’s a programme that celebrates a group of men and women who patiently mend and restore anything that’s brought to them…defunct harmoniums and accordions, broken porcelain and earthen ware, desiccated leather purses, saddles, torn and sagging easy chairs, clocks, watches, bicycles, gas lamps, vintage calculators, telescopes……for every job there’s an expertise, an arcane array of tools, and beyond all that, patience, attention to detail, imagination and love. All this quiet work of regeneration and resurrection goes in an ancient brick-floored barn, in a thatched lean-to, in an ancient smithy, and all of it cradled in a downland valley where patient Clydesdales crop the greenest grass, clouds of gulls follow a tractor, and small birds perch photogenically . It’s William Morris’s utopian vision of a might-be England. It’s down-to earth and idyllic in equal measure, in the way of Our Yorkshire Farm. And also, I realise, of at least one element of the work of today’s guest. Because while The Repair Shop mends things, Di Slaney’s animal sanctuary…I’m tempted to say ‘hospice’…mends damaged creatures. Since 2005, she has been filling her ancient Nottinghamshire farmhouse and its land with more livestock than is sensible: Manor Farm Charitable Trust is home to over 170 animals at the last count, many of them with special physical or behavioural needs. 

Some of them are celebrated in the opening cluster of poems in Herd Queen , but this isn’t a collection of poems about animals, damaged or otherwise. It’s more like an anthology of poems that all happen to be written by a single author. A rumbustiously, whole-hearted rattle bag of technically varied and accomplished poems. When Di Slaney was a last a guest of the cobweb I wrote of her collection

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“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’m drawn in by Di Slaney’s poems about animals because of their knowledgeableness, like Ted Hughes’ poems in What is the truth

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I like poems that grow out of absorbed research. I love the way the language of research seeps into the fabric of the poetry and fast-dyes it 

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What else? I like writing that grows out of specific, realised places. I think that it probably started with Akenfield, to stories that evolve through generations lived in a single place. The Rainbow,and Alan Garner’s wonderful Stone Book Quartet.

.

Apart from all this, 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.”

[you might like to catch up on the rest of this 2016 post. Here’s the link. https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2016/05/14/knowing-your-place-di-slaneys-reward-for-winter/%5D

Every one who has reviewed or endorsed Herd Queen seems to say much the same sort of things, as Di acknowledges when she brought me up to date on what she’s been doing since 2016. I asked:

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“…..if you could write me a bit about what’s happened since May 2016, not least how you came to to put “Herd Queen’ together. I suppose I’m partly asking, because Herd Queen bucks the trend (it seems to me) of the thematically organised collection. What I like about yours is that chunks of it could be freestanding pamphlets, and in any case it’s wide-ranging in its range of characters, voices, forms, moods, landscapes…..it is, in fact, refreshing, as most endorsers and reviewers seem to agree. And I bet it’s the only collection I’ve read to be briefly reviewed in The Countryman!

A few big ‘life stage’ things have happened to me since May 2016 – I became sole owner of Candlestick Press in that year, then in 2017 our private animal sanctuary here on the smallholding became a registered charity specialising in disabled and special needs livestock – see www.manorfarmcharitabletrust.org. And then in June 2019 I was diagnosed with a brain tumour.  The latter two events definitely fed into the development of Herd Queen – understanding the real focus of our animal care work and what a difference we can make to the welfare of those creatures in our care, and then finding strength in their situation for my own health issues. These experiences have surprisingly made me more light-hearted and joyful as a writer, and more determined to share light and shade in my writing – there are some dark pieces in Herd Queen but I wanted there to be humour and solace as well, from unexpected sources.  Life throws us these curve balls but it’s up to us what we make of them – if we’re adaptive and resourceful like the animals, then we carry on living for the day and making the best of what we have, or at least try to.

And you’re very right to comment on the thematically miscellaneous nature of the collection!  It was pieced together out of several wholes – where there was a short sequence of work in one particular direction at one time – but what I’ve tried to do is unite it all under one concept, that of the vigorous and challenging caprine Herd Queen who will zig and zag all over the hillside to protect her territory and her companions, covering plenty of ground in the process.  Someone once said that my writing is muscular in style and I took that as a compliment (maybe it wasn’t intended that way!) so these different forms and voices and moods are flexes of those muscles.  I do hope it isn’t a messy read, and that it doesn’t cause too much head-scratching for the reader – the first section is intended to be an extension of the land and animals themes of Reward for Winter, the second section an exploration of human and family relationships from a variety of sources and then the third is the naughty section… 

It does mean of course that the book can pop up in unexpected places like Knitting or Yours magazine or The Countryman, as well as reviewed in literary journals like London Grip or Raceme. “

Paula Meehan wrote that

“All that is animate has Di Slaney’s attention…….. Her poems are robust and earthy, subtle and direct by turn, her insight often witty and sometimes wicked. …..She covers an impressive amount of ground in these warm, well-crafted poems, and she does it with considerable energy and style.”

Jonathan Edwards says that

as a poet, she can do everything, from intricate sestina to energetic monologue, from musical lyric to vibrant prose poem. But even more important are the ends to which she employs her technical gifts……. Slaney’s animal poems remind us of Hughes and of Liz Berry in their forging of a new language to describe that experience…… her poems about people give us everything from a cobbler great grandfather to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘tongue and spittle snogs’ to Shirley Bassey.

All this only reminds me of the difficulty I’ve had in deciding how to present my ideas about Herd Queen , its clusters of poems about wounded animals, about family photographs, about Saudi evacuees , about forgotten histories from meticulously researched local histories. Add to that the range of form and structure..ballads, prose poems, sonnets, dramatic monologues (in stanzas), lots of complex rhyme schemes…including the absurdly complicated Welsh gwawdodyn (no, I’d not come across it, either). How will I do it all justice? The answer’s simple enough. I can’t. I’ll simply share some of my favourites . Off we go.

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Meeting Geraldine

‘Big goat left to die in snow’ was all that I 

was told, and that she was old, so promised

I would go along to meet her, see how her

ordeal had left her and if there were no 

major complications, nothing more

they could do, I’d bring her here. Fear

.

penned her nosefirst in that stable corner, fear

so strong the reek of it sank me to my knees. I 

softtouched her coat and bones, promised

I would do the best I could, would give her

all the food she needed to be well. She made no 

sound, didn’t move or flinch, had more

.

sorespots than I’d first noticed, more

dirt than grey in thinwhitecoat. The fear

kept her silent that first week when all I 

did was strawsit with her, promising

she could have a friend, that her

hollowrumen hungeraches would end, no 

.

one would hurt her here. There was no 

clue she’d heard or understood, it was more

that she put up with me. Yearslearnt fear

still flickered in her eyes each time I 

tugged the stable door, the promise

I’d be back offering no comfort, her

.

nostrils alarmwide with whiff of me. But her

appetite was good and she had no 

trouble eating, brokenmouthed with more

teeth missing than remained. One day, fear

seemed to hover above the haypile and I 

breathstopped while she cudded, promising

.

myself patience would pay, promising

her the moon if only she’d respond. Then her

blackovals set in gold met startledmine, no 

hesitation now with ears uppricked, more

curious with nose cleanpink and wet. Fear

evaporated like milkspurt on warm grass and I 

.

kept my word every day after, although we only had

her for a year. She died in May whitesunshine while

I stroked her beard, promised her no more fear. 

.

There’s a lot to like in this poem, not least the way it treads carefully around the edges of sentimentality without actually falling in; I’m thinking of what Di said about the possibilities of reciprocal healing, the:

difference we can make to the welfare of those creatures in our care, and then finding strength in their situation for my own health issues.

I like the way the opening stanza is very close to prose-with-line-breaks; the poem begins with a business-like transaction, the voice that says, ‘well, I’ll come round and have a look, but I’m making no promises’. retrospectively, you realise that a lot of rhymes and pararhymes have been set up, and that they’re sustained right through. They’re all monosyllabic, from linked stanza to stanza. There’s an edginess about them, which has to work alongside the strongly textured reality of the animal, and its fear that requires new-minted kennings for its description. I didn’t expect to like this poem, and then found that I did, not least because of the turning point that depends on two different kinds of eyes making a connection.

blackovals set in gold met startledmine

Texture is especially what you notice in the next poem, which is self-evidently written by someone who knows a thing or two about wool. (The first time I met Di Slaney was at an Interpreter’s House launch in Leeds; it was also the first time I met a poet who brought wool from her own sheep to sell as well as books.) A handy note in the collection explains that

Witches cannot resist wool, & this Mazey Ball from The Museum of Witchcraft in #Cornwall is so filled. It was believed “no witch could cast an evil eye on the owner until she had counted every bit of wool in the house.”  Aberdeen Press & Journal, 17th Nov 1932. 

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Mazey ball

She watched him gather tufts from fences 

along the field, as he’d watched her finger wool 

in the village yarn shop, her gaze low and dark, small 

brown hands lingering over skeins still fresh

from early shearing. That night he switched off all 

the lights and kept squat candles burning on the hearth, 

.

their flicker pointing beams and cracks in ancient brickwork.

His thickweave cushions, driftwood hangings and peg

loom rugs brought the flock indoors, while by the fire 

raw fleece sacks breathed their sweetness across

the room towards the porch. Single storeyed, the cottage

eased itself to darkness as he doused his mug goodnight

.

and padded to the bed, cablesocks three quarters high 

on tanned and knotted calves, tired legs. The ball twined 

above the kitchen stove where a skillet used to drop, 

anchored by aran ply to a thumbed black squab.

Candlelight caught cream, a flash of white, then grey 

as the ball twisted first this way, then that. He lay on one

.

hundred quilted crochet squares, felt each deadwifestitch 

pressing into skin like penance, but resolute he still listened; 

breathsure, heartloose. When the front latch snagged at two, 

he smiled and reached beneath the bed, shepherded silence 

along the flags to find her backwards in the shadows, ball in hand, 

bloodblack hair flowing down a feltstiff gown above her knees. 

.

Skin glistened, and she seemed to halo pale fawn fibre 

that curled towards him, her bare feet pointed in two cleaves 

of hoof, and soft noise escaped her lips like new lambs bleating 

in barn sunlight. She never shifted from the ball, kept 

mumblecounting little threads, so he gently snaked his crook 

around her neck like every ewe he’d ever landed, and snared his witch.

.

.

I chose this one because it’s such a beautifully told tale, and one which actually relishes its own narrative tricks. The question of who is watching who, and who will be the catcher and who the caught is set up so deftly in those first two lines, as is the ambiguity of time and place. The title says ‘once upon a time’, but the ‘village wool shop’ says ‘now’, as does his switching off the lights. It’s a very satisfying piece of storytelling ending, too. He ‘snared his witch’. What her nature is and why he should snare her is unresolved. I love it and all its imagery, its filmic moments, the slowly turning ball anchored by aran ply to a thumbed black squab, that satisfying solidity.

I want to share three more poems, but with minimal commentary. The next two are monologues /ventriloqual but could not be more different in tone and style.

The first is Di’s take on a piece of research about her neighbourhood of Bilsthorpe . Dame Elizabeth Broughton was the widow of Sir Brian Broughton who counted Bilsthorpe as part of his estate.  On the 15th April 1727, she defended herself in court against a bill of complaint brought by William Hodgson.  The gist of the matter appears to be that Sir Brian promised an annuity to his mistress Anne Carter, which Dame Elizabeth has defaulted on. During further research, it appeared that Dame Elizabeth had been previously accused of causing the death of Anne Carter in a fire, and her relations are now retrospectively claiming the annuity as it was passed to them after her death. In transcripts of the court record, Dame Elizabeth defends herself vigorously, claiming that she is ‘entirely a stranger’ to all allegations and claims. 

All I’ll say is that you might like to decide whether Dame Elizabeth is as innocent/naive as she appears to make out, or whether she’s being at least disingenuous.

.

Dame Elizabeth Broughton answers the court

15th April 1727 

Sir, I am entirely a stranger to proceedings here. 

You must forgive a poor widow’s lack of grasp,         

for in all such matters prior, my dear late husband 

Sir Brian Broughton would stand. Since his demise 

all must forgive my widow’s grasp, my lack of

certainty. I have not slept, the thought of how 

Sir Brian would not stand for this and his demise

weighs heavy on my mind, for I am growing more

.

certain, despite not sleeping, that the thought of

Anne Carter and her claims for full annuity would

weigh too heavy on his mind, of this I am more sure.

She was a scandal and a scold, beg pardon the court,

.

the name Anne Carter and her canny claims would

have ruined a lesser man, but not my husband. 

He pardoned her the scandal, I begged and scolded

him to end his visits to her, but he courted disaster

.

like a lesser man, was briefly not at all my husband.

Those boys she had, he hoped them his, would only

end his visits when he saw William Hodgson courted

her, how quickly she came undone, how hot she flushed.

.

Those boys she had were never his, his only hope of

siring heirs lost years before when his horse tipped him,

but the way she flushed and came undone, the heat 

of her convinced him for a time that he had it in him

to sire heirs. I lost our boy when his horse tipped him

and they told me he was crushed, unlike to live.

He convinced me for a time he still had it in him      

to recover, do his duty for the parish, but I knew

.

our hopes were crushed even as I learned to live.

Sir, I wander and you are right to rally me to task.

I am recovered, will state my duty for the parish but

I will not cede on the amount. Her boys have no right

.

to wander into our affairs and rally your support.

When Mistress Carter died in last year’s fire, her

boys amounted to naught and I will not cede my rights.

What, sir, the fire?  I know naught of how it started.

.

Anne Carter died and that’s all I knew of it last year.

In such matters, my late husband would know best.

I had no part in that fire. May the court forgive me

for I feel entirely strange, sir. Proceed without me here.

.

You might like to read the opening three lines and and then the last three, and listen to the echoes, and ask yourself if it’s not that bit too artful, too ‘rehearsed’. For contrast, then, here’s the second poem from the sequence ,The Songs of Saudi , developed in collaboration with composer Omar Shahryar, and based on recorded interviews with his mother, father and brother about their evacuation from Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War of 1990.  The first poem in the sequence ‘Shona’s Song’ became the lyrics to a performance piece for the 2017 Leeds Lieder Festival, with music composed by Omar sung by mezzo-soprano Emily Hodkinson. Side by side, you might think they were the work of two different poets, which is a tribute to the range of what you discover in this unclassifiable collection.

.Songs of Saudi 
 
ii. Suheil’s song
Dhahran, October 1990
 
 
I am the man in the bathtub, calling you
from my ivory tank, a stubborn fish
stuck in a pond without water to protect 
against gas and bomb, only a mirror to 
 
busy line
 
reflect this solid tank, a stranded fish
in this rich place, no lack of anything,
even gas and bomb, only a mirror to 
see me talking, although missing you 
 
dial tone
 
in a rich place with no lack of anything
is not the point. The mirror wall
shows me talking, and missing you 
so far away shows we’re tied together
 
ring tone
 
but that’s not the point. The mirror wall
makes everything bigger than it is,
you so far away and us not together,
but separation builds deeper ties, 
 
ring tone
 
makes everything bigger than it is,
the sky truth blue, the sand heart gold,
and separation ties us deeper, builds us up
while the sun sulks red each night
 
empty line
 
my truth sky blue, my heart sand gold,
and their tiny half-heard voices make
my face wet red each night 
without a bedtime story
 
ring tone
 
and their tinny half-lost voices make
home a question, here in the safe house
without my bedtime story
that home is family is home,
 
ring tone

 
without family here in the safe house
with taped windows and CNN,           
as my family makes home without me 
and the heat reeks through the aircon,
 
busy line
 
licks the taped windows, and CNN keeps       
those fighters coming in my dreams.
The heat seeps through the aircon
but your cool voice in my right ear
 
dial tone
 
says fighters are nothing but dreams,
and the pond without water will defend 
and you are my voice, my right, my dear one,
and I am the man in the bathtub, calling you.
 
ring tone

.

Di Slaney can do lushly textured poems and then she can do this stripped back, near abstract, monochrome that is full of the aching distance of separation and disembodiment to the accompaniment of flickering TV screens and mindless electronic noise. It’s heartbreaking. But I wouldn’t leave you with a voice calling out of separation. I’ll finish instead with one from the third section of the book, from the what DI Slaney calls ‘the naughty ones’. If this poem was a painting it would be by Beryl Cooke, a saucy postcard of a poem. It’s in the same world as Pam Ayres’ asking forlornly ‘do you think Bruce Springsteen would fancy me?’

.

.

Disgraceful

Feather boa, sequins, diamonds and lace,

Nut-brown bare arms and firm upright chassis –

so few wrinkles on that beaming face,

at 73, I want to be Shirley Bassey.

.

No bond can contain her, the dame is forever.

Feisty, fearless, well-sussed and sassy –

she may be a spender, spendthrift never never;

at 73, I have to be Shirley Bassey.

.

Belting voice, smutty laugh, star-spangled life,

diva supreme from a Tiger Bay lassie.

OK, not every man’s ideal wife,

but at 73, I must be Shirley Bassey.

.

Thigh slits, stilettos and festival wellies –

no wheelchair for me, I’ll still wiggle my assy.

Tight-fitting gowns will restrain all my bellies

and at 73, I will be Shirley Bassey.

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Di Slaney..Thank you for being our guest..It’s taken me ages to finally write this post about Herd Queen. I hope I’ve given the readers a sense of its range and richness, and I hope I’ve persuaded them to go and buy it.

Herd Queen : Valley Press [2020]. 96pp £12.00

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