Herd Queen: Di Slaney, Valley Press

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Poet, publisher and animal sanctuary founder Di Slaney has an MA in creative writing from Nottingham Trent University and owns Candlestick Press. Her debut pamphlet, Dad’s Slideshow, was published by Stonewood Press in 2015. In  2005, she and her husband moved into a Grade II listed 400-year-old farmhouse and started the Manor Farm Charitable Trust, which provides lifelong sanctuary for livestock in need and is the subject of her first full-length collection, Reward for Winter, published by Valley Press in 2016. Her poetry has twice been shortlisted for the Bridport prize.

This collection of 62 poems is structured into three distinct sections of roughly equal length, with helpful notes at the end. The book is wide-ranging in terms of geography, history and tone. The geography takes us from Dolgellau to Saltfleetby, and Libya to Saudi Arabia. The history takes us from the 13th century to the present day, and the tone from serious to slapstick.

The title, ‘Herd Queen’, is a reference to the animal world. In every group of goats, a ‘herd queen’ will emerge to lead the way, having earned respect for her strength and stamina in battle with other does - sometimes with bucks too.

Slaney’s subjects range from animals, (a portrait of ‘Mayhem the Herdwick Sheep’ and a rescue goat called Geraldine), to landscapes, family and local history.

Several poems are written as sonnets, one is in the traditional Welsh form of a gwawdodyn (a lengthy note explains what this is at the end of the book), some are prose poems and others exhibit some experimentation with line length and presentation. Two are printed in a different text direction to accommodate Slaney’s long lines and a number follow a regular rhyme scheme. Slaney is inventive with her use of vocabulary: “siling rain”, “kvetching”, “snarking”, her practice of joining words together (“sweetlicksickness”, “alarmwide”, “hollowrumen hungeraches”) employment of imagery culled from the wool trade and her predilection for unusual subject matter (a lengthy piece in praise of manure called ‘Jubilate excreta’).

Years of close reading have led me to realise that it is perfectly possible to appreciate a poem even if its meaning is not fully understood. Some poems in the present collection fall into this category. I would really have liked a note of explanation for ‘Doggebrikke’ since I am at a loss to know what it is about but find it intriguing. The fact that my search engine informs me that the title happens to be Afrikaans for ‘tinsel’ is no help at all. ‘Postcards from Powys’ also remains a mystery.

The three poems that comprise ‘The Songs of Saudi’ sequence were developed in collaboration with the 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 of these, ‘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. I liked the way these three poems were presented on the page with the theme of communication at their heart: the second one echoing the first one with the verses being interrupted by words in italics signalling ‘ring tone,’ ‘dial tone’ and ‘busy line’. I also liked the way the third poem was presented as an exchange of letters with the second one justified to the right of the page in an attempt to visually convey that it was a response to the first letter.

Slaney’s humour lets rip in the final section. In ‘Disgraceful’ she lets us in on a secret:

 

     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.

 

The hilarious ‘Losing my virginity to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’ is reminiscent of Victoria Wood’s comedic sketches and still makes me laugh after several readings. On a technical point, I particularly enjoyed the way the last line comprised a single word after an ingenious line break that effectively killed the rhyme scheme that had been so effectively adhered to throughout the rest of the poem.

‘Paean’ is a true original, a gem of a poem, which plays games with vocabulary in a quite astonishing tour de force. It is an intriguing synthesis of internal rhyme, synonym, and word association all rolled into one. Here are the opening lines:

 

     Twinging, cringing, swingeing, whinging,

     throbbing, bobbing, gobbing, sobbing,

     sighing, crying, lying, dying,

     stretching, fetching, kvetching, retching,

     heated, treated, standing, seated

     rolling, lolling, pole-axed, hollering,

     curled up, flat out, cat arch, tea spout …

 

This collection is bursting with life in all its earthy, animal fullness. Di Slaney is an expert at springing surprises as she offers intriguing glimpses into contemporary and historical events using language that is fresh and lively in a deeply satisfying way. 

 

Di Slaney, Herd Queen, Valley Press, £12

 

 

 

 

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