Poetry review – HERD QUEEN: Emma Storr praises the range of voices and moods in Di Slaney’s collection
Reading Herd Queen is like sitting down at a banquet: delicious courses of beautifully prepared food appear, varying in consistency and taste and all leaving you wanting more. New poetic forms are presented, such as the Welsh gwawdodyn; and the range of subjects Di Slaney has chosen for inspiration is impressive. There are poignant poems about family relationships and childhood memories, as well as many humorous and irreverent verses. Slaney is particularly skilled at using rhyme and assonance in subtle ways that carry the narrative forward without ever being intrusive. Herd Queen is her second collection and shows her confidence in employing different voices that are funny, melancholy or brazen.
In the first part of the book, “Rosemary thrives”, we meet a menagerie of creatures – a talking donkey, an ageing goat called Geraldine and Mayhem the Herdwick ram. Each is described with love and an intimate knowledge of their individual character. Slaney delights in using composite words to capture the mood and behaviour of both human and beast. In “Meeting Geraldine”:
… 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,
Eventually Geraldine trusts her rescuer and becomes:
…more curious with nose cleanpink and wet. Fear evaporated like milkspurt on warm grass…
These sensual words and images evoke great tenderness and deep communication between the speaker and the elderly goat. However, Slaney refrains from being overly sentimental. In “Herd Queen”, the poem that gives the collection its title, the speaker imagines herself as ‘queen of the hill, grumpiest nanny,’ who outwits rivals, and possibly her owner, at every turn:
…She’d misread my wagging tail, ignore my red pulsating rear and soft rank whiff of rut, my curling flehmen lip.
Dire consequences arise as a result and this formidable nanny goat persona makes sure ‘my hot backfired cud / lands in her open maw’ before she splits her protagonist’s nose open with a crack ‘like a sniper’s shot.’
As someone who has written an ode to human poo and its importance in diagnostics, I was delighted to read Slaney’s witty poem ”Jubilate Excreta”, a pastiche on Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno”, celebrating his Cat Jeoffrey. Slaney has fun describing the different shapes and consistency of animal excreta. The poem starts:
For it is an excellent indicator of overall wellbeing For we have rather a lot of it, out on the field
The five sub-categories of ovine excreta are listed and include:
For thirdly there is the sausage, and the likelihood of worms For those worms may be tape or round or barberpole or lung or liver fluke For the sheep may die from these worms unless dosed with an appropriate wormer
The repetition and spacing emphasise that dung is ‘one of the four main things in life’ and draw our attention to its central importance in animal husbandry.
The second part of the collection, “Witness”, contains a series of reflective poems, rich in visual imagery and often based on photographs or even on being in the shoes of the photographer himself, as in “West of Dolgellau”. In this poem the pleasure of solitude and physical endeavour are captured lyrically as the speaker takes his:
one shot of the blue and ochre far below as the sun comes from behind a cloud, burnishing the quarry water and turning shale to silver.
Troubled family relations are explored in “Witness” and “Bottle” and there are three poems written in the voices of real historical figures. Useful notes at the back of the book provide further information on these characters. “Postcards from Powys Aberangell 1956” is constructed according to a traditional Welsh poetic form with a complex rhyme scheme. The result is a moving lament by a young woman writing to her mother soon after giving birth and acknowledging her feelings of inadequacy, loss and loneliness. The song-like quality of the poem is poignant and eminently suited to the subject.
I particularly enjoyed reading the final part of the collection “A Hex for Modern Times” in which many of the poems have a playful, mocking or impudent tone. “The Mice at The Troubadour” is a wicked parody of an evening of poetry readings with Beardy, Titter, Diva and Uppity Mouse all playing different poesy roles.
“Rejoice” is an ironic sonnet about having to go to ‘yet another wedding this year.’ It ends:
Quick note to self: just smile and fake it Hush that voice hissing they won’t make it.
The sexual and the sensual merge in several poems. An intriguing example is “5.15” in which the speaker has to strip to her black frilly underpants for an unnamed procedure, administered from behind:
You shift focus and it slides in. A hint of sweat half cloaked by sandalwood hits my nose….. …You tug lace back to where it sits. Magic. Pain gone. And there are other benefits.
Whatever has been given ‘sometimes twice / a week if I need you and you’re free’, clearly provides relief. Its unexplained nature only adds to the sense of mystery, as does the clever rhyme scheme sounding like a spell or an invocation.
“Disgraceful” is a celebration of singer Shirley Bassey whom the speaker wants to emulate when she reaches the age of 73. The last quatrain leaves us with a glorious image of both Bassey and the narrator:
Thigh slits, stilettos and festival wellies – no wheelchair for me, I’ll stay wiggle my assy. Tight-fitting gowns will restrain all my bellies and at 73, I will be Shirley Bassey.
Herd Queen is a delight. I am looking forward to re-reading it and savouring its varied menu on many occasions.