Aug 28 2022
Poetry review – WHAT THE SHEEP TAUGHT ME: Wendy Kyle considers Mary Mulholland’s debut pamphlet
Mary Mulholland’s debut pamphlet applies the power of anthropomorphism with a telescopic curiosity. She addresses complicated relationships, from lovers to mothers. She inhabits both the Shepherdess of the flock and the individuated ewe among the numberless.
She presents an original perspective of mother-child relationships. The physical stun of a mother’s desire to hold on, after the raw experience of childbirth, is the poem “accident of birth” …This is a traumatised whisper of a poem, where her opening line is ‘hunched in blackness’, touching on the immediacy of the grief of separateness, in expelling a child from the body:
& her lamb gasping gasping & when it’s removed for days she remains where she gave birth
Mulholland has a controlled intensity, often masquerading in the lightness of the quotidian, whilst dealing with larger subjects of rupture and rejection. In “Nursery of Rejects” there’s a suffocating anxiety about bonding and separateness of mother and newborn:
when I force in the teat, refuses the bottle I feel her rapid heartbeat So much unseen. Like that experiment proving we need love and touch.
The uncertainty about singularity and connectedness is a low-growl tension which feels highly sensitive.
Mulholland is also a playful poet with stylistic range: the opening “Shepherdess” is visually tricksy with form. She has poems about sheep-sitting; Bo-Peep; kissing toads; “Hugh Grant saying, Hi”. As a collection, there is range and breathing space amongst the complicated relationships.
In “What the sheep taught me 1” the speaker is: ‘trying to see as they do, everything at once. /I think best sequentially.’ There is desire after regret, in watching the ewes. The speaker considers her own limitations and missed chances; ‘All those fences I could have jumped. /I take a run. The shock sends me flying.’ But there is also an eye towards the next jump. The farm is a place, in parenthesis, to invite other versions of the self to make self-determining affinities with nature. We see this in “The Call” where the poet jostles with problematic relationships that ‘cross ancient leylines/You remind me it’s all about magnets’ and realising ‘I like pushing them to their limits.’
Mulholland’s collection often explores youth through a retrospective lens. Her close attention to the continued caretaking of ewes is one of poignant longing for an understanding of the speaker’s place in the present – a contemplation of life lived and yet to come. Her speakers reveal a passion for spontaneity, to think differently, ‘leaping like antelope’, the desire to ‘soar over the electric fence’, yet observing the ‘sunset corral’, the hemming in and constraints of settling into later life. She is coming closer to personal freedom whilst acknowledging in the poem, “Preparing for Sheep-Sitting” that ‘My job then to let them go, one by one/They fight/ against freedom.’
She also ruminates on relationships of forced closeness, through the metaphor of ewes that both scatter and unite, acknowledging: ‘I have trespassed/into fields that aren’t safe.’ Her poems re-evaluate the ramming masculinities of ‘gods, arguing politics at their club’ and the intolerable awareness that ‘I know I do not/want to squeeze anything from you. // You insist.’
In part 2, Mulholland observes sheep that ‘form in-crowds and outcasts/like a cocktail party…bitching, gossiping’ and deftly moves this claustrophobic imagery of sheep, ‘like a wake chasing a boat’, to a language the aphoristic: ‘To say all sheep are the same/is a mother who finds no difference/between her children’ and leaving an uncomfortable sense of the infantilised individual being seen as ‘unremarkable, /all called Child.’ This gathering of poems, each call to the other, to let go of the impulse where: ‘Sheep invented “follow my leader”.’
In the gorgeous poem “on the last day” Mulholland pitches human individuals within the planetary: ideas doubling and dividing in a series of couplets.
if the solar system were squeezed into one day humans would have just three breaths.
One beat after this image of vastness and human insignificance, her next couplet acknowledges:
in the past ten weeks i’ve taken three breaths two million times. i am part of the farm.
This debut pamphlet chooses beauty in a world that tests the self – an agile, multi-layered exploration of being. The final poem “Hymn to Sheep” where ‘Shepherds know humans don’t do well on their own’, echoes our call to nature: ‘O sacred ruminants, so close to humans’, for both the intimate and immense.
Wendy Kyle is poet and reviewer, most recently published in: Mslexia, The Tangerine. Blackbox Manifold (2022) and forthcoming in anthroposcene and Alternative Field Anthology. She has been shortlisted or featured (as Wendy Orr) in many international prizes including the National Poetry Competition, 2018 and runner up in Mslexia Women’s Poetry Prize, 2019.