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Herd Queen by Di Slaney

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Since 2005, Di 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. Herd Queen boasts eloquent animal sketches including Mayhem the Herdwick sheep and the tale of a nocturnal poetry slam run by mice; sea-salt childhood memories – taste the rain – and an exuberant riff on Christopher Smart that serves as a hymn to manure, ‘Jubilate Excreta’. (‘For when you fall in it you will always find the biggest pile.’) Di has produced yarn from her rare breed and rescued flock and, from a tangle of folkloric witch-wool to a jumper-bundled British childhood, wool threads many of the poems together.

But Di is acute and affecting on human relationships, too, granting vivid windows into richly imagined lives both contemporary and historical. Love letters come from Libya and desperate postcards from Powys; Lord Byron puffs and preens at his reflection; Elizabeth Broughton defends herself in an eighteenth-century courtroom; village characters are skewered with wicked wit. Her deeply moving collaboration with composer Omar Shahryar is based on his family’s experiences of evacuation from Saudi Arabia in 1990. Herd Queen’s heroines remember teenage trysts, do battle with the slings and arrows of ageing, collage a poem from Prince lyrics and dream of achieving Shirley Bassey-hood in their seventies. This is a constantly surprising, deeply satisfying book from a writer at the top of her game.

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