White cover with a block of four painted heads of sheep in different coloursWhat the sheep taught me, Mary Mulholland

Live Canon, 2022      £7.00

Minding the sheep

The title and cover of Mary Mulholland’s pamphlet locate sheep firmly at its centre. But of course these poems are about other matters too.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but actually the sheep provided a wonderful platform to also explore a relationship and nature. I particularly enjoyed the first poem ‘Shepherdess’: formed like a square sheep pen in which the poet repeats the word ‘sheep’ continuously over thirty-five lines. This flock is disturbed by intruders: crow, raven, stray dogs, deer, and fox (twice). The shepherdess appears in the penultimate line suggesting a hint of safety and care.

The poet is humorously observant about this particular breed of sheep and their characteristics. In ‘The Club’:

These rams have black manes, proud noses, bow ties,

they are gods, arguing politics at their club

‘The Lyrids’ is beautifully atmospheric. Walking at night, the narrator flashes her torch

over their field ablaze with eyes as if Aries
has fallen to earth, and the silence grows

Greek-chorus loud from their bleating.

In ‘What the sheep taught me 1’, it’s almost evening and the sheep are ‘practising for the national, / leaping like antelope’. The final couplet becomes personal: ‘All those fences I could have jumped. / I take a run. The shock sends me flying.’

And ‘The Nursery of Rejects’ poignantly describes a lamb rejected by its mother. The narrator tries to feed the lamb from a bottle and muses:

So much unseen. Like that experiment
proving we need love and touch.

I get a strong sense of bonding with nature at the farm from the poem ‘on the last day’:

the sheep and trees are in me. the wind is rising,
blowing straight through me. i can hear the sea.

And the final poem, ’Hymn to Sheep’, is an ode to the ‘sacred ruminants’, enhanced by the mesmerising refrain of West Country counting words — as if the poet is counting sheep to fall asleep. A lovely end to an engaging pamphlet.

Sue Wallace-Shaddad