Fresh Start: A Shepherd’s Calendar, Rose CookBackground colour is dark orange. Text is centred and white, the main title (FRESH START) in large caps at the top, subtitled in lower case just below it. Author's name is in small caps at foot of jacket. In the middle is a large monochrome photo of a middle aged lady in a brimmed hat, wearing a cloak and carrying a tall shepherd's crook. In front of her several sheep, and part of a chap in a tweedy jacket. Behind her fields rising towards woods.

Hen Run, 2021   £4.00

In John Clare’s footsteps

Twelve seasonal poems in Rose Cook’s pamphlet face short excerpts from Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar of 1927 (and her subtitle simply alters the definite article). Both sets of poems moreover, celebrate the English countryside. To what extent is her work modelled on his?

The cover of a 1964 Clare edition displays a rustic, pen-and-ink shepherd sitting on a log beside two sheep. Fresh Start arrives with a photo of a benign middle-class woman, again leading sheep. At first glance, she’s a surprising Dartmoor shepherd, but tradition is maintained.

Four lines of poem on the back cover, introduce a representative aural and visual abundance from ‘April’.

This morning I hear the pear blossom song
from the end of the garden, a white, buttery lilt,
rapture of blooms, feathered fan, branches full of flowers.

Each poem is epigraphed by two or three lines of words representing important calendar days. ‘Oak Moon’ in ‘December’, for instance, is the moon before yule — an ancient reference to Druid practice observed by the Romans. Other lovely moon combinations include strawberry moon, corn moon and milk moon.

The poems are immediate, dense, slightly staccato, composed mostly of end-stopped comment, with an occasional imperative. As in Clare’s work, they convey a detached love realised in a multiplicity of voices. It’s in lingering over original details of the natural environment (‘January’), that their emotion is conveyed:

the paths sheep have made down the steep slope look like the veins of a leaf.

Lines from ‘June’ ring of nostalgia: ‘Time of garlands, floral dancing, midsummer weddings’. And sometimes (‘May’), there’s an optimistic abundance: ‘The air is sweet, thick with insects.’

As a North Norfolk dweller, I found myself envying what may be closer to the Devon environment. Hope remains the prevailing spirit.

Only once or twice, (‘July’), are we reminded of our early twenty-first century predicament, in a way that offers an interesting parallel to Clare’s sympathy for the needy of his time:

Swimming. Sky-wide play.
It helps. We are all in transition somehow.
Pray for relief on all levels. Let go.
This plague affects us all.

Sally Festing