The staves steady under foot; she knows which to
avoid. A creature of habit, the kettle warms. Steam
rises, curls the end wisps about her face. The old
night dress illuminates her nakedness, skin smells of
ewe’s milk. It’s late; and the children are sleeping.
Breath carried away in tufts. Everything is done in
earnest purpose, learned through divination, through
feeling around the dark. A corner is settled on, the
fire stoked. Bedding laid down, and a pair of shears at
arm’s length. In this most tender of mercies, we seek
out aloneness, like the sheep. To bear the world, we
are borne away.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2021. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor for 2021 was Hugh McMillan.
As well as describing the time it took him to write a poem as about the length of ‘two fags’, MacCaig described some short poems as having the impact of a glass of malt whisky, clear and fierce. Some of the best poems are tiny images in themselves, to be swallowed whole. Molly Vogel has a cracker here, a chunk of imagery flirting with prose poetry form, the words weaving like wicker or forming round the reader’s head in freezing winter air. The poem is multi layered, though, the after taste lasting. It’s an example, shown particularly in the last three wonderful lines, of how the particular and concise can take on the universal.
For better or worse, I think ‘The Shepherdess’ is my first television-inspired poem. I read an interview with Amanda Owen—the mother/farmer of 9 brought to Channel 5 fame—in a magazine at my mother-in-law’s house. I was struck by her beautiful description of rearing sheep, and children, not necessarily in that order, and the natural process of taking shelter, seeking solitude to take on the great task which befell her. Having recently given birth, I could not get this image out of my head. As such, The Shepherdess’ was written—mostly in darkness, holding a baby. The long line of a prose poem made sense; descriptions of breath, the sheep’s familiar trail, floor boards.