I stand condemned: Desertion is the charge
Against me. I’ve been absent many days
Without excuse. Now, desperate hours at large
Have left me craving those familiar ways
I’ve left unwatched, neglected for too long.
The Real World insisted. So I went
But saw no beauty, heard no truth nor song.
So I’m returned, soul-weary, to repent.
The greenwoods will absolve me, stay their hand;
The quiet lanes acquit me and forgive;
The fox and fieldfares will understand
How seasons send us journeying to live.
With strength restored, I now resume my post
Among the things I’ve missed, and love, the most.
I offer this poem partly in explanation, partly in apology, for my recent lack of communication: having been somewhat under-employed for a few months, I’ve had scarcely a moment to myself the last couple of weeks. I’ve been working away from home more than usual (although still, mercifully, less than if I had a full-time job!) and missing the woods and fields and lanes, as well as my family, my music, my writing – and you, my friends. Happily this week’s looking a little less crazy, so I’m intending to make amends, and catch up on my reading of your wonderful work. Thank you for sticking by me.
Now as the new moon rises, they convene
Deep in the wood. Dark shapes in noiseless flight
Alight to watch and wait. Others, unseen,
Announce their presence with their haunting calls.
And now the beech-branch-vaulted meeting halls
Stand ready for the business of the night.
For motions of great moment fill the hours
When day is done, away from watching eyes.
The statutes of these stern nocturnal powers
Are handed down to every mouse and vole
That shivers in its nest and hidden hole.
No clemency, appeal or compromise.
This legislature, old as life and time,
Serves its own interests, not some common good.
And at the distant church-clock’s plangent chime
They will divide and pass their savage law,
To be enforced by talon, beak and claw –
Just as their hapless subjects knew they would.
When the language hands you a collective noun like ‘a parliament of owls’ it seems a shame not to use it. I often hear the twany owls’ debates down in the woods when I’m walking the whippet at night; as a child, I was terrified by their hooting in the trees behind our house, but now it gives me a real thrill.
The swifts do not debate: they will depart,
Though summer still lies soft on England’s fields,
For stormy seas and distant shores. Its heart,
Touched by September frosts, the great oak yields
Its crown and glory to decay; the rose
Gives up its scent, lets its bright colours run
Without regret, and vast, all-conquering snows
Surrender meekly to the reborn sun.
So who am I to wish to stop the wheel
And hold her always in this time, this age?
I must seek out that secret strand of steel
Within, accept this turning of the page.
This is her time to run, to fly, to grow;
And mine to learn to live with letting go.
Rain running off the drowned fields
Has made a frothing mocha
Of the Ouse. And now
The sea-trout make their run
Up against the current to the redds:
Now, when the river’s hurling
Furious tons of turbid water
Down the weir’s ten-foot flight
Of slimed stone steps
As if enraged at its own flood-borne filth.
The desperate thrash and wriggle
Straight up the middle;
The sly move along the side;
The breathless moment balanced
On the fish-ladder’s lowest concrete rung
Then the current’s casual fling
Back into the churning foam
Spinning, glinting like silver coins
Flipped in the conjuror’s fingers:
Heads I win, tails you lose.
Chilled through, still we watch and wait
In breathless hope, willing just one
Of these bold travellers
To cheat the elemental forces
Ranged against them:
Our Sunday stroll recast
By this raw instinct
And our own struggles
Rendered small and senseless
By this untutored will.
I need no food, and drink but once a day.
I take no leisure: work is all I know.
In summer I bring in the precious hay;
In autumn, break the ground; in spring I sow.
Although I have no arms, no hands or feet
I travel far, lift mighty loads and bear
A man upon my back. I eat no meat
Yet killed a million horses. Should we share
The road, you may resent my company,
For I have many followers. I tower
Above the one who’s master over me:
I am subservient, for all my power.
OK, an easy one to start 2012. Over Christmas, I’ve been reading a selection from the hundreds of riddles the Anglo-Saxon poets wrote about birds, animals and everyday objects, and they’ve inspired me to have a go myself. I’ve always loved the ‘riddles in the dark’ exchanged by Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in The Hobbit, which are written in exactly this style (let’s not forget that JRR Tolkein was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford for 20 years) As with so many ancient forms of writing, it appears very simple, but is actually surprisingly tricky and subtle. The originals tend to be about swords, shields, helmets and other gear of war; mine describes something a bit more contemporary. No prizes for guessing what.