We know what’s coming
From the pictographs and hammered posts;
Spray-painted warrants of execution;
Whole acres marked for death.
But who will tell the trees
Inform the flowers, tip off the birds and animals?
If I could, I’d pick them up
In my two hands, spirit them away
But I’m condemned to stand and watch
The steel blades bite, the heavy wheels shake the earth
See all I’ve know and come to love
Torn up, despoiled and thrown aside
Entirely unconsoled by knowing
There was nothing I could have said or done.
The gulls are everywhere
Filling the bright air
With their wheeling mystery.
Where do they go at night
Make nests, lay eggs
Rear their tea-stained young?
Does their quarrelsome clamour
Every bird for himself
Hide a fiercer loyalty?
And could an untempered appetite
Disguise a finer feeling
In matters of the heart?
I do not doubt
Some wise, observant soul
Could lay their whole life bare.
But out here, in their world
Of sand, wind and saltwater,
I am the stranger, and happy not to know.
Easier to count
The days I don’t see your lesser kin;
Familiar, worthy of a look, a nod
Like neighbours passed in the street.
But you. What wild wind
Blew you out here;
A foreign shadow falling on the field,
The crows in uproar, the air alive;
All things made smaller
By your breadth and heft;
The flash of copper on your wings
The glint of a drawn sword.
A wanderer from beyond our bounds,
Rarely seen and half forgotten.
But you are surely welcome, stranger.
The great world turns. Not all is lost.
Buzzards are common as sparrows rouhnd here these days, but their larger cousins, red kites, are still pretty rare. I saw one today, though, for the first time in ages, set against a bright spring sky. Of such true and noble things is happiness made in times like these. N.
He rides high over the wood,
A black cross carved
On a flat, cold sky:
The wind and all the world
Turn with a twist
Of his curved flight feather;
His weapons ready –
Beak, eye, wing and talon
Sharp and clean.
What I would give
For his lone completeness,
Such unweighted, spare perfection;
While I am bound and grounded
By this jealous, grasping earth
And all its superfluities.
No warmth left in the cast-iron soil, or weak winter sun.
A cold, colourless world, emptied of all life.
Silence lies on the leafless woods and bare, frosted fields;
Ice lurks in shadows, a wicked, watchful eye.
Naked hedgerows, armed with thorns, frown over dank ditches;
Half-lost lanes languish, scabbed with old farmyard filth.
And in this desolation, your swirl of red and gold
Sparks hope of brighter days and tales to be told.
By this stage in an English winter, everywhere is looking a bit dead, grubby and neglected. But Nature has a way of redeeming herself, as she did yesterday with a charm of goldfinches, who burst out of a hedgerow as I rode past. At that moment, all was forgotten and forgiven. N.
I walked the woods, where Spring at last bestirred
Herself with bright abandon. All around
Bluebells and windflowers gleamed, and every bird
Rejoiced in lusty song. Then came the sound
Of angry scolding overhead: a coarse
And ragged band of brigands in full cry
As one by one, they swooped and swirled to force
The noble, broad-winged buzzard from their sky.
And thus when I, too, seek release in flight
Or silent solitude, the world’s dark woes
Rise up in loud pursuit, grant no respite
And crowd in, mobbing me like churlish crows.
How many years and miles before I find
A place to rest to my weary heart and mind?
Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary last Saturday has led to this sudden outbreak of sonnets; old and familiar ground, I know, but it’s still my favourite form to work with, and just feels right at this time of year. That said, spring is showing recidivist tendencies this week, with a bitter northerly pegging temperatures in single digits (C) and leaving the flowers wondering if they’ve accidentally skipped a few pages in their diaries. N.
They come in numbers now. Each new dawn brings
Another band of travellers. Steely cries
Slice through the breathless air; sharp sickle wings
Unceasing in their scything of the skies.
The sleepless nights and restless, unmapped days
Have brought them up from Africa, through Spain
And France, their single thought to feed, and raise
Their young. So much to lose, and all to gain.
Then, with the seasons’ shift, the bounty spent,
An urge strong as the force that drew them here
Will send them south once more. The sky we lent
Them handed back, they’ll mass and disappear.
Come one, come all, and welcome; for we know
That when the great wheel turns again, you’ll go.
A lot of talk here and across Europe at the moment about the migration crisis. Meanwhile, the swifts have arrived and are happily helping themselves to our high-altitude insects. It struck me that we actively look for and welcome migrant birds, like swifts and fieldfares, as symbols of the seasons, yet regard people arriving on our shores having fled war, poverty and persecution as a threat. It’s also telling that both swifts and people are coming here from roughly the same places, by similar routes, and for the same reasons. I guess if I had any answers to offer, I wouldn’t be sitting here now. N.
Some new folks just moved in next door.
I don’t where they lived before:
Out in the backwoods, I’d surmise;
Secluded, far from prying eyes.
They took up station in our street
Two weeks ago. We’ve yet to meet
Them; we’ve seen neither hide nor hair
Of them; it seems they’ve never there
In daylight. No, it’s only when
The sun’s long gone they rise, and then
They whoop it up: they party long
And loud; just sing the same damn song
For hours; a sombre, one-note tune
Of desperate death beneath the moon
That echoes and conspires to keep
Three dozen decent folk from sleep.
But you’ll near no complaints from me
About their midnight revelry.
Their presence is a gleaming knife
That cuts through this suburban life
And speaks to me of wilder ways,
Of freer times and long-lost days.
I stand and listen, wish that I
Were with them, under that dark sky,
Our senses sharpened, blood on fire,
Like prisoners outside the wire.
I know I’ll never shake their hand
Enter their world, or understand
Their secret life, but still, it’s good
To have them in the neighbourhood.
First nature poem for a while. On a couple of nights lately, we’ve listened to tawny owls hooting in the trees across the street: a reminder that, even in the congested south-east of England, the Wild isn’t far away. And we’re all the better for that. N.
December. Winter’s milk-teeth gently clench
On feet and fingers. Cloud battalions march
Before the easterly, and in the ditch,
A fortnight’s rain gleams gunmetal. On such
A day, I take the road again in search
Of reason and revival, when I catch
A corner-of-my-eye glimpse: on a branch,
My own memento vivere – a patch
Of rose-pink on the hedgerow’s rags; a peach
Hung on a hawthorn twig, bright as a torch
To light me home again. At my approach
He bursts, grey, white and sunset, from his perch
And vanishes. No time allowed to watch
But just enough to lift the heart, bewitch
And make me smile, as usual, at his rich
Defiant colour that seems to reproach
All weariness, dark thought and sombre speech.
Life’s canvas begs no shadowed skull to preach
The need to seize the day; a little touch
Of humble magic conjured thus can reach
Into our hearts and days, and say as much.
Many things catch my eye when I’m out and about on the bike, but one sight that never fails to cheer me is a bullfinch – especially in winter, when the male’s vivid pink plumage positively glows against the grey of the hedgerows. Having never managed to photograph him, I’ve been meaning to write about him for ages, and here he is at last. I think of his splash of colour in the drab countryside as the opposite of the memento mori lurking in the background in old paintings – a reminder of life that does me good every time it see it. N.
I’m lost. I had not planned to come this way.
Heart gripped in Fear’s chill hand
For there are, I understand
Dragons living in this land.
An island in a sea of rain-raked grass
Where kites wheel watchfully.
Thick-walled, four-square sanctuary
With food, fire and family.
Two circles, dug deep, high on this bleak hill.
Walled with stone, roofed with sky.
Where we watch the red kites fly,
Armed men stood once, doomed to die.
The red kite, wind-borne, keeps his lone watch while
The frozen forest sleeps:
In the hearth a bright fire leaps;
Round the house, Midwinter creeps.
The englyn is new to me, but it is, of course, a very ancient form: part of the Welsh bardic tradition, englyns are still regularly recited at Eisteddfod. Like the Japanese haiku, the englyn is based on syllable count – 10 in the first line, then six, seven and seven – with the added twist that the sixth syllable of the first line introduces the end-rhyme for the following three lines. Confused? I was.
Anyway, we were staying with my wife’s family in west Wales over Christmas, so it seemed the ideal opportunity to blend medium and material. The second poem in this sequence is about my mother-in-law’s house, while the third was inspired by the Iron Age fort on the hill above it. No apologies for the repeated red kite references: having once been hunted virtually to extinction, they’re now as common as sparrows in those parts. And very beautiful they are, too. Happy New Year to one and all. N.