Last stand

Gull war-band. Gutter-mouthed, they scream their scorn,
Sweep circles, swoop on broadsword wings, their cries
As rough as dockers’ hands; allegiance sworn
In fo’c’sle oaths, hate hardening their eyes.
Incongruous, the heron holds the roof
Against the rabble, pleading peace. But they
Are pitiless; won’t let him rest, aloof
And dignified. The mob will have its way.
There is no patience in them for the still
And patient soul: the kind who’ll watch the stream
For fish to rise; who feels no urge to fill
The days with noise; lives quiet, content to dream.
The gulls reclaim the airspace, as my mind
Flies with the heron, leaving them behind.


Inspired by actual events. Poor old heron – he did his best, jabbing away with that long neck and sharp beak of his, but the gulls (who had no more right to be here than he did, what with our being seventeen miles from the sea and all) weren’t having any of it and drove him off our neighbours’ rooftop with a concerted aerial assault. Discretion may be the better part of valour, but he still looked pretty fed up as he flapped away. The incident made me think about how unsympathetic the world can be towards we quieter, more contemplative types: noise and bluster and ‘attitude’ are much more highly prized, to the extent that ‘introvert’ has become a perjorative term. Anyway, this one’s for my unfortunate friend the heron: hope it’s peaceful on whichever pond or river he’s haunting now, and that the fishing is good. N.


Out of the alders
The kestrel arcs
Like a thrown knife;
Drives himself deep
Into the oak. Glares,
Dares me to want or wish for more
Than this short, sharp shot of him.

I don’t.

In a kinder, saner life,
That scimitar slash
Of slate and copper
Would be all I needed:
Here, now,
Inch-deep in leaf-mould and winter slop
I feel the weight of this
Unmanufactured moment
And all the riches of his weaponed grace
Settle in my pockets –

The harsh, hard coin of worlds
Away from our imagined realm
Where debt is credit
Gluttony no mortal sin
And greed is made
Our highest good.


As so often before, I find myself gratefully indebted to Tom Davis. I’d been thinking about writing another ‘bird poem’ for a while, and when I saw our resident kestrel down in the woods yesterday, I knew I had my subject. But it was Tom’s comments on my previous piece, Battleground State, that finally crystallised my ideas; I hope he won’t mind my appropriating some of his wise words for this brief detour into free verse. N.

Free as air


Seems in some past life, I pulled off a crime
So heinous I have been condemned to years
Of penal servitude. I do my time
Inside, until some clement spirit hears
My plea and turns me loose. Today’s parole
Came in the afternoon – a chance to ride,
Cut free the chains of commerce from my soul
And breathe the clean and healing breeze outside.
A hilltop stop to shed my jacket. There
He was, dark blue and scarlet in the sun,
Forked tail tuning up the April air,
First with the news their season has begun.
One doesn’t make a summer, so they say;
But he was just enough to make my day.

Crow and dove

In ash trees whipped by fierce, unspringlike weathers
A crow alights, hat-black and hungry-eyed.
Untroubled by the gale that frays his feathers,
Imperious and bold, no need to hide:
The buzzards do not come here, as he knows
Full well; the sparrowhawk inspires no dread
In one his size. Cocksure, his disdain shows
In every jaunty tilt of his sleek head.
And then, from nowhere, comes a flash of grey –
A collared dove, in fast and fearless flight
To drive the hated nest-robber away:
The great peace emblem spoiling for a fight.
When my dark terrors gather to attack
I’ll rouse my mild soul – and strike them back.


From our kitchen window, we watched this little commonplace drama being played out in our garden this morning. I found the idea of a big, wind-raggedy crow being angrily shooed out of the garden by the universal symbol of peace and reconciliation rather appealing – and felt there was a lesson there, too.

Ruba’i: Kite-flying

Rain’s coming. Soon the day will die:
Before the weather hits, we’re high
On this steep slope, to catch a sight
Of kites against the scowling sky.

One pink-and-purple-quartered, bright
And tugging playfully, held tight
By my small girl on wind-taut string.
The other at a watchful height –

A russet silhouette – the king
Of these green hills. With copper wing
And deep-notched tail he tames the breeze;
His hunter’s eye sees everything.

One kite knows only certainties
Control, restraint and boundaries:
One has the freedom of the air
And all its possibilities.

I watch my daughter standing there,
Her laughing face upturned, aware
The moment will soon come when she
Will wish to fly, and I must dare

To let the string run long. Now, we
Are here together – happy, free.
And that means most of all to me
For she means most of all to me.



March morning. Walking in the woods I heard
A hollow knocking, like Fate at the door
Beethoven-style. Hard looking flushed a bird,
Slate-grey-and-clotted-cream, who crept with sure
And certain stealth along a rot-racked limb
And, with his testing tapping, set the tree
Reverberating. I could have held him
Between my thumb and finger easily
And yet, he made a towering oak resound
And showed me that, small as we may appear,
When time and place are right, we too can sound
Like giants, with a voice all men can hear.
I’ll hammer on the world’s dead wood and make
A noise no-one can silence or mistake.


The nuthatch is one of my favourite woodland birds: small, not showy and rather tricky to spot, but seemingly able to defy gravity, running head-first down treetrunks and along the undersides of branches with perfect aplomb. This one was looking for insects in a big oak tree in our local woods; I could hear him tapping the bark with his beak from a hundred yards away.


Time was you never saw them here. These days
They’re everywhere. They haunt the trees; with eyes
That glitter cold and pitiless, they’ll gaze
At me a moment, trying me for size,
Then seem to shrug and insolently drift
Into the air on wide, dark-fingered wings.
On sunny afternoons, the thermals lift
Them, lordly, over we poor earthbound things.
And from those circling specks a keening cry
Resounds; an echo of the age before
Our persecutions swept them from the sky.
Defiant, they have claimed these lands once more.
A whisper from the wildwood; and I yearn
For more than just the buzzards to return.

Parliament of owls

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.


High flyers

All morning
in that huge space
hushed as a church
They showed me how they take
metal, wood, leather, paint
long patient hours
and with them make
four-wheeled palaces for princes
players, plutocrats:
The stuff we’re meant to dream of.

Only later, when I watched
four swans
unfurl themselves like magnolia flowers
then run
heavy, ponderous as bombers
grey feet slapping
wide wings whistling,
willing them
off the gripping water
and away
towards the island

Did I see something
that stopped me still
held my eyes
made my heart hammer

and all that manufactured art
was whirled away
like fallen feathers
by things no hand created.


After a visit to the Rolls-Royce factory. It was a work thing. Don’t think I’ll be buying one any time soon.

Feathered fiend

One for sorrow

A fan of piebald primaries
Crow-picked, sun-stiffened
Woven through the rough grass of the headland.

Another woodpigeon
Downed by the hawk
Then butchered by Reynard

Or so I thought.
Until I caught
A single feather’s blue-green sheen

Shining like oil on water,
The glint in the keeper’s eye.
One for sorrow. Hello, Magpie.