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.
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.
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.
In a kinder, saner life,
That scimitar slash
Of slate and copper
Would be all I needed:
Inch-deep in leaf-mould and winter slop
I feel the weight of this
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.
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.
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.