Bullfinch

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.

A round of rondelets

In rides the rain;
All day the crow-black clouds have grown.
In rides the rain
To lash the sodden land again –
Soak wind-bent thorn, time-scattered stone
And high-hedged lanes I walk alone.
In rides the rain.

Up comes the gale
With teeth and fists and dark intent.
Up comes the gale
As power-lines and barbed wire wail
With twisted trees in shrill lament;
The world the wild wind’s instrument.
Up comes the gale.

Now falls the night;
A lean wolf stalking round the hill.
Now comes the night;
The twilight yields without a fight.
I turn my collar to the chill
But long miles lie before me still.
Now falls the night.

Approach the door:
Old oak, black iron, bolted fast.
Approach the door
Where my road ends; I’ll march no more.
Cast coat and hat aside at last,
Find rest until the storm has passed.
Approach the door.

Beside the fire
With four thick walls enfolding me;
Beside the fire
All journeymen like me desire
Is here: with wine and company,
The hard road’s just a memory
Beside the fire.

The sun appears –
And with it, hope for better things.
The sun appears
To banish night and all its fears,
Strike copper fire on kite’s broad wings
And warm me on my wanderings.
The sun appears.

 

More from our festive sojourn in west Wales, and another form I’d not tried before – the rondelet. Like the triolet, it has a refrain line (A), which in this case appears three times and is written in iambic dimeter; the rest is in iambic tetrameter. The rhyme scheme is AbAabbA.

Having played around with it a bit, I must say I like its straightforwardness and economy. It has a rather ‘naïve art’ feel to it, so I chose simple subjects, which ended up telling an equally uncomplicated story, partly inspired by some memorably weather-beaten walks in the country around my mother-in-law’s house.

As well as the red kite, the wolf, extinct in this islands for almost three centuries, emerged unlooked-for as a recurring theme (can’t quite bring myself to use the term ‘motif’) while we were away. It may have something to do with my reading over the last few weeks, which has consisted largely of the Norse legends and Icelandic sagas! He’ll be back again soon, I’m sure. N.

Englyns: From Ceredigion

1.

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.

2.

An island in a sea of rain-raked grass
Where kites wheel watchfully.
Thick-walled, four-square sanctuary
With food, fire and family.

3.

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.

4.

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.

Winter solstice

Image0497

 

No. Darkness shall not rule the earth.
Though woods and fields lie still and cold
This day brings promise of rebirth;
The great wheel turns, a gift foretold.

Though woods and fields lie still and cold
The road leads back to life and light.
The great wheel turns, a gift foretold;
Hope blazes in midwinter’s night.

The road leads back to life and light;
Raise fire and song – Yule has begun.
Hope blazes in midwinter’s night;
We greet the great, unconquered sun.

Raise fire and song – Yule has begun.
This day brings promise of rebirth;
We greet the great, unconquered sun.
No. Darkness shall not rule the earth.

 

Haven’t written a pantoum for ages; its measured, rather portentous pattern of repeating lines seemed just right for a poem about the rolling of the year, and the long walk back to Spring that starts at 11.11 GMT tomorrow. Can’t wait! The line that ends the third stanza, and comes second-to-last in the final one, is a reference to the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (‘Birthday of the Unconquered Sun’) which took place on 25 December: some claim our Christmas Day was chosen deliberately to coincide with, and thus suppplant, the old pagan rite. In much the same way, I’ve unashamedly borrowed the ancients’ lovely ringing words for my own purposes here. N.

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.

Sonnet Cycle: The Field – Part 3

Image0471

 

SUMMER

No rest in these full, fiery days: the trust
Placed in me months long gone must be repaid
In fat, gold grain. The combine’s twelve-foot blade
Leaves me stark, convict-cropped. They raise my dust
With ten-tonne trailers, roll my ribs of straw
For steer and stable; when the men depart
The patient crows come gleaning – every part
Of all I’ve made picked up and set in store.
And in a monstrous sky my exhaled heat
Is gathered too. From thunderheads I’ve stacked
Ten miles high, blessed rain renews my cracked
And gasping soil. The circle is complete.
Once more I keep my promise made to Man;
Just as I have each year since time began.

Sonnet Cycle: The Field – Part 2

JD ploughing

 

SPRING

The first bite of the coulter wakens me;
Five mouldboards turn my face to greet the sun
That climbs above the wood. Work has begun.
Gulls flock my furrows; on the easterly
Crows ride like witches. Celandines appear
In my hedge-bottoms; harrow, roll and drill
Pass over me with steel and noise until
The seed lies warm and deep. Another year.
Then ancient war breaks out. In elder days
I gloried in my arsenal of flowers
And weeds: now men have new, undreamt-of powers
And subjugate me with their soundless sprays.
The urging in the warming earth grows strong;
My young shoots rise up with the skylark’s song.

Sonnet Cycle: The Field – Part 1

Frost-004
 

WINTER

Cold, silent, colourless. A kind of death
Has taken me; my mourners are the crows
Who stalk my stubbles as the land-drain flows
And swells the swirling ditch. My shallow breath
Hangs in the air at dawn; at dusk I bleed
Where sunset strikes the still-raw chevron scars
Of tractors; while the Hunter’s seven stars
Burn over me, I dream of sun and seed.
For life still smoulders in me, though it burns
Its lowest as dark days die young, and men
With hounds and guns find food in me again;
Beneath my sleeping soil the great wheel turns.
The year is buried deep in me for now;
Awaiting resurrection by the plough.

Workspace

The constant clicking of black plastic keys
Like rodents scratching, as we stiffly sit
In silence, staring at our screens; release
Four flat hours off. Sound-proofed, fluorescent-lit,
The office keeps the untamed air at bay
Where it belongs. The only wood to see
Is desks; no green thing grows; and fleeting day
Is glimpsed through glass as trees wave helplessly.
And this they call the Real World – the place
We’re all intended for, prepared from birth
To enter; this small, subjugated space
Our portion of the riches of the earth.
Connected to the planet, we’re removed
From all the ancients understood and loved.

Kestrel

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.