I cannot stop you tearing up the land;
Turn back the clock or stay your heedless hand;
No word of mine can still your crushing wheels;
My flesh and bone no match for your cold steel.
But what I can, I’ll do. And so I lay
This charm upon you and your deeds this day.
From sullied soil, let briar and bramble spring –
Let thistle burn, thorn scratch and nettle sting;
And when the summer sun warms earth and sky,
Come, adders, sharp of fang and cold of eye.
In every vehicle that you blithely ride
Let spiders big as saucers now reside;
And in the cabin where you take your rest
Bid hordes of wicked hornets build their nest.
Then let it rain and churn the clay to mire
To grab and grip and clog each helpless tyre;
And when the cries of rook-bands fill the air
May you hear mocking laughter everywhere.
Now let this doom hang heavy round your necks;
A right reward for him who rips and wrecks
Without regard or care. My rhyme is done.
But not the charm. Its work has just begun.
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.
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.
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.
If I’d only gone straight on after Tanyard Green
I’d have made it home much sooner
But I never would have seen
That John Deere and silage trailer running flat-out on the road
To the hungry forage harvester for one more load.
If I’d turned to the left when I chose to go right
I’d have dodged that one-in-seven
But I would have missed the sight
Of a big New Holland crawling with the throttle thrown wide
As it hauled a power harrow up a steep hillside.
If I’d thought to take the shortcut, not the long way round,
I’d have saved myself some miles
But instead I caught the sound
Of three magpies’ loud alarums in an oak, while down below
The dog-fox paused, then vanished in the deep hedgerow.
Yes, it’s easy to regret the many roads I never took –
All those straighter, smoother highways –
But I must not overlook
All the unexpected magic that’s waylaid me on this track;
I’ll forsake the map and compass, ride my road – and not look back.
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.