the poetry of birds
Poetry Breakfast ~ at home
Our special guest this week is the wildlife photographer, author and poet, Andrew Fusek Peters. His stunning photographs often appear on the front page of national newspapers, and in the last two years he has won Highly Commended in British Wildlfe Photographer of the Year twice, won Commended and 3rd in Category in International Garden Photographer of the Year, and made the top 100 in the inaugural Close Up Photographer Of The Year and finalist in Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
His book, Dip, tells of a year of wild swims and stories from the Borderlands and is both a sustained, year long piece of nature writing, and a meandering meditation on landscape, ecology, wildlife, myth and memoir. Dip is set mainly around the the Shropshire borderlands. It is exquisitely moving.
Andrew is also a respected poet, and a much-loved writer for children, with many collections to his name, and his new book Hill & Dale, My Shropshire Year, will be a 200 page full colour hardback to be published this year by Yew Tree Press.
Having already generously given permission for Poetry Breakfast at Home to use his photographs to illustrate the themes of Hope is the Thing with Feathers and Green, so green we are delighted to welcome Andrew as both poet and photographer to this week’s theme.
The Murmur of Dusk
Follow the law, keep close to your kin
No crash as you dash through the feathering din
Safety in numbers, the gathered agree
Turning and tumble invisible scree
Furl like a flag of furrowing silk
Spill from the sky in a spatter of milk
The sun has migrated far to the west,
Now forest and field shall lull you to rest.
At the dusk, you are flung like a catapult loosed
Your target the willow tree warmth of the roost,
when many be one, so song settles down,
Poured like smoke to a canopy crown.
What is it with the birds at dawn
Where dark made dreaming dim?
The darting dunnock on the ground,
The goldfinches with their bullion
Squabbles that vanish like pilfered jewels in the morning light
What is it with the birds?
The dainty siskins, aerial doilies, etiquettes of the air,
Yet suddenly spitting, a suspended cat’s claw
That scratches a foodie territory.
Yes, what is it with the birds?
The green finch, that neon matador
Bruiser with a beak
Pumped up on verdant steroids.
Or the elongated long-tailed tits, rudders at their backs,
Sky steering, clumped on balls of fat like a font
Yes what is with the birds
By dusk, hidden houdinis hounded by the leaching of light
That robs feathers of flight,
Round breathing pegs for the shadow hedge hole,
Nails hammered tight to the roost,
All in a sudden sigh, gone from us like a grieving,
How is their dreaming, and whence their thoughts?
What of the birds, those clothed radiators, hearts beating slow
In the clamp of cold.
Walk past, returning from evening perched at the pub,
and raise a small warning song,
Till they, come the new day, the birds, whatever it is with them,
Be blessed again:
blackbird, the worm angler and tail poseur;
nuthatch, upside wire-walker, with a head forged from curiosity,
and sparrow the street corner gossip,
the bullying know-all.
All take to the air like a newborn
Singing, caterwhauling, screeching
oh the round and round begin again
what is it with the birds?
Photography during the pandemic.
This has been a time of tragedies, both great and small. I could not go to see my mother celebrate her 88th birthday in a local nursing home and for many social distancing and lockdown meant far worse and a whole world of grief.
And yet. And yet, the proscribed walks we were allowed for me became prescribed walks – both medicine and filled with the possibilities of creative well-being. I had never found bird nests before and suddenly, every tree was filled with holy/holey possibilities. Long lenses meant I could get in close without disturbing sitting mums or feeding parents. And that has carried on. It seems I’ve got my eye in, and my ears too, to hear the chit-chit-chit of calling woodpecker chicks. Our community has come together in a good hearted way – helping out those shielding, shopping, dropping stuff off or even not bumping into each other when out and about. The flow of words is feathered – it flies and flies between us all and we are glad of it, this chatty hope that leavens the dull grind of days. And suddenly I am a repository for many to tell me what they’ve seen, be it bird or butterfly or the beauty of our local landscape.
Yesterday, I saw a notice on a door to a magical walled garden. Something about nesting birds and then I realised. This brave and determined mother-to-be had woven a nest around an ancient iron hinge. Even more amazing that the door is in use, leading to a bunch of allotments. How miraculous is such persistence and what my lens finally reveals is that the very shy spotted flycatcher has made her temporary home, shielding in the shadows under a 19th century brick overhang. Her nest is woven around the door hinge. I am flabbergasted at such fragility and pray that the notice makes people careful at this precious doorway. I am sitting at a careful distance, my remote control in hand. Soon, when it gets too hot, there might be a dip among the lapis lazuli of damselflies. Heaven might not be at hand, and to feel positive feels almost dangerous. But let us grab what little and natural joys we can.
Swans Mating by Michael Longley
Even now I wish that you had been there
Sitting beside me on the riverbank:
The cob and his pen sailing in rhythm
Until their small heads met and the final
Heraldic moment dissolved in ripples.
This was a marriage and a baptism,
A holding of breath, nearly a drowning,
Wings spread wide for balance where he trod,
Her feathers full of water and her neck
Under the water like a bar of light.
from Selected Poems, published by Jonathan Cape, included by kind permission of the publisher.
Chosen by Kathy, Poetry Breakfast, Much Wenlock
Swallows by Kathleen Jamie
I wish my whole battened
heart were a property
like this, with swallows
in every room – so at ease
they twitter and preen
from the picture frames
like an audience in the gods
before an opera
and in the mornings
wheel above my bed
in a mockery of pity
before winging it
up the stairwell
to stream out into light
Chosen by Alix, Poetry Breakfast at The Poetry Pharmacy
Ali chose a few of her favourites: Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins and (from the many she could have picked) Curlew by Gillian Clarke, to whom grateful thanks for again allowing us to include one of her poems. (And Happy Birthday, Gillian!) and A Blackbird Singing by RS Thomas.
To Christ Our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
She dips her bill in the rim of the sea.
Her beak is the ellipse
of a world much smaller
than that far section of the sea’s
circumference. A curve enough to calculate
the field’s circle and its heart
of eggs in the cold grass.
All day while I scythed my territory
out of nettles, laid claim to my cantref,
she has cut her share of sky. Her song bubbles
long as a plane trail from her savage mouth.
I clean the blade with newspaper. Dusk blurs
circle within circle till there’s nothing left
but the egg pulsing in the dark against her ribs.
For each of us the possessed space contracts
to the nest’s heat, the blood’s small circuit.
from The Sundial, published by Gomer Press
It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes’
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.
You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.
A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history’s overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.
Steve, as always, brings a different perspective to the proceedings! Thank you Steve for your originality and wit, and for this very good poem.
Kestrel versus Crow
I am fence-post turned to glide
I follow black line across
hard white ground
my eyes are flicker
I am soar
white ground is hedge-squared
the line where ground and air roost
is pylon-pinned is tilt-tilt-level-tilt-level-tilt
my eyes snag black-flap
I am hunt
black-flap is below
black-flap is caw-caw
black-flap is slow flap
I am pursuit
I am hedge tree sky
I steer in scream-wind
I am tension
I am dive-strain
I am scream-wind
I am talons
black-flap is caw-caw
he is flurry-swerve
I am thump, snatch, roll, neck-nip
black-flap is ground
my beak, blood
by Char March
Canal-side birds by Steve Harrison
Handsome Hooded Crows
and well-preened Ravens
flock-filled Birmingham yesterday
folded in their black graduation wings.
Proud fingers tilted cameras,
Canal bridges framed these fledglings.
Prints will hang on walls in celebration
of this day in their migration.
Their juvenile faces will examine mine
measure its pressure
feel for its pulse
by-pass my heart.
Four and forty years since I took flight
grateful for grants and The Grateful Dead,
now wishing these new wings don’t get clipped
avoid the stench of smoking feathers.
And now two poems by Christina Rossetti: A Bird Song is chosen by Alison, thank you for the photo Alison, and A Green Cornfield is Tim’s choice this week, although Tim says his second choice is that he is looking forward to Simon Armitage‘s current project of a translation of The Owl and The Nightingale (from 8-900 years ago, written in Middle English) when he’s finished it; should be fun, by the sound of it.
It’s a year almost that I have not seen her:
Oh, last summer green things were greener,
Brambles fewer, the blue sky bluer.
It’s surely summer, for there’s a swallow:
Come one swallow, his mate will follow,
The bird race quicken and wheel and thicken.
Oh happy swallow whose mate will follow
O’er height, o’er hollow! I’d be a swallow,
To build this weather one nest together.
The earth was green, the sky was blue:
I saw and heard one sunny morn
A skylark hang betweent he two,
A singing speck above the corn;
A stage below, in gay accord,
White butterflies danced on the wing,
And still the singing skylark soared,
And silent sank and soared to sing.
The cornfield stretched a tender green
To right and left beside my walks;
I knew he had a nest unseen
Somewhere among the million stalks.
And as I paused to hear his song
While swift the sunny moments slid,
Perhaps his mate sat listening long,
And listened longer than I did.
Thinking about lyrics, poetry, and music, it seems to me that lyrics specifically written for a song are more able to be isolated as poems than poems can be set to music. I think of A Shropshire Lad and others where the impact of the words is lost in the musical setting. And of course, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature …
Incidentally, Eric Maschwitz who wrote Nightingale and These Foolish Things was a secret agent with MI6 in WW2 in the USA! Britain was trying to get the USA to join the war which only happened after Pearl Harbour. Otherwise, he worked for the BBC. Linda and I heard all about it at the Ways With Words festival in Southwold in November. Worth a google.
Let’s hope Glyn Maxwell isn’t looking – he has very strong feelings about lyrics not measuring up as poetry (read On Poetry if you’d like to know more) – but I think these are beautiful, so thank you Philip!
Here’s my choice…. It’s Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Kingfisher’ acrostic accompanied (and enhanced) by Jackie Morris‘ incredible artwork, featured in The Lost Words, published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton. Below is a poster of the poem and artwork, freely available through the John Muir Trust’s website.
I love this poem; it celebrates the very many and very evocative names we give to birds – specifically, in this poem, the Kingfisher. ‘The Lost Words’ as a collection harnesses the power of names and naming as a way of re-connecting people (children especially) with the natural world. If we have a name for something, we seek it out, observe it, engage with it. The poem acts as a spell, conjuring the bird. It comes alive. Just magical.
This a beautiful ‘Spell songs’ version of Kingfisher. Hypnotic, lilting folk music…amazing!
And the lovely Beth Porter, of The Bookshop Band, is playing and singing on this track.
So that’s it for another week! Please send us poems on this, or any of the themes by email or you can use the message function at the bottom of the page. You can also follow us using the social media buttons just below.
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