Stocking fillers [6 ]: Birds of the air

Feeling guilty at the continued failure to Catch Up as planned. I went to see a doctor last week, and discussed the after-effects of chemotherapy, and the business of withdrawal from steroids. We talked about the downsides of continuous low-level pain/discomfort. One of them is that to various degrees, you can’t concentrate; in my case it includes not being able to read for any length of time before it all becomes meaningless. Writing is a frustrating slow business…the words simply don’t line up and fall into place. But I’m heartened to find that it’s not just me, and that my doctor has a blanket term for it. She calls it ‘brain fog’. That’ll do for me. It explains why the collections waiting for me to write about (one in particular) are piling up, but it explains why I can do little about it for the time being.

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What I CAN do is to keep the Cobweb ticking over.

I just stopped and stared at what I’d written. Can a cobweb tick? I think not. Mixed metaphors? Jeez. Possibly I meant to say that I’d keep on spinning. I’ll settle for that.

Last week my partner Flo bought me this surprise present to cheer me up. American First Edition, with these stunning watercolours by Baskin. I’d forgotten just how Ted Hughes can knock you sideways; it was like reading him again for the first time. The Sunstruck Foxglove

Her silky body a soft oven

For loaves of pollen

Or in another OTT piece about an Iris …Sketch of a goddess

An overpowered bee buries its face

In the very beard of her ovaries.

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It deafens itself

In a dreadful belly-cry – just out of human hearing

It all just made me feel more alive, more aware of sound and texture and the buzzzing stuff of life. It reminded me just how much Ted Hughes has got into some of my ways of thinking, and so tonight, here’s a kind of thank you .

A lot of stocking-fillers turn up in one-off tasks in poetry workshops. I’ve never sat down with the intention of writing about birds or animals, but when I’m ambushed into it, Ted Hughes is always going to turn up, providing some of the sound and texture.

When my children were small, in the remote past, one of our favourite books was Hughes’ How the Whale became

and that’s the voice I borrowed in this workshop opener: an invitation to write about things that shouldn’t ever be in the x or y…in the sea, say, or the sky, or in a shop, or down your street.

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Heron

When God made Heron, he’d been hard at it,

five days creating day and night, sun and moon

and stars, the oceans and the earth, 

and on the fifth day,the creatures of the sea

and the birds of the air. Let’s see, says God.

What have we not got? A bird that can spear a fish.

I like that. Give him a long sharp beak.

A touch of gold. 

                         But not the fish of the sea,

thought God, who’d spent the afternoon

in a frenzy of invention: Puffin, Gannet, Fulmar,

Skua, Albatross. The fish of slow rivers,

the fish of placid streams. That’s the thing.

He’ll need long thin legs and wide-spread feet.

My words, he’ll need to be a hefty bird

with legs that long, thinks God. 

The wings he’ll need! and a sharp dark eye.

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Now. Where will he make his home?

It had been a long day. He can nest

in a tree like all the rest, says God.

And he breathed life into Heron

who flew off on his great wide wings

and landed in his tree, like a broken kite,

a thin old man falling off a bicycle.

(I think I should acknowledge that U A Fanthorpe was over my shoulder too….have you read that poem about the Creation that she wrote in Northumbrian dialect? I hear God with a Geordie accent.)

I can’t trace the prompt for the next one, but it wasn’t necessarily an instruction to write about a bird. I don’t know what it was. Sometimes the name of a bird is enough to call up stories and images. The owl will do this, obviously,and equally the kite and the crow. But I was surprised to find the St Stephen’s Day hunting of the wren turning up without invitation.

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Wren

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God thought of the smallest coin

he could make, and made the Wren

to fit, neat as a thumb in a thimble,

tail cocked like a feather on a jaunty hat.

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He should have loved the Wren more

than let the boys come smashing down

the thorn, chanting, calling: Wren!

come out! come out! come out and die.

.

With her hair trigger call, she can not 

keep silent, the Wren, full as an egg

with alarm and urgency, her voice a tattle

of fingernails on an old tin lid.

.

Fragile as a chalice on its thin glass stem.

Why kill a Wren and her mid-winter song?

What did she ask for but a zipwire of air,

a tangle to hide her nest, a May full of flies?

By the way. The farthing ceased to be legal tender on Dec. 31st 1961. Which surprises me. So there you are. If the brain-fog persists there may be more like this. Fingers crossed, then.

7 thoughts on “Stocking fillers [6 ]: Birds of the air

  1. Welcome to the brain fog gang 🤣. I enjoyed the bird poems.
    Yes, surprised the farthing went out as early as 1961. Loved getting 4 blackjacks for a 1d. in my 50s childhood, though sometimes only one for a farthing. And it’s how I learnt how to identify wrens.

    Like

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