I am no twitcher and certainly do not pretend to be an ornithologist. The poems in this collection are just personal reactions to a variety of bird species I have had the privilege to come close to and observe. They are clearly associated with a number of places visited during travels in the northern British Isles and continental Europe.
I believe animals, and birds in particular, have much to teach humans. That at least one saint has supposedly preached to the birds I find absurd. What could animals learn from the Church? More probably, saints have entered into a natural communion in which they understand the language of animals and may communicate to them on their own terms. This is certainly what happened in the cases of certain Celtic anchorites and the Buddha, who could exchange long conversations with deer and other quadrupeds.
While not aspiring to this supernal level of comprehension I hope the following collection will at least communicate something to the reader.
FLP March 1998
Sentinel of the cliffs, you rise
on waves like a sea scout;
harlequin of waters and skies
you make our hearts sing out.
Your yellow, blue and bright red beak
fits mask-like on your face;
gauche on land, your diving technique
is filled with mermaid grace.
I walk the bluff’s sea-spattered lawn
past your hidden burrows
as northern sun spreads its cold dawn
and lights the sea’s furrows.
Your presence brings precious relief
to unrelenting lands
where old memories stretch their grief
over dark rock-thrown strands.
And when in desolate places
I can find no way out
your bright, happy image chases
away any black doubt.
On the boat to the rocky bay
we saw a gannet fly,
then quite suddenly fall straight down
ninety feet from the sky
into the sea to rise again,
silver fish in its beak,
winging wide to the cliff face:
with expansive technique.
Pure white body with black wingtips
and yellow painted head,
solan goose of the farthest waves,
precipice born and bred;
I still hear your deep whirring croak
as you cling to the cliff
in multitude of kin feathers,
while we watch from our skiff,
guarding your lonely green-blue egg
with quickly darting bill
and keeping safe your dark brown chick
on its perilous sill.
Protector of the northern seas
you take souls on your wing,
ancestral ghosts beat within you
and oceanic tongues sing.
You roost in the garden of thorns,
sinister, still waiting;
your reptilian appearance warns
of strange omens you bring.
Perched on a decayed river pier
by the ferry landing
year after year what leads you here
from crags where you are king?
Motionless, you dry your feathers
on scale-like outstretched wing.
Out-running Atlantic weathers
ancestral rights you sing
when you received a royal name
in the house of the king,
where fishing was a courtly game:
around glossed throat a ring
so you couldn’t swallow the prey
but before Master fling
caught salmon which might not allay
insatiate greed, mean thing!
Torpid, you stand upon the wood,
Christ’s cross’s deathly sting,
stripped tree that bares the supreme good
while white fish bones you fling.
Now we see you skim the river
its swell almost touching
with your coal wings, dusky quiver
outlined by rays’ setting.
Ever on the wing, gale-tossed bird,
on your midnight return
to precipice burrows we heard
sounds we could just discern.
So above human pitch they were -
darkling choir of lost souls -
lone mariners’ ghost-ridden whirr,
resonance that consoles.
Smaller than a sparrow you face
the sea’s great hurricane,
skimming mountainous waves apace,
thrown back yet returning again.
Do you ever rest little bird,
give up unsettled heart?
Ocean laments are yet unheard
as from the cliffs we part.
BONXIE (GREAT SKUA)
On the island’s frost-worn moorland
you make your home
and defend it with a winged hand
far from sea’s crashing foam.
Clear tuk-tuk-tuk-tuing rings out
from dark brown white-patched span
lording it as you swiftly rout
kid rabbits from their clan.
Strong hunter, dipping and diving,
commander of the waste,
fearless beak’s arrogant tearing
weak prey is your sweet taste.
We duck cowed heads as you swoop past,
webbed feet grazing our hair;
you truly are that film’s star cast,
bold pirate of the air.
Our yacht sails through a mirror sea
towards the unseen isle,
sharp reefs defending its pink shores
with palms born to beguile.
Landing at the tumble-down pier
the headman drives us to
an enormous brackish lagoon
which the outboard skims through
to reach a half-submerged forest,
nest of the frigate bird.
Its vast wings span every tree,
anyhow its mews heard.
The little ones have not yet fled:
a big-throated courtship
has blossomed like deep red orchid
in life’s thalassic trip.
Motor silenced, the boat is pushed
through knee-deep rivulet,
children’s laughter on board mingled
with nature’s salt roulette.
Magnificent bird, sky’s corsair
uncontested you glide
across the southern ocean vasts,
steal my heart to your side.
I pitch my tent by the lake shore,
it is the close of day.
The placid dipping of an oar:
as boat slips into bay
I dive in the limpid water;
around dark mountains rise
while the setting sun ignites a
rose flame upon the skies.
Mother grebe sinks under water
her little frantic chicks
swim about trying to find her.
Is she up to her tricks?
She surfaces and they spin round
in dance of tufted joy.
How could they think she might have drowned
rising just like a buoy?
I watch this game over again
until my soup is cooked
and, hungry, no longer remain
yet still their game is brooked.
The chicks’ meal is feather and fish;
for difficult to swallow dish
of trout: most refined sieve.
Tucked in my downy sleeping bag,
waves lapping me to sleep,
into dreamland I slowly sag
as grebes play on the deep.
A tiny lake hidden between railway
and golf course: centre of your coterie,
leafy club where you dapperly display
your elegant plumage with liberty.
In black neck and white cravat you parade
along the leaf-strewn waterside path,
exchanging frozen prairie for the staid
suburban garden and its cosy hearth.
Shipped with slaves to grace and serve the estate,
you took your leave of the Palladian lord
and waddled straight out of the finialled gate
to public parks and the finished greensward.
For some a nuisance, yet fit for hunting
in wild-fowl areas they took your sight,
but, unworried by the threat of shooting,
you flapped languidly from arboreal height.
The big cracks remarked "not very sporting"
and so you quickly turned ornamental.
That autumn dusk we saw your wings beating
for the warmth and got quite sentimental.
It seemed as if you were waiting for us,
passengers congregated by willows
exchanging news and eager to discuss
in which way the southerly wind billows.
For as we arrived your plangent whoopings
voiced migration and, taking to the air
just like a squadron of hurricane wings,
you began your journey with jazzy flair.
And our eyes melted at the forlorn sight
of a tarn become quite silent and bare
abandoned to the winter’s cruel light
and humanity’s unending despair.
Icy disdain on your harsh face:
unmoved you stare at us
(hushed phalanx of binoculars)
and wonder why this fuss?
What weird current flew you down here,
our northernmost island,
so distant from that nesting place
on snow and fire forged land.
Your partner is gone five summers,
the old nest is quite sere,
so what does keep you coming back
again, year after year?
Those deep golden eyes hypnotise
from the whitest plumage
and candid form defines wisdom
of a honeyed lost age.
We retreat leaving you unmoved
and still you watch over the moor;
your cold beauty is so extreme
it scares us evermore.
Had you lost your way, mistaken
a wind-tide when I watched you
among Celtic hills far away
and alone in the blue?
You’re quite in the family way
through the Burgenland
we passed few chimneys near the lake
without your nesting stand.
Untidy heaps yet loved the more
for talismanic force
no house could be conceived complete
without your vast resource.
Loveable bird, bringer of life
in European plains
Healer of wounds, ender of strife
through you all earth sustains.
Did you ever then find your way
back to the lake of reeds,
return to favoured chimney stack
appease our inmost needs?
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