Seasons

four-seasons

In the richer countries, people live largely protected from the seasons. Food supplies don’t fail in winter, central heating is pretty reliable and when a village is cut off by snow for a few days it’s big news. We (I mean the majority, not people who are poor) can get summer any time we like at the end of a flight. Spring means longer daylight and maybe some green shoots in the garden. Autumn means leaves on the pavements. August means school summer holidays and the start of the football season.

All this of course is from a temperate zone, northern hemisphere perspective, but the same sort of thing can be said anywhere. A rainy season means less if the road surfaces are good and you’ve got a car.

Yet the succession of the seasons is dug deep into the language and consciousness of most peoples.

Here’s a poem I posted a long while ago.

AUTUMN

At the completeness of the year
Yellow, scarlet, claret, orange flare
One dissolves in the other, unique colour,
Beech, dogwood, spindle, aspen, elm
Blazing dead fronds of bracken. Robins still sing.
Last swallow lingers.
Soft damp, a hint of fertile rotting
Cold, sharp, a sense of winter’s hardening
Tumult of migrants misted in the air.

Past the long changing wood
The road runs fast, cars jockey,
Schedules are met, business done
And the computers speak
Of golden beaches in the sun.

Like other seasons, autumn looks back and forwards.

I was thinking about the seasons recently because suddenly, in late July, a whole lot of birds suddenly stopped singing. They were singing and a few days later they were all silent, yet I knew even the summer visitors wouldn’t have left yet. They were there, but silent, and therefore largely invisible. At about the same time the common small butterfly the Gatekeeper went from none to dozens round most bramble bushes.

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And for once I was more interested in the cricket than the opening football matches (I prefer cricket, but the start of a new season is always fascinating). To save Australian blushes I won’t mention what was holding my attention at Trent Bridge…

Next time, a new poem. Promise.

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Both one thing and another?

One of the things about poetry that most puzzles literal-minded people is that one set of words can mean two or more things. A description of snow falling can be a description of death or of sleep or, just possibly, a  description of snow falling.

 

faceoff

 

Going to the Snape Poetry Festival earlier this month got me thinking about this a good deal, particularly because of listening to an American poet, Paula Bohince, reading, interpreting and explaining what she liked about the poem “Sandpiper” by another female American poet, Elizabeth Bishop.

 

I found myself interested but uneasy. Here’s the poem:

 

SANDPIPER

 

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

 

Western Sandpiper, Cattle Point, Uplands, Near Victoria, British Columbia

 

Now clearly this is a very good poem, with vivid and accurate language, well-organised and thought-provoking, if only to find me American support for spelling FOCUSSED, which my American-dominated spellcheck thinks is wrong. There are lines here which are memorable for the beauty of the image and/or the words like the last two lines or “he stares at the dragging grains”, which is not only vivid but reproduces the sound of a spent wave hissing back over coarse sand.

 

In reading it before Paula Bohince expounded, I suspected there was a half-hidden agenda to it but didn’t know what. I was seriously bothered by the words “a student of Blake”, which interrupted clear and vivid description with what seemed to be a crossword-puzzle-maker’s clue. Paula Bohince especially liked those words, explaining they referred to Blake’s “To see a world in a grain of sand”, which makes plenty of sense; but I still think this is an awkward break and a too clever insert which will distract most readers from the picture that’s been building up.

 

By the way, as a European birdwatcher, I was also slightly bothered that the sandpipers I knew rarely fed on sandy shores, but judging by online photos of American sandpipers, some of their sandpiper species do.

 

Paula Bohince talked about Elizabeth Bishop’s approach to writing poetry and interpreted the poem from start to finish as the poet describing herself writing poetry. That does make sense: in particular, it would be downright silly to describe a bird as being “obsessed” (“Poor bird, he is obsessed!”) in his or her pursuit of a successful feeding strategy without which (s)he would die. It leaves me uneasy, though, because at the end of Paula Bohince’s talk there seemed to be nothing left of the sandpiper. It was a kind of disrespect.

 

Maybe what leaves me uneasy is more in Paula Bohince’s mind than the poem, though I am unhappy about that line “Poor bird, he is obsessed”.

 

Now let me try putting in this light two of my own poems that seem to be attempting something similar – “Watershed” and “Underwater”.

 

WATERSHED

Did you see, there where the cloud broke
Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft
Roughly in line with the uneven river
Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it
Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

The broken impatient river carved the way
We leave the many-angled rocks behind
And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;
And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.
With cunning and husbanded strength
We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind
Recovering from a slip is hard
Recovering from the task impossible.

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”
No throne or light or monument
Only the slope is inconsistent
The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order
There is no river
These barren pools are the only water

And then the ghost of a trickle
A few thin fingers feeling
Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:
We have passed the watershed
We have seen the birth
Of a new river.
Somewhere there is a new land
But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

There is no warning
No sign, no new music
Just the realisation and the standing still
The dropping, blocking hills
The unknown, long suspected
Alien valley ahead
But half-familiar, like a dream
The hidden end
You feel you ought to remember.

The descent from the murderous heights
To the soft valley is always more dangerous
Than the struggling up:
The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage
To the eggshell-crushing fall
And the way to the low glittering lake
May be many miles round.

But at least the first task of the explorer
Seems to have been fulfilled
To show what he wanted to explore
Was there at all.
America is found
Mars glows dully but more clear
In the dark waters, something moves after all
Down the strange valley our suspected
Alive waters fall.

 

I don’t want to analyse this poem in the round here or this would be an impossibly long post, but there is an obvious extended metaphor. The poem is a realistic description of a climber or hill-walker ascending a pass to reach the watershed and it actually draws extensively on two real climbs, one in Torridon in the Western Scottish Highlands and the other in the English Lake District (Black Sail Pass). But it’s also about any adventure, any risk-taking, any exploration. There’s plenty of detailed description of rocks, rivulets and so on, but to reinforce the exploration theme I’ve made the climber unaware of what’s beyond the watershed, so (s)he obviously wasn’t carrying a decent map!

 

Nonetheless, the whole thing could be a poetic description of a climb and nothing else until that last verse (from “At least the first task of the explorer”), about which I have reservations though a poetry magazine must have been happy because it was selected for an anthology. In that last verse I talk not of mountains and fells but of America and Mars. The analogy becomes clear. Was that a mistake? At least by this final shift I avoid the weakness of “Poor bird, he is obsessed” – the point at which what the poet wants to say about herself (if Bohince is right) clashes with what can truthfully be said of the bird.

 

UNDERWATER

When you slip under
The long lying line of waves
Strange shapes will come
Silently propelled by waft of flipper
Or sinuous pulsing of a streamlined torso
And some maybe you knew and had forgotten
Dirt shovelled over the well has been removed
Remember the time before you broke the surface
Gasped, fumbled, burrowed
And survived by stratagem?

Now you return to them
Learning to be like a fish
Wander and linger
Here where the pearly nautilus waves unchanging
Here with the ammonite and plesiosaur
And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

Do you rise up towards the scattered sunlight
The crushing waves, the inconsistent wind,
The seabird that will fly to a rocky island
Drawing life from the depths, their crowded night?

When you are playing with the waves
Will you remember
Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures
Some heavy hidden box
That had an answer,
Where you will return?
Will you return?

 

This is more complicated because there are at least three associated half-hidden meanings. The sea can stand for death, time or the unconscious. The poem is much less realistic than “Watershed” and it would be difficult for someone to read it and think it was just about underwater exploration, though there are bits that describe underwater habitats pretty accurately –

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

(which could certainly be a deep-sea, ocean-bed habitat) or

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

(which describes a sandy shore, shallow tropical waters and the ocean bed). But this ocean contains long-extinct creatures side by side with surviving ones, suggesting something either dreamlike or timeless. There is a kind of subtext which says, “Beneath the water surface you change into something else and time as you have known it vanishes. In the deepest places there are dangers but also something valuable. The life of things above the surface depends on life beneath the surface (the fish-eating seabird). Humans travel between the different levels, rather as we evolved to leave the sea and live on land (the last five lines of the first verse).

 

It seems to me to work and one reason is that I didn’t pretend to be talking about real seas. If I’d done that, some things I wanted to say would have disrupted the metaphor.

 

There’s a lot more to think about here…

 

 

 

 

Robin song

I’m a birdwatcher. You can tell that because I make it one word. Anyone who writes “bird watcher” isn’t one.

In a temperate country like Britain, there are huge movements of birds in spring and autumn. People are most aware of the summer visitors (arriving in the spring after spending the winter in Africa), but we have winter visitors too – birds that come from the Arctic or at least much further north, anywhere between Greenland and western Russia, to spend the winter in milder Britain. In a northern country like Finland, almost everything moves out in autumn. In an equatorial country like Kenya, you notice kinds of birds appearing that aren’t there all year: these have come from further north where winter is approaching. I’ve lived in both those countries.

Events like the first cuckoo call in spring or the arrival of flocks of winter thrushes on the East coast in October/November are conspicuous and quite well-known. But there are less well-known seasonal variations.

Robins (the European Robin, not the much bigger thrush called “Robin” in North America) stop singing for a while after the breeding season ends. But they’re highly territorial birds, the song tells other Robins the territory is taken (and is beautiful to our ears) and they start singing again in autumn. For some weeks Robins had been very hard to find round where I live. Then suddenly, yesterday, they were singing.

Now this is a poetry blog. For someone so interested in wildlife, I don’t directly write about birds, mammals and so on as much as, say, Ted Hughes did, but they do appear.

Here they play a part in a story (Spirit Mountain):

(but here, I fear, formatting will insist on appearing: though I’ve followed the instructions of my internet friend Neelima and also done the obvious thing of selecting “remove formatting”, it keeps jumping up on the Preview. This may be because of how I’m copying text from a word file. Well, I’m going to post this now and will try to fix the problem next time!

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Screeches and groans

Tear the night, only I

Know they’re ravens

Not demons.

In this poem I’m spending a night on a supposedly haunted/holy mountain, as I did, and realising that the strange noises come from those big crows, Ravens.

Here’s the start of “Breaking Time”:

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TREASURE ISLAND

The pirate sails through swivelling seas

And gains his goal through knife and trick

He lands at dawn with craftsman’s skill

The island’s multicoloured birds

The heavy scent of hanging flowers

Hold his attention for a while

It comes naturally to me in imagining a tropical island, to think of the birds!

Maybe because I know a lot about birds as birds, I don’t use them much as images suggesting something else, but here I do:

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LOST ISLAND

I don’t know whether the man at the gate has blundered,

But when I arrived I thought I was going to

An island no-one else remembered

But here the flesh has covered up the sand

And made a picture postcard of the sea.

I don’t know whether the island I remember,

The gap-topped tower you could climb to watch the sea,

Exists; the ferry timetables no longer mention it

But maybe the envelope I left on the floor

Contained an invitation or a feather

From that white bird that soared above the tower.

I’m not a “nature poet”, but I do write a few things of that type:

MERLIN

Mud slurries, sparkles in blue sky’s snatches

Wormholes wither and dry

Salt sea recedes, Grey Plover stalks

The tide is out.

Suddenly a shape, dark in the sun

Sharp-winged, intense over the swivelling saltmarsh:

Merlin!

A Merlin is a very small, fast falcon. Grey Plover is a wading bird that breeds in the high Arctic and arrives with us from August.

I did find one mention of Robins in a poem about autumn. Their mellow, sad-sounding song seems appropriate to the season. But the biggest influence of birdwatching on me as a poet is that it’s taken me to moors, estuaries, islands, forests…

Finally an apology. An internet friend (step forward, Neelima) pointed out that the formatting was showing on my recent posts. She gave me advice on sorting it. Let’s see…