Sowing discord

27 September 2011 § 8 Comments

Seeds of change

One for the rook
One for the crow
One to wither
One to grow.

One for the deluge
One for the drought
One each for the pigeon
And mouse to dig out.

One for the subsidy
One for the crash.
One for the Government
Desperate for cash.

One for the trader
In futures, who bets
On prices, then pockets
The millions he gets.

One for the banks.
Make that two – make that ten.
No, make it a billion.
And then start again.

One for the climate,
Now warming, it seems.
One for our hopes.
One for our dreams.

One for our gluttony
One for our greed
None for the millions
We choose not to feed.

One for the rook,.
One for the crow.
One to wither.
One to grow.

The farmers are already busy drilling next year’s cereal crops, and I’ve had the old rhyme about seeds that bookends this poem going round in my head all day. Blame the Party Conference season for the rather downbeat tone of the stuff in between!

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From Brittany #1

21 August 2011 § 9 Comments

Il fait du brouillard

The blinded lighthouse
Calls out in the gloom
Its foghorn telling the misty minutes
Like a doleful speaking clock.

There’s a Hebridean sting of salt
In the sea-smoke wrapped around the headland
Like a scarf; and the summer beaches
Are veiled and secret, empty, Arctic white.

The gulls and waders could tell me
Where I am; beneath the sky-cloak
They chatter heedless, brash and jeering,
Safe in their local knowledge.

Not that I’m asking. A dog, the dunes
And the distant booming of the surf
On the reefs far out are all the signs I need:
I am here. Now. And all is well.

Summery sonnet

22 July 2011 § 13 Comments

The weary gardener sets aside the spade
Now heavy as the August day is long
And seeks a quiet corner in the shade
To breathe the flowers’ fragrance, hear the song
Of busy birds among the shrubs and trees.
The wren trills in the hedge; the thrush replies
With liquid notes, and carried on the breeze
The shriek of black swifts harvesting the skies.
Then all at once a midnight silence falls
Upon the garden. Nature holds its breath.
No pigeon pipes, no finch or blackbird calls,
And summer shivers at the chill of death
As in the whispering ash beyond the gate
The sparrowhawk alights to watch and wait.

Fields of fire

20 June 2011 § 4 Comments

Night fighters

A white beam
Sweeps the midnight fields
Like a hand searching under a bed.
Grass-blades caught beneath its bright gleam
Bristle black; a million tiny gnomons
Telling the rapid hours
Of this unwonted, sudden sun.
The woods recoil before
The engine’s heavy throb,
And poplars flare
Like burning buildings
In the tail-lights’ angry glare.

Two shots.

The echo rolls
And ricochets around the farm.
Keep your head down, Reynard;
Squeeze tight the shining eyes
That will betray you
And seek the shelter of the earth.

At half a mile, my skin grows tight
Waiting for the spent stray’s bite;

Then wonder. The hunting dog is gone
In search of rabbits on the wrong
Side of the hedge. Caught in the edge
Of that cruel light, a half-second’s untutored sight
Of that long nose and wolfish gait
Would be enough to seal his fate.
I call him, with the sickened urgency
Of frantic fathers trapped in Tripoli
When unseen hunters rip their night
With noise, and death’s unholy light.

Sounding the alarm

14 April 2011 § 6 Comments

The night watch

Walking the woods as twilight slips
Like a poacher between the fading trees
My every step sets off some new alarm:
A blackbird chinking like a mason’s chisel;
A stream of shrill invective
Pouring from an unseen wren, blazing with a courage
A hundred times her size;
Pigeons clattering from the topmost branches
In a fusillade of frantic wings;
Jays and magpies rasping threats, while the silly yaffle
Hides behind his nervous laugh.
The watchword is passing through the wood
Like a creeping barrage. I advance behind it,
All element of surprise long gone
And with it any hope of gaining ground.
And as I pass back into the world
Of cars and curses, litter and the ugly shouts
Of boys and girls abroad too late, grown up too soon,
The darkening wood still rings with song:
The all-clear, and a sweet lament
For what the world once was
And all that we have lost.

Directions

13 April 2011 § 6 Comments

Directions

Pass in under the wood’s eaves
And take the right fork past the tall lone ash
With the hole high up where the nuthatch hides.
Four steps down to the silted stream
Its banks revetted with iron roots
Like veins in the back of an old man’s hand.
Five back up to the field corner
And a sinuous trail, just shoulder-wide,
A winterbourne of mud between low branches
That pluck at clothes like nagging children.
Four ways shake hands in the trampled clearing;
Follow the one that rounds the rim
Of the deep pit dug by long-dead brick-makers.
Into the coppice, over twin ditches
The hunting-dog hurdles in two long leaps.
Past the great fallen tree, worm-holed, beetle-bored,
And weave through the birches down in the dip.
Hug the wood’s edge where it fronts the field
Home to rabbits and cows in the warmth of the day
And the fox in the evening. Up the short steep slope,
Sandy, seamed with burrows, to a broad, level ride
Under spreading oaks, where the bluebell scent
Hangs thick as smoke. Pause in a soaring hornbeam hall
High as a church, with a floor of beaten earth. Call the dog.
Over a young tree, still bravely bursting into leaf
Though laid low by a curl of wind a dozen nights ago.
Down the slope where the squirrels sprint
For safety in the tangled trees. Three steps down
To the sleeper bridge, then the last drag up
To the wood’s front door. Close it behind you.
Keep the key.

I got the idea for this poem from the wonderful ‘Britannia‘ atlas of England and Wales – the world’s first-ever nationwide road map, published by Scottish polymath John Ogilby in 1645. It consists of a series of 100 strip maps, drawn at the then-innovative scale of one inch to the mile, each describing a section of road, such as ‘London-Bromley-Sevenoaks-Tonbridge-Rye’ (plate 31) or ‘Oxford-Buckingham-Bedford-Cambridge’ (plate 80). It bridges the gap between modern cartography and the medieval means of navigating across country, which basically involved following directions from one town to the furthest extent of local knowledge, then asking again.

For my poem, I simply followed Ogilby’s example and wrote notes as I walked round our nearby woods. (Incidentally, Ogilby claimed to have surveyed over 26,000 miles of roads in order to compile his atlas, measuring distances using the intriguingly-named ‘Wheel Dimensurator’; about 7,500 miles’-worth appeared in the final version) Sadly, I can’t draw, so I’ve created a ‘strip map in words’, which I hope gives some flavour of what you might find if you ever chance upon our corner of the country.

Payment in kind

12 April 2011 § 8 Comments

Life and living

I know how it looks:
My riding the roads and
Walking the woods
On weekdays;
My chair growing cold
Keyboard quiet, screen boarded-up
Dust settling slowly on the desk.
But
Putting others’ words on paper
Like hammering bent, rusty nails
Into a rotten, splintered board
Is just a job.
The real work is here,
Among the tongue-tied trees
And voiceless flowers;
The wind grows weary
Of whispering to itself,
And the woods are bursting
To share old secrets
So long held in.
All this
Must be taken down,
Absorbed, distilled, translated.
A life’s labour,
Voluntary, open-ended:
Without pay or prospects,
Pension, promotion.
No kind of living;
And the only true life.

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