As the son of a dairy herd, My father told me secret words – On Christmas Eve, between ourselves , Our cattle knelt at the stroke of Twelve. “Can I see it ?” “No, too late, You’ll have to grow up first and wait. Let’s tuck you up, like the hens and geese, And leave the girls to kneel in peace.” But unlike Thomas Hardy, I Was not prepared to pass it by, And woke by chance at seven-to When bursting for the landing loo. This was my chance – I had to go, Or else I knew I’d never know – I creped downstairs, across the floor, To don my peacoat by the door. I left my slippers on my feet For I had destiny to meet !, Not a second’s hesitation Could be wasted with a lace-on. Lift the latch and out we go, Crunching softly through the snow, (Despite that day’s half-hearted thaw), To squelch across the muck and straw That filled the barn, those bovine halls, And peeked into the Winter stalls (And now I wish I’d worn my wellies) – No ! They’re all led on their bellies ! Some had rolled onto their flanks, And none had tucked beneath their shanks, And all their heads were on the boards, And none kept vigil for the Lord. Our ev’ry beast was heathen-born !, From Hyacinth to Meadowcorn, And Rosie, Daisy, Pansy too, They each and all just slept on through ! So distraught was I, so dead, I didn’t hear my father’s tread Until his hand was on my shoulder, “Seems tonight you’re growing older. I suppose I set this up, But never thought my little pup Would take my story at my word – It’s passed down with the family herd.” I tried to scream, I tried to cry But all that left my lips was “Why ?” “If you want to ask me that, It’s too late for a lengthy chat – So I will only answer once, Then off to bed and no more stunts.” “Then…then…I want to ask How deep is worn this parents’ mask ? Are all the rest a lie as well – Like Santa, Jesus, Tinkerbell ?” “Fair enough, the answer’s Yes.” “For which ?” I blurted in distress, But he just smiled, and shook his head, And carried me upstairs to bed.
Ravens are birds of the North – From Greenland to Mexico, Skye to Morocco, In India, China, and Asia Minor – Above the equator, but never below. Bird of the forest and bird of the desert, Of mountains and towers, Kamchatka to Fargo – Bird of mythology, bird of the present, From Draco to Leo, but not on the Argo. Perhaps, like the sailors of old, They fly by the Pole Star, second-to-none – Or maybe they just like the cold, Their feathers too black for the tropical Sun.
The Bible lumps the bats in with the birds, And oh, how we sneer. “A mammal is no more a fowl Than a dragonfly is like an owl.” But hang-on, none of those are Hebrew words, So none of those appear In the ancient texts – they’re our translations, Sent back in time to new vocations.
Maybe what we think meant ‘bird’ to them Meant simply ‘thing that flies’ – And likewise whales are fish that swim, And snakes are worms for lacking limbs. It’s unscientific, so we condemn, But that don’t mean it’s lies. Their names did the job they were assigned – So each to their own, hey, after their kind.
Pterosaurs weren’t dinosaurs – And so says Lukas, keen to crow. You know what, Lukas ? We already know. And neither were the mosasaurs, And ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, Dimetridon or sarchosuchus – Come on, Lukas, don’t harp on so.
Sometimes, Lukas, we’ll play ball, Cos evolution’s cool and all – But we also need a name instead To call all things that’re scaly, big, and dead. We need a widely-recognised file, A catch-all term, a handy pile – But one that leaves out bird and crocodile.
With chapter, verse, and nomenclature ? Oh, don’t be such a whiny bore, By giving us a minus score In your self-waging, name-defining war – Lumbering and out-of-date, We’ve got your number, Lukas, mate – You’re such a dinosaur !
All the Summer, she shelters in her studio, Under the North-sent light, As she’s painting a curlew, a bird of the Winter, That, like her, flees when the Sun gets bright. She starts in April, starts from the tail-quills, Nothing but browns and creams – Slowly works forwards as evenings grow later, Until she can hear its call in her dreams.
At five-times life-size, her bird is a monster, A beautiful giant of the fens – With every barb of every feather, More real than in any photographer’s lens. So unlike the shy things they are, them and her, Avoiding the seaside crowds – They to their moorland, her to her studio, Waiting for the safety of the huddle’ing clouds.
By the late of May, she’s mottling the wing, By June, she’s glinting the eye By the height of July, she starts on the beak, As the burning Sun is stoking-up the sky. Inch-by-centimetre, longer and still longer, Polished to perfection as she goes, Longer than a godwit, longer than an avocet – This beak is magnificent, and still its black arc grows !
All through August, she’s stretching it out With the windows wide-open from dawn, Bringing-in the songs of the blackbird and the goldfinch – But the curlew cannot sing until its bill is fully-drawn. Till finally, finally, it tapers to infinity, Just as the September cools the air. She locks up her studio and heads out to the marshes, As the North-sent breezes blow the cobwebs from her hair.
This poem was inspired (but is not directly about) this painting by a friend, Anna Clare Lees-Buckley. She specialises in birds, but unlike the subject she doesn’t master in reclusivity.
A T-Rex guarded the first hole, As we played a round by the beach – Over the hump and round the bend With a club and a scorecard each. Fibreglass limestone hemmed the links With fossil ammonites – Were coccoliths in the little stream To lay down chalky whites ? Triceratops was present, of course, And deinonychus too – We admired her feathers as we let Another pair play through. The rough was an abandoned nest – The eggs gave a tricky lie. A pterosaur looked unimpressed As my ball refused to fly. The sauropod was on the small size, Barely bigger than a car, And the microraptor was suitably dinky, As I came in over par. But the twelfth showed the first sign of trouble, With a draught through the plastic swamp To shake the early magnolias, As I teed-off with a whomp. The fifteenth had a river of lava Splitting the fairway in half – I was so busy taking my shot, I forgot To take a photograph. The seventeenth was watched by several shrews, To no concern. They looked-on patiently as we played, Content to wait their turn. And then, crowning the final hole, Was a crater upon the green – Only a metre across, but still, Here comes the Paleogene… As we finished our round at the end of the world, It felt like the nick of time – Then back to the seagulls along the Prom, And an ice-age ninety-nine.
Cowes, atop the Isle of Wight – East and West, though much the same – Victorian and seaside-y, With boats and seagulls running free. And not a single cow in sight – No running of the bulls – for shame ! No fording droves between the piers, No cowboys showing off their steers. And don’t come here in Cowes Week, right ! It doesn’t live up to its fame ! It’s not the time when bullocks battle, Not a trace of rutting cattle. Why then whet our appetite, To wastes its strange and lively name ? There are no bovine sacrifices, Just cream teas at tourist prices.
I know, I know, despite a spine of rolling chalk downs through the Island, Cowes itself sits atop clay…
Late on in the Spring, We’ll see the house-martins come again – In stylish black-and-white, And darting back-and-forth about the lane. They’re patching up their daub-and-wattle nests, The ones they left behind – The Winter muck is jettisoned, The inside cleaned and freshly lined. Are these the very birds we saw last year, The self-same mums and dads ? Or are these now the chicks they hatched at home, Inheriting their pads ? Though ev’ry year, I swear, They build another house beneath the eaves, And often touching in a terrace, Neighbours watching out for thieves – And those would be the sparrows, Feckless squatters in these high-rise flats – A better prospect than the hedges, Safe from cuckoos, frost, and cats. Hoping to be laid-and-raised By hanging-out in hanging-domes, Before the grockles fly in for the season To their second homes.
Who is the Martin whose house these swallowets build ? The OED postulates that it is a contraction of Martinet, but that that in turn is a diminutive of Martin. Or it may be from a Latin term for a kingfisher. Or a bit of both – never underestimate the power of conflation.