Ship rat, far from sea, Beached upon the pavement. You do not twitch, you do not flee, So why do you sit still for me ? You’re not too fat, you’re not too thin, You’re not held in enslavement – And yet you crouch beside the bin, And gently tremble in your skin.
Brown rat, are you asleep ? You chose an awkward bed, friend. Have you nowhere else to creep Than on the tarmac in a heap ? Fox or cat will find you prone, And that will surely be your end. Perhaps you’re dying, all alone, Just waiting for your final groan.
I am the Lord your God, And I clearly lay down word and rule – Do not interbreed your cattle, Nor produce a hybrid mule – For if your beef is tough, Then that is how I mean your beef to taste, Do not allow these foreign cows To make your home-grown bulls debased. Don’t raise a mule, but make do with an ass, And a smaller pack. Don’t mix your strands, But keep your garments pure upon your back. Don’t weft your linen with your wool, And mingle threads within your hem. And though these laws be heavy, Use no mule to help you carry them.
I say again, I am your Lord, No things of yours shall fraternise – Don’t plant your field with many seeds, Or who can know what shoots may rise ? Let pagans plant their carrots with their leeks To keep them company, But I say, let yours suffer by the fly, For it is sent by me. Now let the weevil dine on fruits and grains, And slugs reduce your yields, And praise my swarming locusts As they take your monocultured fields. Do not co-plant companions, For all your crops must stand alone – Just like my hungry chosen people In this wilderness I’ve sown.
We should put up statues To the mice that we have doctored, That we’ve prodded in the genome, And remodelled in the womb. We should hail as heroes All these spidermen of rodents With their mutant-managed powers That we twist and splice and groom.
Quick-grown maturity, Inbred for purity, With white fur unblemished, While their cultured cells outlive them. Red-eyed and pink-eared, Stripped-down and re-geared, Free of fleas and all disease (Except the ones we give them).
I try not to think of how much pain We put them through – It’s what we have to do To avoid the pain ourselves, I guess. They’ve brought us so much gain, But we’re too ashamed to speak it – The sterile dirty little secret of our great success.
We should sing a ballad To the mice who helped us conquer Tuberculosis, polio, Leukaemia and measles. Or give a quiet thank-you When a treatment proves effective – They keep us safe from swine-flu, So we keep them safe from weasels.
Dozens, hundreds, millions, A well-groomed swarm resilient – And when they die, attended by A white-frockcoated mourner. These un-cavy guinea-pigs, These wheel-running whirligigs, These supermodel-organisms Squeaking in the corner.
I try not to think how many mice Have died for me, Have lived a life of agony Because they are expendable, I guess. They are the devil’s price For our seeming immortality – Our flexible morality, that drives us to progress.
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.