I love to grab a handful of holly-leaves, Pale and tender in the Spring, Before they’ve darkened, hardened, sharpened, Tanned their leather good and bent. I love to hug a branchful of holly-sheaves, Ere each shoot has gained its sting – To shakes its hand with good intent, To thank it for last Yule well-spent.
In Spring, I can sniff-out the sap as it rises, And comes overshooting the branches and twigs Of the cherries and lindens and suburban figs – A streets full of pollen – my nose recognises That Spring has returned to the gardens again, In the asphalted forests of wychelm and plane. My hay-fevered neighbours are rather less happy, But I scent the chestnuts, the sweet and the horse, And the avenues of the acacias, of course ! Municipal headiness leaves me quite sappy – The syrups of sycamores, weepings of willows, That’s wafted by birdsong in sugary billows.
It isn’t a frost – don’t fret, But it is a cold morning – Notice is given, we’d better take care, It’s merely the first of the nips in the air. It isn’t a frost – not yet, But it is a fair warning – It won’t come tomorrow or next week, it’s stating, But Autumn is old, and the Winter is waiting.
The clocks have changed, the dark has grown, The evenings have started early – Even as I leave the office, Day has gone and night is surly. Gloomy hordes of wrapped-up figures Cram onto my flood-lit train – It’s come at once, this blackening, As Winter leaps out once again. Trudging home from the lonely station, Beneath the unexpected stars That just last week were veiled in dusk, I see Orion’s back – and is that Mars ? It’ll only last a few days, this, Till early nights are nothing strange – It’s just the sudden shift, that’s all, When the dark has grown and the clocks have changed.
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 – While bubbling streams built future cliffs As they laid 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-on unimpressed, As my ball refused to fly. The sauropod was a juvenile, The size of a family car, And the microraptors were suitably cute, 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.
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.
“Cuckoo eggs are able to mimic dozens of other songbird eggs, but each female can only lay one kind.” – The Titchfield Twitcher
The first cuckoo of Spring, And the war is about to begin agen For the dunnock and robin, the pipit and wren – But the blackbird nests at leisure Knowing her treasured eggs are secure – They’ve fought and won this battle before. For cuckoo hens must lay their eggs, Their undercover powder kegs, to match The very nest from which they hatched. So daughters follow mothers and grans In their taste of prey that spans way back – A family tradition in attack.
But not the birds in black. They know an egg that’s out of whack, alright – Imposters tossed on sight. As for the parents, lurking still, They’re pecked and mobbed until they quit – A tougher host by far than finch or tit. Thus all the cuckoos with the genes To burglarise the forest queens have gone, Wiped out, were rumbled in their con. So when these gothic thrushes hear That goading call – no fear, no doubt – They just sing louder yet to drown it out.
1. May comes bounding down the year As eager as a springer spaniel. Ev’rybody knows she’s here, A bursting, blooming, early annual. May comes blowing from the south As teasing as a cuckoo’s call She’s closing up old Winter’s mouth By throwing off her woollen shawl.
2. A little rain in May Is sweeter than an April shower – Though the high Spring skies may glower, We know they will not last the day. The clouds are silvery, not grey, Less thunderheads than fairy towers, Washing lambs and spritzing flowers, Dropping by, then on their way.
3. May – the name says it all. The month when it might, When it should – Ah, but will it ? The month that may have a squall Or a heatwave, Or a dozen other weathers Come to fill it. Could be a late gasp of snow up on the hills While the valleys open windows, And the breezes spin the mills. Such is the fortune In the month of maybe May. When all of this could happen In a week, Or in a day.