I’m not at all sure now how we got on to the subject of birds, but I was talking (I can hear her now, ‘To, dear, not with: the Americans get so hopelessly confused about simple things like Prepositions, they either put in far too many, or leave them out completely…’), to my good friend Miss Pronter the other day, and though neither of us is an Ornithologist, I found myself objecting to the expression ‘bird-brained’ – half-expecting her to expostulate about yet another Americanism.
‘I know, dear,’ was her mild reply. ‘They can return infallibly from thousands of miles away, flying day and night, and re-appear on our telephone wires; then, a few summer-months later, station themselves on the same wires, and, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” be off back to – is it North Africa?’
There was one of those little companionable silences, wherein each knew the conversation had not ended, merely paused for reflection.
What seemed like suddenly to me, she snapped open her purse, put a very small coin on her table, and said, ‘A penny for them.’
Startled back from my reverie, I reached into a trouser-pocket, retrieved the smallest coin, placed it beside hers, and said: ‘Starlings.’
Smilingly, she upbraided me.
‘But, dear, my coin was first!’
Slightly mockingly, I demurred about not having had the benefit of a private education depriving one of a certain tourneur du monde, her gimlet-eye noted this without comment.
‘So, to my Starlings your…?’
There was another of those little quietnesses old acquaintances are happy to let endure, before she quietly said:
‘I wrote some lines about both, a year or two ago.’
‘Swans, I can believe – but Starlings? On our cross-country runs, we had to go first past the piggeries, and then, much further on, in Trevaylor, go across the stream, and through the overhanging Rhododendrons. up to Bone Farm: the acrid smell of where the Starlings roosted, is in my nostrils to this day!’
‘All right, Dear, let’s forego the glossy birds: instead, Swans and Swifts.
Serene, majestic, imperturbable,
Except when fractious Gulls or yappy dogs
Get too close to their calmly policed bounds,
Then they raise the glistning snowdrifts of their
Wings, frowning fiercely at the impudence
Of smaller, lesser, noisier creatures, while
Perhaps unshipping a leg, and setting course
For the intruder: no Jellicoe ship –
Dreadnought, or Destroyer, Captain having rung
Orders to change course and speed, guns to traverse,
Could with such calm confidence menace so.
Watching them, months ago now, I heard ‘The
Silver Swan’, Gibbons’ glorious masterpiece,
In my mind – memory conjuring up
Magical summer evenings in Mousehole
‘Mad wriggling’ our way through such, then out, Saint
Clement’s Isle gleaming in moonlight, music-
Drenched, music-drunk. ‘Doffy’, our music-master,
Would get us started, humming our notes, then
Step back to the circle, to sing – unless he
Heard it all unravelling, then only
Step back to conduct us into harmony.
Yeats claimed to have seen ‘nine and fifty’ swans
At Coole: I claim a mere two, at the Pool
In ‘The Mennaye’, grieving oft when they’re not
There, rejoiced to see them back from tasting
Salt at Wherry. Some months ago, the cob
Was there alone on the bank; not quite alone:
Beside him stretched a young woman, aware
As I discovered, of Ovid’s tale of
Leda; perhaps, like her, not unwilling
To submit to his embrace.
‘I’ve just been telling him that!’ she said smiling.
He remained inscrutable, majestic,
As a July evening begins to cool,
Glancing upwards, I glimpse through sloping glass
Sickle-wings, almost black against the azure:
Swallows, at last, hunting down
Those prodigally-born Creatures, insects.
In another place and another time, I remember
Hearing the sharp click of incessant beaks
As, with balletic timing, swallows hit the pink wall,
Each claiming its juicy morsel, as streams
Of Queen ants, crawled up to reach, perhaps, take off.
Tea in St. Stephen’s Vicarage, before six o’clock Evensong
Where, in stained pitch-pine the cool Church reposed,
Brass Lectern dully glowing, perhaps blushing
As it recalled the amusement one of the ‘Saturday
Cleaners’ Rota’ had voiced, as she had cherished
The Eagle’s beak with navy cotton garments from her school days.
Then, I was not deaf, so knew that the Swallows’ descent
On its prey was not with a Stuka-like noise, only the modest
Click of its beak, betraying – yet belying – the infinite exactitude
Of its skill.
There was, though, a time when I heard the Swifts:
A poet had been giving us a reading from his
Soon-to-be-published next volume, his grim visage
To be all the grimmer later, when, among questions,
An innocent female voice had dared to enquire about ‘influences’.
It was Cambridge, and July, with limes – some in bud
Some past, some in swooningly-sweet bloom to which
Bees came, drawn by those wafts from who knows how far,
Tirelessly sucking nectar, gathering pollen, flying back to base.
But towards evening, we heard the poet, and I heard
Behind him, The Battle of Britain.
Or, at least, I heard those valiant Poles flying,
Against all odds and protocols, yelling to their fellow-knights
Their victories and their strategies.
Swifts, screaming in exhilaration; Swifts, ‘delighting in the chase’;
Swifts exulting in their swiftness, their speed, their accuracy, their all.
And, in a mean little house, half a Century earlier I had
Both heard and seen the Swifts, accepted their clamancy
As part of life, drifting off to sleep lulled by their shrieks,
Woken, perhaps, by the unwonted quiet when, at last,
They – and their food – had been exhausted. Awakening
One morning to find a Swift, claws caught in net,
Brown eyes full of foreboding, its small, warm body
Pulsing both with life and terror, brown head
Running with small creatures, as I gently, one-by one,
Untwined my innocent net-curtain’s strands from its claws,
Holding the warm body to the gap at the window-top
Where the new day’s air called it once more to its element.
© Jethro 2022