poems and stories
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growing rapidly from July to September 2020
meet the poets and writers
Matthew James Friday
A nightingale for Gilbert White
April 5th, 1768
Buds and shadows fatten, but the garden’s lean.
A London smoke crawls west, and cucumbers
are tortoising across the sweat-sweet dung.
A nuthatch jars and clatters in the oak;
rooks get cocky in the Selborne copse. At last
the air is quick with bee-flies, kites and larks
and April falls across the parish like stained glass,
like rest for the broken-backed. The diarist
dashes off one word to stand for spring – Luscinia!
Colour blurs from every quickened hedge
into the woodsmoke hours. The nightingale
loops speechless syllables on every thorn.
Attention, after all, is prayer. Nothing goes unseen.
First published in Kith.
for the Reverend Gilbert White
The forest is alive today
and quick with wild devotion.
Bees hum, drunk on puffs
of pollen, censer-swung
and Queen Anne’s lace.
Ferns stir themselves
to nod and bow; they sail
a summer breeze. Open-handed
to the sun, each pair of leaves
is a single prayer in a reef
of fractal-patterned green.
Damselflies flash and dart,
a fever of electric grace.
In the shade a foal gazes,
still as any seer;
her flanks are polished silver,
her tail an aspergillum.
The body of a world
at worship cries out
to be seen. The beech leaves
whisper in a psalm
to everything that flickers,
foams and gleams.
Kathryn Bevis, Hampshire Poet 2020, was commissioned by Winchester Poetry Festival and Hampshire Cultural Trust to write this poem in celebration of the 300th anniversary of Gilbert White’s birth.
My neighbour’s hanging basket, why
does it horrify me, yet
each time I pass, I must look
and check for signs of withering.
Is it mismatch of purple
and yellow, which reminds me
of childhood lollies – not Drumsticks
which smelt of raspberry cream –
but those cheap dual-toned blobs of
saliva-d chalk on a stick you
only bought because they would
outlast greed for liquorice,
stamen dabbed in sherbet pollen,
or vanilla sap sucked from
inside ridged chocolate cones
or even bland stuck-together
petals of pastel coloured
rice paper that dissolved on
the tongue – as close as I got to
a communion wafer –
to give an otherworldly
fizz. No, I can’t remember
their name, and for a long time
I thought my neighbour’s flowers
artificial as the lolly’s
ingredients, the way they
managed to outlast weather,
until I noticed under the
basket, from a pavement crack
a purple and yellow bloom.
You Mistake Yourself for an Allotment
My plum and cherry blossom are profound,
I will try to manage more than one single cherry this year.
As for those moths which get inside your plums –
you can get some sort of pheromone trap. They’re green.
You’ve left the lemon yellow flowers on last year’s
black kale for long enough.
The cardoon which used to flourish from
underneath the corner of the shed has barely sprouted.
Remember last year you planted purple beans
too soon – they shivered to a shrivel.
I like the way you leave the aquilegias
wherever they may grow.
There’s hope of purple broad beans,
maroon tomatoes, custard yellow courgettes,
an orange squash streaked with green –
which should be very sweet.
You could try again with aubergines.
This is the only future you can grow.
Shades of Summer
Summer feels intense today,
vivid thumbs of sprawling lawn
clutch at daisies, the unwanted,
and so many happy memories-
children’s footfall chasing birds
or bubble-wands round roses,
a spillage of palette on bed.
In the corner by the kitchen door
the hydrangea smiles slowly,
each bloom coated in gloss of
indigo-blue, your favourite shade.
For this is your hydrangea
potted from your terracotta tub,
before you became a snapshot,
before we could grow old.
A Humming-bird Hawk Moth has drifted
too far North and found
our back lane of flowers
with existential levitation it thrums feeding on valerian
darting plume to plume
a day dancer a furry headed nectar mouse
in one beat of stillness with proboscis inserted
it exacts sweetness
from each red glove of scent.
Suddenly there, as though
materialising in mid-air,
she settles on the damp shirt
I’m pegging to the line,
zips off to the landing-pad
of a yellow-dusted fennel
umbel and then, the touch
of her wire legs barely felt
by my human skin, alights
to turn a moment or two
on my outstretched
provoker of a little pulse
of fondness, I greet you,
feeling myself rooted
and measured by your
the waning summer gleams with fat
apricots and onions
walnuts waiting to blacken
the crows accept where I walk —
never learned fear of me
the south wind and
sharpening stars tied
to the branches of bedtime
for the last hummingbird to pack
it’s not yet time
the jewelweed hasn’t
her fat bumbles
I never found the owl
don’t want to close down
I’m not ready
one more story
one more glass of wine
on the porch
Lisa Creech Bledsoe
Still Life with Feathers
One bracing day, we watched them go :
leaving the nest box in strong winds.
Unable to fly in such a gale,
from off the ground I rescued one
and placed him in a nearby tree,
knowing that soon he would be found
by anxious, watching, parent birds.
Next day we saw that four bird brood
perched in the apple tree in line,
fluttering wings, demanding food.
Weeks later, from my laddered perch,
I freed the birdbox, took it down,
ready to empty, clean and paint.
The final stubborn screw unscrewed,
carefully I removed the roof
allowing daylight to flood in
to this dark space – the bluetit’s home.
A filigree of spider’s web
obscured the nest, catching the sun,
masking the contents from my sight.
Perched on a bed of moss and fur
with face inclined towards the hole
through which he’d last heard parents’ call
and watched his siblings take to flight,
he seemed complete. Perfect and whole –
as if somehow he’d been preserved,
saved by God’s taxidermist’s art –
waiting for tiny wings to grow
enough to take him to the light
and join his brood – if life could start.
Patrick B. Osada
From my collection : How The Light Gets In (Dempsey & Windle Publishers)
red and black
in the grass
(no skulking in twilight
shadows, no bashful
as dead leaf).
Cinnabar moth –
a brazen daylight flyer
for whom camouflage
is not the point. Don’t
even try, it signals.
Too ostentatious to trust –
is a shameless
collaborator. The name’s
a giveaway –
with old man ragwort.
First published in The Art of Gardening by Mary Robinson(Flambard Press 2010)
Streaked grey-green hindwing veins,
Orange Tip (female) at rest,
hiding from oppressive rain.
The Small; upperwings black veined,
forewings edged mid-grey,
The Large; a wider darker edge,
undersides a shared cream-ivory.
Pests, say the mean-spirited.
Marbled, Wood and Cryptic Wood,
rare migrants Black-veined and Bath;
yet some see a singular White
or worse still, just a guilty Cabbage.
I could’ve at a younger age…
set on a different path.
Wolf sense idles me
into a random field
take a brief break
from munching grass
to glance my way.
A black face dam fixes me
with Satan gaze, transmits a cipher
I likely misconstrue, watches
as I mount the stile, swing my leg across
as if the worn wood is the saddle
of an imaginary mare set
to canter me off
into a fae mist
Beyond the field
a path through the woods
petals open into a copse, incense
of wild thyme, garlic
tosses into a breeze
wafting the fantasy
of a cuckoo.
Dryads lean in, anoint
me with whispered
I drift in wonder at a tail feather
amongst the leaves
from the red kite
keening in the blue, flash
above the brook
of turquoise, shadow
splash of a heron.
The bridge’s vast arch is usually
A fermata hanging over silence —
Not a concert hall, as today, where two
Youths make its span echo profanities.
As I stand and strain to hear a blackbird
Pluck music from a distant sycamore,
An image of the virtuous White comes
Into view: head down, counting every
Charitable worm and hopeful emmet
As he ambles through Selborne’s Creation.
Keeping faith with all that he sees and hears,
He enters a mossed and echoing vale
Where a lively “polyglot” nymph listens
And dutifully imitates his words.
Rapt, he cocks his ear and calculates how
A jubilant dactyl echoes better
Than a heartsore spondee. He had a fine
Ear that served Nature and God equally.
As he makes haste slowly and progresses
From the mind’s eye, I too resume my walk
And leave lapwing quiff and hooded crow to
Capture a laughing, self-praising selfie.
19 Paths Through Rectory Wood
1. What’s not natural grows here: chimaera trees
each a grafted ring of years on rootstock.
While from the ground, what’s common rises.
2. Crow passes close & overhead,
wingtips ragging lime leaves.
We see it stretch out its claws, & back its wings
land in the shine
black shine of elderberries.
3. You move through this place as through a
painting, planting a future in
oaks. But how far ahead can we imagine?
4. Green alkanet flowers lapis blue in May and on
through soft October – commonplace,
5. Yews older than iron, older than churches, old
like the tumuli under the churches, the round
stones under the stones.
6. In woods we forget things.
At the wood edge we tell stories.
Our eyes are adapted
to canopy & vista.
7. We hold a knopper gall, learn him
crouched like an homunculus, riding
the shoulder of this green acorn.
Inside him the grub of the cynipid wasp
& inside the grub, a gall wasp egg.
The grub within the grub within the nut.
8. Magpie dip & flash. Witch cackle.
9. Lost in the woods this bristling lime is where
the path runs out in aerial thickets.
Here foxes earth in mid-air.
10. Or a path we might miss, a walk inside a lime,
a local rite, a passage climbed
by children, aunts & dogs.
11. We’re here to hear water, its tumble, its all-night
Town Brook’s many-centuried voice.
12. Beech compensates its lean, throws out
counterweights slowly into wind.
13. Box-straggle marks a once-clipped gateway.
A garden in a wood.
14. We raise the garden’s ghost, scare up old paths
like thinning bones through trees.
15. We shush our footsteps out again through leaves.
16. A passage of yews drink darkly from Town Brook.
17. Water runs down over rock, the sounds arranged –
High notes conjured from tumbles of small stones.
Bass resonates from slab.
18. A gravity of seven yews around a pool.
19. Still water by a Green Chapel.
Time’s shuffle. A way home.
(This poem was previously published in ‘How Time is in Fields’ (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2019)).
We use folders of bamboo and deerbone
to construct you: slinted claw
and oilbead plumage, its gloss-speckle and lustre
crisp-folded on the cusp of winter.
Tweezers pin your reedy legs
and thorny beaks, wings blown
from mountain folds and pleats,
their feather-strata paper-cut-sharp
and glorious as angels’.
Evenings, we line you up in trees to roost,
wind you up to hear your clockwork grobbling
and deep space radio whirrs.
Each dawn, exhilarated by the light,
you sing in clicks and shrills, wolfwhistles
and bright cellophane twists,
then fly your squadron down to land
and dandle determinedly across the grass
to yesterday’s pecked apples.
Fieldfares descend in reverse folds.
Unfazed you dance defence,
flyweight boxers on your thinstalk legs.
In dreams, we gather you in, gently open out
and press flat your mulberry squares,
their iridescent foil,
store you in a drawer, loose-wrapped
in leaves of tissue, for emergencies:
secret trapdoors to another life,
fast and dark and beautiful.
‘Starlings’ is from Jane’s forthcoming collection The God of Lost Ways (Indigo Dreams Publishing).
Thirteen Ways of Looking At Stone
after Wallace Stevens
rest your cheek in its lee
where the night cannot find you
carve your face in the soft mountainside
watch your nose crumble
your eyes & mouth become dust
the art of skimming
unachievable as an equation
the pebble lies on my palm
I left a trail of pebbles long ago –
did you collect them
build the tallest cairn?
outline my body where it falls
lay me under a blanket of shale
how did you carry those tablets of stone
down the steep, treacherous path?
Did you pause, unwrap food
from linen folds, take a sinful bite?
the road to hell is paved with gravel –
it will find its way
into the most tightly laced shoe
I wake from a dream
of blood and chanting
the taste of standing stone
I weigh my poems down
with a hagstone –
a life lived slant
in a cabinet
a piece of moon
jagged & dark
one day I will steal it
inhale its pale heart
sometimes I lift a mirror to you
afraid of your Gorgon stare
is stone still warm without my touch?
does it erode
only when my back is turned?
torn from the earth’s belly
Every April a pair of swans arrive on North
Park lake then after about a week they move on.
Dab chicks, pink foot geese, duck of all kinds
frog spawn and the meter-long garden snake
soon appear on schedule, just before a couple of
early pied wagtails and a vanguard swallow.
All are silently welcomed, observed as if an ordinary
processional, a seasonal litany of the miraculous
that bring ants into the downstairs of houses
rats to the hen run, swarming honey bees
orange tip butterflies, bats, great crested newts.
Companionable beauty unfurls: aconites
with snowdrops, cowslips with bluebells,
lilac with laburnum, first lettuce with rain.
It is the annual arrival of the inconspicuous
5 ¾ inch spotted fly-catcher that we most
anticipate, herald with respect, feel possessive
about and are elated to greet. Muscicapa striata
striata whose proper name was bestowed by
Pallas in the 18thc. With a thin voice like a wheelbarrow
on a rusty wheel these birds are barely noticeable, yet divine.
Though I never employed him
to soundtrack my dreams,
this morning’s early blackbird
is back on his woodwind,
those expert glissandos,
the rises, the trills and chirrs.
And now he’s off on his
police siren impression,
not the modern wails and yelps and phasers
you might think he’d go for,
but the proper old-time two-note
‘nee-naw nee-naw nee-naw’,
as if he’s been watching those cop shows
full of corruptions and easy deaths
from decades before he was even an egg.
With Venus winking
at the pastelling sun,
the mountains smudging,
trees talking in shadows,
a frog sings
down by the communal swimming pool
recently cleaned of winter’s
green scumming by a robot.
A frog sings
while children clatter in the distance,
dragging dusk down an alley.
A dog barking at the arriving
the frog sings
the same frog
that sang for Basho
now sings for me.
The frog invisible
singing by the swimming pool.
I know what luck is.
Matthew James Friday
Smoothing flat a large sheet we plan to trace
your world, annotating and illustrating,
scrunching up, fraying edges, and ageing
in stewed tea before sanding the surface to scratch
a lost map of treasures. Beginning with home
we plot outwards, realising your domain:
the sweet shop, park, Brownies, friends’ houses, as far
as the eye – school nudging the paper’s edge.
A life contained. Here we rolled you to sleep
beside walls you’d soon be held on calling out to lambs;
here you first triked, biked, sledged, tumbled and fell.
Your cries echoing across this range. That now,
you populate with trees in leaf, daisies, snowdrops,
blackberries, lambs, and dogs off lead: your days
all seasons in one. Where we follow paths lain
continuously, each walking our own.
Criss-crossing dashed lines, other days, other lives,
past molehills, grass-flattened trails. Above us,
swifts swerve by where high winds and summer scents
cross this hand-poised space, each leaving some impression,
however fleeting, as when you’re here, but not.
The distant playtimes carrying over fields
to where we’d stand unseen, upwind, awhile,
watching the deer return home, your hand in mine,
the bats flying knowingly about our heads.
Bounding forward, you make your way, out of frame
chasing something, only you will find.
Leaving me trailing – until I catch
you, waiting, expertly tightrope walking –
arms out – balancing on the cattle-grid.
Map was originally published in Reach 2020
House-swallows have some strong attachment to water…and, though they may not retire into that element, yet they may conceal themselves in the banks of pools and rivers during the uncomfortable months of winter.
Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne
At summer’s close, a level branch would see them
all in line, perched in readiness for what
no-one was sure. They quit
their favoured places – eaves and chimney stacks –
all of a piece, so swiftly none could swear
they’d seen them take to wing.
The limbs that saw them gather in their scores,
spread out by rivers, ponds and meres,
gave some a clue. The soft soil
of the banks might offer habitation, make a place
to see the winter out. But others, not at all
convinced of this, and noting
how they skimmed the water’s surface after flies,
theorised they found a refuge in the deep
there to sojourn safely
throughout the coldest months. And knowing
none of this, the swallows made
for Africa, instinctively.
The moon, the depths of ponds, their very banks,
each in plain sight. Who knew of Africa,
if it was anywhere at all?
Click on the the books for more information and to purchase signed copies directly from Brian.
The Village Show
My father was good at auctioning off marrows,
handsome shallots and prize-winning carrots.
He’d a knack for standing on a chair in the Hall
packed with toddlers and pensioners with sticks
who, at half past four, crossed the green for tea
and a slice of sponge to see about the judging.
He sold cars for a living but could also shift potatoes,
mixed bunches of summer flowers, fragrant roses.
From behind his beard he could bellow the bid
for a posey of sweet peas clasped in silver foil.
Carn Glas, Earth Day 2020
sapphire bright meteors
spill from the sky
pierce screwed eyes
beside the shieling
ravens flap and creak
over a dead sheep
held to this ancient circle
by gravity of stones
I contemplate funeral rites
an east wind blows
over waves of stubble
then I spot them
black dots on periscopic ears
spines like bronze helmets
dip and rise unkiltered
through the furrows
four hares in delirium
the heart leaps
to the parabolic sweep
and speed of their chase
the sudden pause
to parry and punch
the dash of defeat
two seek refuge
in a stone dyke wall
the scent of fresh grass
while the bonded pair
flatten in a furrow
of warmed earth
Gilbert White’s investigations into the natural world were focused around his home in Selborne, Hampshire. The poems below are by Hampshire poets inspired by Gilbert White.
When I was a fish
in the middle time
I had gills and a tail.
The other fishes became fish and even birds
but I became myself.
The first gill became my mouth, my lips, my jaw,
my cheek and my ears
and now when I talk and listen
I use my gills.
Flight of the Enchanter
It was there we returned breath to air,
snagged by gorse, pricked with yellow welts.
In the beguiling mouth of the wind, a spangle
of grasshoppers, the button-eyes of birds,
a bronzed brook silking through columns
of lace and white linen flowers braced along
the sea-green flanks. She held my hand
tight which stopped my blood, and I was drugged
by her power, the perfume of pine and grass
just able to lift my feet, knees freshly scabbed,
rickety-thin from city streets. We pounded
a path dead, grey baked clay where nothing grew –
even hissy dandelions stopped short without
a chance to root. But the light cut our eyes
like diamonds – ferns and nettles glowed
white gold, birch leaves darted like fish
where the path narrowed and slothed off
into the murk.
Deeper still, thin saplings
leaned over the fading path, their crowns
puffs of insipid clouds among oaks cracking
their dry roots below the earth. I felt my
dappled skin graft to hers, like the underwing
of the silver-washed fritillary. We took
the hardest path she said, to teach me
the ways of the forest.
Blue Water Cafe is available to purchase directly from Sue by emailing email@example.com
Though I’m tired
with shopping, the tree
catches my eye.
I can’t help smiling
at my dramatic daphnoid memory:
how, near the top, stretching
for an elusive twiggy bit, while pruning,
I once fell, spreadeagle, onto it
and was upheld, branch-buoyed,
as if velcroed to vitality,
clasping the bay’s dense green
globe, needing no rescue.
All I needed to do
was step back onto the ladder,
feeling my way first with toes
of one slow gyrating foot.
Call me what you will
in Freudian terms.
I know it may never happen again
with any other tree.
I can’t help loving my old bay.
It still has me where it wants me:
heart-smitten, each time I see it,
over and again.
By Churchgate Station, 22 August 1997, Mumbai
This night is the wing of a crow. Black with the slick of
wet feather and skin. One beady eye following the surge of the
flood water towards Marine Drive, rushing to
meet the sea.
This night is a birthday cake. The lamp posts swaying, fizzing
singing with the whistling wind. Whipping and lashing raindrops
as big and round as cherries on top.
The revolving rooftop restaurant glows like a beacon. A lighthouse
blinking obstinately while dark clouds consume it
with unsatiated hunger.
The street is a ruby necklace – strings of taillights
disappearing into the storm-wrung horizon. Steamy breath
rising from its engorged gutters.
All sounds are muted by the pounding rain
except my beating heart,
that throbs in my ears, as I clutch my beloved’s hand.
This should have been a celebration. But we are shivering in a bus shelter.
The night finally breaks into a quiet dawn,
who knows nothing of the tantrums he threw earlier.
We gather our things and jump on a lone bus – sailing along this swampy road.
The sunlight seeps into our damp crevices.
We huddle together for warmth,
watch cars floating by like ducks in a muddy bath.
A Prospect of Beech Trees
Sometimes a tree becomes a stoup, a font
at the threshold of winter, its gnarled joints
offering the blessing of damp beechmast,
leaf and twig and husk.
And lingering there
the sweet musk of decades of mulch trampled
by the feet of drovers, huggers, lovers
and some who found respite in shade,
took shelter from a squall.
Sometimes a tree stretches its limbs skywards
with the taut musculature of a dancer
celebrating light, the architecture
Even leafless it’s in motion
leaning into the wind, drawing shapes
in the air, elegant tableaux lit by fits
of pale sun, the sap slowing in its veins.
Sometimes a tree, swollen by pollarding,
embraces the metal barbs that mark its bounds,
quietly enfolds the possibility of pain
within the tightness of its bark.
by axe, lightning-struck, taxed with too much weight,
the tree endures, defies from season to season
what we think we know of stamina, of strength,
Sometimes in rough weather a tree issues
a silent prayer from its fissures and splits,
where the scar of a lost branch makes a lip
out of absence.
And absence evokes its own
meditation on beauty, each healed welt,
each blemish a mark of something lost,
a badge of something turned to gain.
And sometimes a choir of trees teaches us
how to hope, what it is to dream, their roots
in concert extending into the next field
ageless beneath the mould and turf.
every quiver of hidden fibre connects
with the next copse or spinney, listens,
receives, sends back life’s vibrant chord.
Two Metres Away
The dawn chorus was loud and beautiful
‘though nesting time was almost finished.
Four newly emerged Small Tortoiseshells settled
on stony ground, to dry their pristine wings,
while Skippers jostled a fat Bumble Bee
to sip sweet nectar from Centranthus ruber.
And self-seeded garden escapes mingled
with wildflowers in sun-cracked crevices:
Verbascums, daisies, corn cockles and poppies,
in colour wheels to steal a breath away.
Beside the compost bin, bedecked with twining
open cups of pure white convolvulus,
a multitude of stinging nettles writhed
with yellow and black striped caterpillars.
And twenty tiny, bright green grasshoppers
leapfrogged one another in a small patch,
accompanied by a chorus of crickets
able to compete with Greek cicadas
Nestled beneath terracotta pots, frogs
startled croak, grumpy at being disturbed
by one Humming-Bird-Hawk moth, proboscis
deep within magenta Erodiums.
And Bronze Fennel, copper colours ablaze,
promised umbels of Aniseed to store
along with scented herbs spread out to dry:
lavender, rosemary, lemon balm and sage.
Then cumulus clouds bubbled up and Red Kites
began a circling descent, their high-pitched cries
replaced by dualling thrushes singing
out sunset songs as the church clock chimed ten.
And in the darkness, refreshing rain fell on
parched soil and scorched leaves, lifting the bowed heads
of stargazers – lost in thoughts of night sky
myths and legends- who began to wonder whether
the dawn chorus had been loud and beautiful
and might the world wake up and listen?
‘Two Metres Away’ was written while Angela walked around her gorgeous nursery early one morning at Butterfly Cottage Garden Plants. It’s a walk that you can share by watching the slide show below whilst listening to the dawn chorus.
I would be a bad scientist, forever diving
like a spaniel into question-choked verges.
The three-atom triptych slakes a manifold thirst.
I would be a bad molecule. I love too fiercely,
hold grudges. I would drift in vapour until we gathered,
feeling the thrill as we mass, drawn by forces
we can’t name (articulation not a burden
we are obliged to carry) – then, after the shocking intimacy
of simultaneous condensing, we would fall –
not mourning our wings but diving gleefully
to the solid endstop below. We are no match for it.
We are liquid and cannot be relied upon.
If in that explosion we catch half-stories –
of seas ruling land
xylem hidden in hardwood
the surge under a storm
stiff ice nosing toward salt –
we know our chemistry is fungible.
Any one of us could kill you. We forget which
so feel no guilt. All this as we rip apart; we wonder
if we should mark the loss of friends, label it love or ennui
or relief, but the question slips and we feel an old tug:
involuntary lightening, and we fly again.
Science measures rainfall. I would be a bad scientist,
leaning into mutability like a worm on a shroud.
the unravelling path frays
a spindling yarn
swirling violet and green,
in rain pools like dreams
that tinge a restless night.
Mud sucks at slow boots,
pushing up brambles
like burnt-out city slums.
Travel sick with the inward journey,
I look up,
and they are there,
where they have always been,
shocks of thick green hair
in the brown baldness of winter;
huddled in on each other as if for warmth.
Soft-veined old arms of time,
beckon me to their counsel.
I touch the ancient,
the slow seeping memory of pagan
the warp and weft
of tangled roots;
that sing of the time when earth
once lost its battle with sky.
Time stutters and stalls,
as I pad-out thoughts
in small steps,
author of my own mystery play
where the broken mind is
First published in Picaroon Poetry Issue #12
‘Very rural here’ we often say
as our Fiesta hurls itself round
the twist of country lanes
in Northington, or skirts the Test
in our quest for a sandwich in a pub
that can’t be called gastro.
Sometimes we can’t see the sun
in sunken lanes for the overhang of trees,
revel in short-lived coolness.
Roadside daffs or far-off bluebells
quiet me for a moment.
I read the hamlet and village names,
curious for their origins – The Candovers,
Sombornes, Worthys. I envy the residents
their thatched cottages, trim lawns,
though not their bus service.
In a pub garden over a pricey sandwich
and the second large glass of wine you
disapprove of, I wonder what the shrubs are,
examine closely the fragile blue plant
artfully planted by a garden designer.
Perhaps Gilbert saw it all those years ago
one sunny Hampshire morning,
recorded it in a small notebook.
That day, the thrushes finally fledged.
For weeks, I’d heard his whistled songs to her at dawn:
now-now, now-now, did-he-do-it, did-he-do-it,
then watched her plunge into the hedge, bringing grass,
roots and moss to purl with a busy beak. She stamped
the floor with tiny feet, fed the cup with mud and spit,
pressed her speckled belly to the curve
until it grew the contours of a bird.
As we sent out invitations to the feast,
she laid a clutch of brilliant turquoise eggs.
Day after day, she sat and hatched her bulge-eyed brood.
It was a wide-beaked time that wore her sad and thin.
I’d see them both, smashing snails against an anvil,
bearing wet meat to their young. Then June came.
As I stepped into my dress, mother fastened
silk-covered buttons with her crochet hook
and I watched the last chick totter at the nest’s lip,
held my breath while it fluttered, stretched, and flew.
I brought the lice-infested nest indoors to see
a tangle of your hair strung gold against the brown.
We have it still: her parting gift. It stinks—of food,
of flesh—this living mess, this coracle of scraps.
‘A Wedding’ was highly commended by Jacqueline Saphra in the Ver Poets’ competition and will be included in their anthology of winning poems.
Mum would put a bit by every week:
the life insurance, the Christmas Club,
and, for my sake, the encyclopaedias,
ten volumes bound in faux-red leather.
Volume 5: the Natural World – Insects.
Acetate sheets took me further, further
as I turned them, turned into the structure
of a bee revealing its essential trinity.
The colours brimmed, the words raptured.
Some I knew: antennae, sting, and abdomen,
but others were new: thorax and glossa –
the ganglia of nerves that stood in for a brain.
I should have stayed at this wonder
but I impressed myself alone with detail;
knowledge of the polysyllabic intricate
provides a species of adolescent mastery,
but not being with. Now, I can anatomise,
delineate the power structures of the hive,
but my daughter, wiggling, feels like them,
thanks them, one-by-one, for their honey.
Brockenhurst – Out Into Space
It was a story in yellow. Drops had fallen from the sun and spattered the low-bitten grass: a hailstorm of flowers everywhere, a milky way of shining petals. Here a solar system, there a galaxy. Streaming away into the distance, a space storm of buttercups. And here a comet’s tail of tormentil and birds-foot trefoil.
Agrimony was the lemony star in the east, pointing the way to wild hypericum, a golden Corona Borealis. Ragwort bold stood guard in Canis Major.
In hidden cracks, pink and mauve heather blushed unseen, unbrave, as did the tiny water forget-me-not. But self-heal, flaunting its royal purple, cried, “Resist. Resist the yellow tide!”
i. Hyacinthoides non-separatam
curtsy just as prettily,
still chime a melancholy
of wood-bound bells,
no eye to apprehend their beauty
nor ear to grasp their knells.
ii. Narcissus pseudo-poeticus
A golden host at
Spring’s first trumpet-march,
April ages ivoried heads –
chastening, from stiff green necks,
the desiccated December droop
of tarnished coronets.
iii. Wisteria wuhanensis
pendulous on twisting vines,
rinsed over nineteen
to serried racks of clouded coughs
in shades of mildewed greys.
thin smooth sparrows
dance on twigs and shrubs
mock big fluffy cats
big fluffy cats
trespass our grass to watch birds
leap at empty air
six sparrows feeding
following the scattered seed
make room for seventh
sparrow hops to spear
green sword leaves quiver his weight
the fence that fell down
through hurricanes, now love-perch
sparrow on sparrow
breeze ruffles feathers
each quill resumes its smoothness
how neat is plumage
where are wild back yards?
attention to straight green stripes
as the sparrow flies
proclaim leaves: my nest
gutter: my perch
sparrows paired-up songs
still flirt close to roof lines
gutter nest boxes
she: making herself ready
him: hop on, hop off
sparrows perch or flap
brush wings, sit to hatch, nestle
handless – do not touch
From Plague – A Season of Senryu.
To purchase directly from Sue, DM via Twitter @SpiroPoetry.
Goldfinch in Holly
No winter fire burns in June’s steep holly tree:
berries jolly as rubies in deep December
are now in summer’s richest green.
So far no angels’ cradle-songs swaddle the holly tree:
on the topmost leaves no thorny star
has yet begun to shine.
A spark ignites—coal-black, yellow, scarlet fire:
a goldfinch flares up, lights the holly
and in a trilling, frenzied blaze of song
burnishes the highest leaf-points,
bursts out bright as a supernova
singing new & rolling summer carols.
and I saw the curlew right there, on the plateau
on the day when raindrops were held
in mirrored cupulas.
Just there, you know, where the hill hollows out
and the scattered sheep winter over,
but I have never seen it again, never
and every day I drive along that single-track road, I stop
in the passing place, where we used to stop,
next to the harrowed fields,
where the lichen trees dwarf easterly
and a stillness picture frames the apex
amongst the steep crags, you know
where you can view the greying river
across to the clouded hills.
I wait and I look and I look again
but it is never there and now I am thinking
was it a trick of my mind?
Have I imagined that next to the blackened hedgerows
the other worldly beak, so elongated, so refined
curving for the earth, worm searching
is my memory confused, hypnotic?
And then, you said,
that it couldn’t be, that it wouldn’t be
it must have been something else
or even that I must have imagined it.
It was just before I saw that rose-pink balloon
in the middle of nowhere, floating
every day now, with less air, deflating slowly
and now it hovers on the top
of the lochan, in the lee of the hill
weathered, annulled even
and the pink reflection is its last blush, at dusk.
Walking with Gilbert White
Of course one walk can’t be enough – it must
be many walks along the same route, slow
over seasons and years, and many times of day.
I love the leisure of it, the unhurried thoroughness,
the way he calls me to pause at a dunnock’s song
noting the date it rose high in the hawthorn
from skulking in undergrowth, how long
it sings there. He urges me to check
when the first swallow comes, how it might pass
unnoticed among pipits and larks, how low
or high it flies, and at what time. He asks
if it came before or after the martins
this year, or last. He is so perceptive
it shames me. I make my scanty notes.
He nods and smiles, points out gently
how much more there is – the seven types of bee
that pollinate the brambles, how cold and rain
hold back the willowherb, the variety of flies
that bother horses, their metallic sheen. Look,
he says in my garden, a few of the ladybirds
are black with two red spots. Make a note
how many — we’ll check for more next year.
When it’s not raining
it’s a true August
still, the leaves starting their turn,
wild carrot seeding itself
berries for mouths
the scree of a kite.
The clouds hunker down here
but not today
the Dyfi has a rest
from gorging on spate
heat slows all living things down,
allowing the study of small creatures
wanting to be close:
some taken for beetles,
some taken for bees.
Dry white tufts hang on the creeping thistle.
I slip into grassland, plain-faced
onto the ridge, parallel with
to straighten eye-level over
I make for you, tree,
out of a stint of
outgrown hazel coppice
sheep desire-line and cow pats
losing their juice in the sunshine.
I hear rough retorts to the wind—
constant rivulets joining at rootdepth.
There are channels in the bark
to sink love notes into;
a returning language.
But today, it’s not raining,
and the tree says, wait.
Laminate years swell and chip,
yet it holds hundreds,
in lichen and pale branches.
We understand, Gilbert White and I, while in Selborne architecting
that careful surveying of details;
gentle observation of the why and the how;
study of history, naturally evolving;
measuring of inconsistencies that make the unique;
separating of general to the specific;
understanding each morsel, however
small and slippery – is essential to the whole.
Lorded over by oak frames – hangar
for firefly or fairy lights; grounded by greensand
walls – mortared thick (galleted for strength
or beauty or luck); and bounded by flint
knapped and cobbled – we nurture distant notions,
analyse lives living, warble together our wishes.
for Richard Ashby
A Letter to Gilbert White
Dear Revd. White, though long deceased, you live
through all that you achieved. Your studies were
to detail life, not peer at specimens
behind glass. You grew your own, sowed and reaped
fruit, vegetables and a curious mind,
recording climate, species, songs and flights
in your clear, upright hand for our delight.
Your observations still inspire us:
how bats sip from the surface of a pool
while on the wing; how swallows meet winter;
when swans turn white; which birds sing as they fly,
or in the night. You watched wrens eat spiders,
saw trees perspire, and knew that not all owls
hoot in B flat. You brought us the boy who
ate bees – and chronicled the woodpecker’s
loud laugh. You tell where my sparrows have gone
(to fruit trees now the house eaves are too warm).
Following you, we trust we will not miss
wonders that should be seen. So, I, in thanks,
sign this – with both a blessing and a x
Swallowing the Toad
And I well remember the time, but was not an eye-witness to the fact (though numbers of persons were) when a quack at this village ate a toad to make the country people stare; afterwards he drank oil.
– Gilbert White, June, 1768
Was it still alive? Well, while that man
of medicine crunched the first of its fore feet
in the midsummer evening sunshine
burnishing the priory pond, its copper eyes
blinked not once but thrice. They say
that, just like us, toads eventually return
to the waters where they were spawned.
This noble chap had had his nuptial pads
wrestled from amplexus; yes, wrenched off
the partner he’d royally piggybacked
since the solstice. Why did I let it happen?
I had no authority with which to intervene.
Yet I was the only witness who flinched
when the last of his bull head disappeared.
after, The Garden Kalender (1751)
by Reverend Gilbert White, Selborne, Hampshire.
Open gate – keep straight on
to parsonage – by a privet –
there’s a step back
in time –
How does your garden grow Gilbert?
A pair of Creepers build at one end of the parsonage.
They run up the wall like Russell pups, vines wagging
in the breeze.
Sun swells – sow kale
and cabbage – mulberry trees weep
in the heat – hops washed – hogs watered –
milk-white moon skims the steeple –
How does your garden look Gilbert?
Bright sun & golden eve. A Redstart tweets
on the weathervane. A Red admiral, charcoal and flame
against Columbine. Apple trees blossom
like young maids. Dame Violets, Roses, &co, &co
make a gaudy show. The garden is in high beauty.
How does your garden thrive Gilbert?
The humble earthworm. Traveller of root-webs
and under-ways. Food for all manner of God’s creatures.
A link in the chain of nature. A calamity, if lost.