Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Shivering Slightly - The Moon in Poems by Sidney, Wordsworth and Larkin



Philip Larkin's poem Sad Steps was published in his 1974 collection High Windows, but its theme - and title - were drawn from much earlier roots.  In Sad Steps, Larkin specifically references two poems, of the Sixteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,one by Philip Sidney, the other by William Wordsworth.  I want to look at how Larkin neatly samples both the language and the themes of the preceding poems, and creates with his contribution both a compliment and a riposte to both.

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!  begins Sir Philip Sidney's address to the moon, published in 1591,  How silently, and with how wan a face!

 

Sidney's lines are taken from Astrophil and Stella, a sequence of sonnets in Petrarchan style.  The title is taken from the Greek - "Astro" for star, and "Phil" for lover, thus Astrophil is the star lover, and Stella is his "star."  Sidney's sonnets are melancholy and at times self-pitiful, as in the lunar lines, where the poet claims an empathy with his celestial addressee:

thou feel'st a lover's case,
I read it in thy looks: thy languish'd grace,
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.


and asks rhetorically:

O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem'd there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?


Sidney - or rather Astrophil (scholars generally agree that the persona is distinct from the poet, and not an alter-ego) - lapses into moralistic judgement, asking the lovelorn moon whether even in heav'nly place those who are loved scorn whom that love doth possess? and implying that the object of his unrequited affections is guilty of ingratitude:


Do they call 'virtue' there ungratefulness.

To be honest, I don't particularly like the poem, and find its narrator's self importance pompous and embarrassing, like the priggishness of a workplace pest who cannot understand how his romantic overtures or sexual advances would be met with anything other than reciprocation, a man who thinks that he is "God's Gift to Women," as the saying used to go.  And yet, there is a certain pained brusqueness in his barbed closing lines which smacks of the spurned grouch, too far down the road of disappointment to really care what others think of his petulant wit, which in later centuries could almost spring from the curled lip of a Tony Hancock, or indeed a Philip Larkin, which I do find drags me back into the fold of the poem's admirers, if reluctantly.

 With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heav'nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long-with-love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel'st a lover's case,
I read it in thy looks: thy languish'd grace,
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, ev'n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem'd there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be lov'd, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call 'virtue' there ungratefulness?

 
The poem is written in a tone in which Larkin would also pay homage to the moon, but in a different, deeper, and more self-reflective way - but is far different from the style of its next incantation.


When Wordsworth wrote his sonnet inspired by the poem in 1815, it was the moon's magical allure that he embraced, with characteristic romance.  Maintaining the opening feel of the original, he also begins with a question:

 With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the sky,
"How silently, and with how wan a face!"
Where art thou? 



 Wordsworth's poem, though, soon departs from Sidney's sense of disenchantment.  The only concession to earthly concerns is an unusual comparison:

Unhappy Nuns, whose common breath's a sigh
Which they would stifle, move at such a pace!


And at the half way juncture, we are indulged in the stuff of myth and magic:

The power of Merlin, Goddess! this should be:
And all the stars, fast as the clouds were riven,
Should sally forth, to keep thee company,
Hurrying and sparkling through the clear blue heaven.



 Wordsworth invokes the lunar goddess Cynthia, an epithet of the Greek Artemis, born on Mount Cynthus, and synonymous with Selene and the Roman goddess Diana.  Wordsworth's lines are slightly reminiscent with those of Ben Jonson, whose 1601 play Cynthia's Revels contain a lovely paean to the goddess:

Earth, let not thy envious shade
Dare itself to interpose;
Cynthia's shining orb was made
Heaven to clear when day did close:
    Bless us then with wishèd sight,
    Goddess excellently bright.


In Wordsworth's sonnet, the majesty of moonlight is given the full vent of the author's celebration, with no attempt at linguistic self-restraint.   It is a poem devoid of irony, which both centres on the sadness of the moon's retreating image, and the elaborate imaginings of the poet

With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the sky,
"How silently, and with how wan a face!"
Where art thou? Thou so often seen on high
Running among the clouds a Wood-nymph's race!
Unhappy Nuns, whose common breath's a sigh
Which they would stifle, move at such a pace!
The northern Wind, to call thee to the chase,
Must blow to-night his bugle horn. Had I
The power of Merlin, Goddess! this should be:
And all the stars, fast as the clouds were riven,
Should sally forth, to keep thee company,
Hurrying and sparkling through the clear blue heaven.
But, Cynthia! should to thee the palm be given,
Queen both for beauty and for majesty.




Philip Larkin's Sad Steps was written in 1968, and would be included in the author's final book of poems six years later. It is a fine example of the sort of poetry which defines "Late Larkin," and the scholar John Welford credited the poem as setting out an impression of beauty being observed yet stripped of its traditional connotations.

 
 Sad Steps, though obviously taking its title from the previous two poems, could hardly be more different in its opening lines:

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness. 


It is classic Larkin, though the curtness and apparent casualness of the scene serves a purpose beyond dour humour.  Typically, most people focus on the word at the end of the first line, but I would suggest that the first word, "Groping" is, if anything, even more of a powerful kick in the teeth to the poem's illustrious lineage.  Rather than its association with unwanted sexual advances, "groping" as written in 1970's England would conjure images of a weary, half-blind old an stumbling through the dark. It is a clumsy, cantankerous, loveable image - again the thought of Hancockian comedy springs to mind, and I picture a Rupert Rigsby or Alf Garnett, or even an out-of-sorts Kenneth Williams, perhaps clinging to the banister or reaching out with uncertain arms for the bedroom door. Like a kitchen sink comedian, Larkin commences his meditation on the moon by ushering in an image of the everyday, transposing Sidney's and Wordsworth's "Medallion of art" onto a distinctly unromantic setting with which his 20th Century readers might easily identify, lacking any references to Classical mythology or Heavenly figures. To those familiar with the titular significance, the opening line serves as a brusque dismissal of a less cynical past, and does so with a certain black humour.  When I first read the poem at the age of sixteen, I had no idea of its roots in Sidney or Wordsworth, and rather assumed that the sad steps referred to where those of the narrator.  Either way, Larkin sets the scene of a man standing at a window in the middle of the night.  One shivers slightly, looking up there, he tells us, and he could be a man on the deck of a ship, on a scaffold, at the edge of a bridge. It is an image he refines to dark perfection in poems like High Windows, full of pathos and foreboding - a man taking stock of his life, of the years he cannot reclaim, of the unknown still to come.


Larkin was in his early forties when he wrote the poem, and rather than mocking the grandiosity of his forerunners, it is to his own reflections that he is prompted by watching Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below. In pondering these reflections, though, he is not without humour:

There's something laughable about this
The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow 
Loosely as cannon-smoke.

Nor does Larkin ignore the fantastical allusions others might draw from an unexpected lunar interlude, suggesting associations with werewolves, describing the moon as a Lozenge of Love, and letting us dwell for a moment on its separate immensity.  The impact, then, of his terse, monosyllabic refutation - No - reads both abruptly, and with a certain reflective length.  It feels as if we are there with Larkin, standing by the parted curtains, and we can trace the thought process of the poem from its genesis by the window, presumably through the groping walk back to bed, as the gradual realizations form in the mind.  The poem brings Sidney's imagery full circle, touching on the drama and passion of the Wordsworth variation, and homing in on that same sense of resignation, or is it middle-aged fear and anxiety, which taints the original in its sour sadness.  Unlike Sidney, Larkin is reflecting from an older perspective, but like the former he is engaged on a summing up of something unrealized, and at the end of its useful course.  Yet the poem is also a cautionary tale, urging us to to grasp the reality and sharpness of the moment. For Philip Sidney, the moon offers empathy and solace against a background of thwarted young love, an unrequited romance from which the young narrator is bound to recover and strike out afresh. For Larkin, it is a symbol of a past beyond reach, but, as he acknowledges, also the circle of existence, a chain in which all the strength and pain of being young is passed on to another generation.  As such, Larkin's angle on the subject is inconclusive, and interpretative.  The moon, which alone stands firm while he, the human, ages, symbolizes the impenetrable mysteries of the Universe, and the insignificance of all of life's dramas and triumphs in the passing of time.


Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness


Four o'clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There's something laughable about this,


The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)


High and preposterous and separate -
Lozenge of love!  Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory!  Immensements!  No,


One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare


Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can't come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.


 





Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Carving Angels in the Window Pane - Poetry by Keely Murphy




I know little of American poet Keely Murphy, beyond that her collection This Steady Place (Blue Begonia Press 2005) is one of my favourite books, sent to me by a friend from the publisher's home state of Yakima, Washington, nearly ten years ago.  The biographical information records that the author lives in the Yakima Valley, "one block away from the centre of the city," but there is no suggestion of any other publications. The poet's persona is as enigmatic as many of the presences which sail fleetingly through this magical book.  I dreamt ghosts carved an angel in my window pane, begins one of the poems in this shimmering collection, all shattery, haunting my apartment building. 

 


Dreams feature significantly, as do the beginnings of days, the act of waking, though often with the sense of something more elegiac than Edenic:

A hush fell over the city today.
I crossed Yakima Avenue and felt and
heard the same hush on 40th Avenue.
We drove downtown and this 
sea of birds flew up from the old buildings,
all curving in a crowd, darting, spotting the sky.
Dark against a gray sky lit up by sunset.

 
    

Birds flutter and swoop through the beguiling pages of this day-dreamy book, winging their way into the title poem, where the book's valley setting is my quiet strength, like bone destiny.  Setting out her declaration of intent, the poet states:

Today, I don't need sand dollars.
I need this sun, this March heat, these white cumulus clouds.
And I will continue as this desert does, bending seasons,
dry and wet, cold and warm, and
this inconsistency its own reliability.


Deep in a meditative communion with her surroundings, the author celebrates the valley's powers in a a Pantheistic joint embodiment:

I wake up just how this valley does.
It got into me as a child. It raised me up as a woman.
Its cycles are my cycles, and I am its own.
This dusty ground, accepting what we give it.
I accept this long way around.
I love it here - these chimneys and porchlights.
This steady place.  It is broken and blown over.
It is blooming and full of birds.

Reading these lyrical, quasi-Biblical lines, which so eloquently portray the cloudy heat of late winter in the Pacific Northwest, in the grip of a Calder Valley winter, it is hard not to notice both the vast differences and similarities between our two environments.  Here, there are no irrigation sprinklers to overwhelm any miraculous crop harvest.  No cherry blossoms, desert dust, or lawns being mowed - even by March.  But the horizons are defined by bulbous brown hills rising into clouds, and the ground we walk on is built over minerals thick and cold, while the Calder Valley winter is a glittering symphony of birds  - waders, ravens, wrens and woodpeckers, muscovies and merlins.
Keely Murphy's descriptions of pigeons strike a chord for me, as they are birds of abundance here in my neck of the woods:

Farther down the avenue, pigons flew
up from the old Baptist church and
one white bird landed on the east side
perched on a tiny stone ledge. I said,
"Look at that white one." 



I love how the poet imagines the pigeons' relations elsewhere in the world:

The pigeons flying like how I picture they fly in Europe,
how I picture they fly on the East Coast.
They fly the same on every continent, classic like that.
Birds flew in the hush and I pictured them
swirling up a wind current on their own,
flying by their own movement.

 
But the birds flocking through the poems in This Steady Place are as likely to be mythical or imaginary as real:

Reading

In a dream last night I dreamt
I was sitting next to this young Asian man,
overlooking the water when
a tremendous flock of birds flew up
dotting the entire pink sunset sky, end to end.
And as I gasped and told him how beautiful it was
he told me that sometimes when that happens
he tries to read what it says like text,
black letters dotting the page.
And I wondered what it would say
if you froze the there-
all of their wingtips touching
discovering the shapes.


What the poet has done here ties in greatly with one of my own current obsessions - the poem as dream, or the dream as poem - but in a manner so elegant and fluent as to create the impression of a realistic dialogue. I can see and hear the Asian man, the birds, the black letters of their wings dotting the page of a Pacific sky.  It is this acute skill of depicting characters which also brings to life the more conversational or human-focused poems in the collection, as in apparently autobiographical sketches such as Honey Cigars and Wine:

We stand there as Murphys.
We are everything my parents thought would never happen.
My brother, a desperate eighteen year old,
swallowed up by love,
emotional, transitory, troubled, and full of music.
Smoking cigars desperately.
My sister, a married purple-teeth-stained patchouli girl
who wants to fight and wants to be loved, equally.
Me, a color-driven poet, pierced and full of words.

The poet's family appear also in the gentler Honeysuckles, where she recalls The honeysuckle days of childhood  /tangled up in gray woody trees, and remembers warmly:

These are my best moments,
held up in live wood.
Fresh honeysuckle still in my mouth.

Going on to idealize the setting, while also hunting at hidden pains beneath the bucolic exterior:

We were a beautiful strawberry jam whole wheat bread
family with shallow aching unspoken secrets 

Elsewhere, the concept of sharing, of bridging the divide between two people by a joint experience of "opening up", is given unexpectedly pictorial, stunningly metaphorically effective treatment:

we opened ourselves,
opened beautifully in a few moments.
Raw right and left ventricles, red chambers, open.
We don't have solutions or remedies.

This Steady Place is a quietly enchanted, nostalgic, at times dark, often warm and sometimes funny book, split into three sections - the first being mainly recollections from the poet (or narrators) interlinked with dialogue, the innocence of garden and rural scenes mingling with the corrupting, and magnetizing delights of the city; the second a descent (or ascent) into spiritual settings, with the concluding third veering into surrealism.  Some of the titles of the poems in this third part are enticingly bizarre:  I Woke Up With a Mouth Full of God; and my favourite, My Mother's Unwritten Poems, while the poems themselves often begin with dazzlingly strange images:
I want to tape leaves to my eyelids

I am walking up and down the crucifix

A poem starts as an ache

There is uniquely crafted, bewitching poetry of love and loss, poetry of memory and of dreams, poetry of bridges, breaking hearts, city streets and spray-painted angels, and poetry that deserves to be read far beyond the poet's native Yakima, as far and widely as possible.  Indeed, one of the book's most arresting images comes, for me, in the short poem Prayer, which opens up its second, more spiritual or philosophical section, and which is arguably even more relevant at the onset of 2018 than when first published 13 years ago. The poet combines images of prayer in valleys beyond her own.  In Jerusalem they are praying, she tells us, while in China their prayer flags blow / and spin.  Just as at other points in the book her weaving together of valley after valley after valley depicts a multi-faceted web of shared existences, so this poem's deft depictions of cultures thousands of miles apart somehow transcend the barriers of space and time and bring into focus the bonds of a shared humanity and planet.  Reading it overlooking the woodlands, villages, towns and lives intersecting and evolving in my own valley, I am struck by the poem's simple beauty, and its urgent, unaffected truth.

I am breathing out in a valley
where I wait for the hills to brown
from their black muddied slopes.
I am breathing out the same air 
that moves their papery wheels.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Winter Birds of the Ryburn Valley

When I moved to the Calder Valley six years ago, I lived in a valley-within-a-valley, the Ryburn Valley - so named for the River Ryburn, which flows down from the wooded franges of Blackstone Edge, through the moor-bordered hills of Rishworth, Ripponden and Triangle, onto its confluence with the Calder at Sowerby Bridge.  Although I left the Ryburn Valley in 2015, the window of my flat still overlooks its hilly edges, and my walks so often take me among its hills, woods and waters.


 One of the first birds I noticed on moving to the River Ryburn in 2012 was a green woodpecker, bobbling above a stream that trickled down the hills above the woods at Milner Royd. Like a lithe, red-hatted jester, it seemed to jump between the stones that jutted from the water, before shooting up the hill into obscurity amid a blur of grasses and high hedgerows. 

 I knew you writes Hampshire poet Denise Bennett, by your / green carpenter's apron,/ your red-crested head - / and watching you chisel bark / with all the care of a craftsman*.
Bewick claims they are the largest woodpeckers of the British kinds, stating that as adults, they are thirteen inches in length. He explains that the smoothly-feathered green bird, documented by Linnaeus in 1758, is seen more frequently on the ground than the other kinds, particularly where there are ant-hills. It inserts its long tongue into the holes through which the ants issue, and draws out these insects in abundance. Sometimes, with its feet and bill, it makes a breach in the nest, and devours them at its ease, together with their eggs. The young ones climb up and down the trees before they are able to fly; they roost very early, and repose in their holes till day.

The green woodpecker, Picus viridis, has achieved a certain familiarity due to its appearance on international postage stamps, and as the insignia of the traditional English brand Woodpecker cider.
The species has been known as Rain Bird and Weathercock, since their presence has been thought to imply oncoming rain. Another name is Laughing Betsey, owing to its laugh-like call, which has also given rise to titles such as uffle, hefful, hickle, icwell, eccle and - a personifying development - Jack Eikle. Yuckel is a further variation, as is Yappingale, and perhaps even more imitatively, Yaffingale - which may be familiar as the source of the name Yaffles. Stiff, stern but loveable, Professor Yaffles, with his spectacles perched atop his beak, is the wise old bookend in Bagpuss, the children’s television series in which assorted puppets and ornaments - not least the eponymous cloth cat himself - interacted among the shelves of a cluttered toyshop. Based on a green woodpecker, Yaffles was soon an established part of modern English folklore, as recognizable and iconic as the animals of Beatrix Potter or those among the stories of Winnie the Pooh.

Walking across the valley at this time of year, one is even likelier to see robins, thrushes, coal-tits and blue-tits - predictable, yet among the loveliest sights of a winter morning, jeweled nuggets of cerulean beauty dappling the web-like fretworks of the trees. Perhaps most usual of all among the winter sights are crows. Intermingling, is the jackdaw (Corvus monedula) who, as Cowper fancied in 1822, 
by his coat
And by the hoarseness of his note,
Might be supposed a crow;
A great frequenter of the church,
Where, bishop-like, he finds a perch,
And dormitory too.


Like black daggers slashing through white linen, the crows of Calderdale puncture snowdrifts upon the craggy uplands of the moors; they bounce from bough to bow, or crookedly hobble over dribbling becks and take their places on the wickerwork scaffolds of winter’s leafless trees. Smaller are the blackbirds, whose trilling song sounds like a fanfare urging the year to commence. With their apple-pip eyes and svelte, swarthy bodies, they skip across the frost, or dot the gardens pecking for worms, rummaging through primulas and clumps of daffodil. Immortalized by Paul McCartney and the Beatles, the blackbird is an age-old feature of the English ornithological stage. The females softly brownish, the males jet-black, blackbirds have become so embedded in our collective vision that to see one hardly raises an eyebrow; likewise they are so used to our presence, so confident in their numbers and time-honoured prominence on our landscape, that they seem blithely unconcerned by us. For Seamus Heaney, something in the cautious, ponderous, guarded but resolute blackbird was a mirror of his own uncertain self, his own human reserve, and demonstrative of a fleetingly transfigured but innate kinship:
The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself

The higher reaches of the Valley are characterized by hardiness - by stoical heathers, rough hill scrub, rabbit paths wedged into millstone grit. Acid soils promote Ericas and other dwarf-shrubs, which feed the larvae of many lepidoptera. In turn, caterpillars - along with the ants and beetles that thrive on sandstone and acidic soils, are taken by many birds feeding up at the onset of the winter, such as the wrens sprinkled like skittering mice among the tree trunks. Although not as often seen as some, owing to its small size and shy, nimble nature, the wren - Troglodytes troglodytes - is actually Britain’s most numerous bird, with some 8,600,000 pairs breeding annually, mostly in deciduous woodlands and moors, making the Ryburn Valley an excellent location. Small, scurrying, and an obvious target for rats and other predators, wrens nevertheless possess something of the toughness that the winter moorscape ruggedly implies. The poor wren, says Lady Macbeth, trying to rouse her husband into violence, the most diminutive of birds, will fight, Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
Wordsworth, examining the unassuming creatures’ nesting habits, wrote how:
AMONG the dwellings framed by birds
In field or forest with nice care,
Is none that with the little Wren's
In snugness may compare.

No door the tenement requires,
And seldom needs a laboured roof;
Yet is it to the fiercest sun
Impervious, and storm-proof.

So warm, so beautiful withal,
In perfect fitness for its aim,
That to the Kind by special grace
Their instinct surely came.

And when for their abodes they seek
An opportune recess,
The hermit has no finer eye
For shadowy quietness.

 

They are principally ground-dwelling, their dome-shaped nests at the bases of trees, within easy reach of a largely insectivorous diet. Worms and arthropods are firm favourites, and at times the wren will branch out into spiders. Berries, seeds and even amphibians might feature also, and some birds have even been observed to venture into water to find fish.

Water is, of course, another of our region’s dominant elements. Not only is the valley cleaved by the river to which it owes its name, but it is glistening with canals and reservoirs imbruing the surrounding prospects like the branches of a tree. Dippers bounce upon the cold blue surfaces, gulls swoop and squawk along the lapping shores and skirt the borders of the motorway. 

 



 Further towards town, the geese are veteran residents. Flocking on the banks and nesting under the bridge, they are part of the furniture, sometimes waddling over roads and halt the traffic on the way to Ripponden. Canada geese soar overhead, or dip and dodge their ways across the stony streams at Sowerby and Luddenden.



The water birds, including mergansers, muscovies and cormorants, live among each other quite peaceably, and considering the area’s biodiversity, with different animal communities often living in fairly close proximity. 

 

 


Avian life is both adaptable and beneficial to the wider eco-system. In fields of cows and sheep, a stonechat may be seen, perched atop a fence-post or flitting between trees; fieldfares will crowd the telegraph wires. Mammals fertilize the soil and embed seeds; flies which could impede their health are eaten by the birds.You will also come effortlessly across more well-known birds like sparrows, dunnocks, bullfinches and bluetits.



One late autumn morning, just south of the Ryburn, I watched a kestrel circling a field, narrowing its movements into an almost stock-still hover, until it hung with silent menace twenty feet above the ground. Eventually, the bird descended. A kestrel will dispatch with merciful rapidity, diving in to snatch rodents and invertebrates, occasionally reptiles and spiders. Those seen here are Falco tinnunculus, and must consume the equivalent of around six voles each day to live. Every day is a struggle to survive, and yet the falcon I saw, suspended in air like a gun waiting to be fired, seemed stylishly lethal. It hunted with poise and deadly elegance. Yet an injured bird will seem vulnerable, and tame. In his 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave, Barnsley-born author Barry Hines depicts the juvenile world of Yorkshire schoolboy Billy Casper, whose lonely life is briefly illuminated by the presence of a hawk. Early in the book, we follow Billy into the barn where he has been nursing the bird, feeding her and confiding about home:
Rufous brown, Flecked breast, dark bars across her back and wings. Wings pointed, crossed over her rump and barred tail. Billy clicked his tongue, and chanted softly, 'Kes, Kes, Kes, Kes.' The hawk looked at him and listened, her fine head held high on strong shoulders, her brown eyes round and alert.
'Did you hear her, Kes, making her mouth again?...Gobby old cow. Do this, do that, I've to do everything in this house...Well they can shit. I'm fed up o' being chased about...There's allus somebody after me.'
Hines’ novel is an important examination of relationships between human and non-human, stretching deeper than the practical, the everyday: it is through the wordless kestrel that the schoolboy is able to communicate, not only with the world around him, but with himself. Across intangible barriers, an inner language is uncovered, new perceptions dawn. The stoical mystery of the hawks, their medieval triumph and aerial invincibility, lend to it the stuff of legend, of heroism, of a Biblical magnificence. It is hardly surprising that, almost a century before Billy’s journey of self-discovery, Gerard Manley Hopkins was to write:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! . . .


The valley is a microcosm of symbiosis and natural cycles, and not only in terms of animal interaction and predation. Plant life, also, is enhanced by the presence of our winter visitors. In the lower reaches of the valley, where hillsides splay out into factory forecourts and delivery yards, where the railway tracks are interspersed with wildflowers, and where canal boats bob beside the towpath overhung with mistletoe, rosehips and winter jasmine, you are likely to encounter finches, slotting in and out of bushes and berry-bearing trees. Prolific seed-dispersers, these glossy little birds brighten up a dark afternoon like confectionery, dancing between rowan trees and roses. Greenfinches are the most regular, and even when the birds elusively slip through trees beyond the eye, their twittery song is a winter serenade. Says the poet Francis Duggan,
I know the singer of the song though him I cannot see
His voice I knew in my younger years lives in my memory
The green he wears it blends in well with the foliage of the blackwood tree
The Ryburn Valley is a haven for winter birds. A walk along the canal may present you with a rich and colourful gallery of birds, from shy and surreptitious wrens, to water birds and ducks, from sleek, split-second predators, to soft, ethereal flutters of dazzling colour, like airy messengers of spring.


February 2014 (* - Denise Bennett: Green Woodpecker, Equinox poetry journal March 2005)