Friday, 17 March 2017

Gothic Gods - The Poetry of Cormorants

Dark sphinxes spearing chill morning air, ranged like sentries among the rickety spines of ever-so-slightly budding branches, the cormorants, their stiff, gilly wings outspread to dry, stud the logs that perch above the lake like the planks of pirate ships.  Black as bats and shaped not too unlike them - save for their fancy, fan-like feathers, elongated necks, peachy jaws and bright, candle-white beaks - the birds are poised above the water in unruffled, patience, wings trembling in the wind. 


Late February.  I am on a bridge in Birkenhead, Merseyside, gripping my camera with freezing fingers but feeling warmly relaxed by the Zen-like peace of these meditative birds.  They paint rich pictures in my mind, pictures from the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, prehistoric pictures of pterodactyls, myths and birds of Scandinavian seas, or the steel and copper Liver birds across the water above the docks, iconic symbols of the city of Liverpool. 
The cormorants, whose folkloric identity interweaves the beloved and the monstrous, known for sea giants, Christs and spirits of the dead, have featured vividly in art and literature.  I see the not infrequently - especially suspended on the old, disused iron bridges hanging over the River Calder, peering over treetops and chimneys, sentinels reflected in the sea-green current glimmering below, their bluish- feather tips glistening in the evening sun.  I want to take a look at how cormorants have been approached in poetry, and at how these ancient birds have played their part in Britain's eco-system, and in my own life.



In a former life among the suburban environs of north Leeds, I would walk through Roundhay Park, almost daily taking in at least one circuit of the large, curving lake which bulges out at its centre like a fat slab of dazzling glass.  I would jog or walk around these calm waters early on a morning, watching shoals of fish glittering beneath, or on a summer evening, as coots drifted the ripples with their black, bun-like feathers and chalky white beaks, Canada geese extending rubbery black necks to nibble bread, occasionally a greedy grebe would cast its wide eyes around the waters and take a sudden, bolting dive, only to re-emerge moments later gobbling a large fish.  One such June evening in 2008, I walked along the lake's south flank, as the verdurous horizon was slowly swallowed by the purple blood of the setting sun, a thin, feathery rain tickling my face.  I saw the frozen smudge to my immediate right, clipped to a log extending from the water.  Considering the qualities of friendliness and joviality I would come to decipher in these unorthodox birds, my first feelings were quite nervous.  Like a Mediaeval knight, he looked immovable and powerful.  At first, absurdly, I took him for a huge bat.  I had been to see the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight, and the sight of this brooding bird, dark against the sunset, reminded me of the anti-hero, the sinister romance of the caped crusader. The cormorant's silence, his arrogant majesty, evoked a sort of antediluvian emotion, like a fear inherited through Millennia.  This was my earliest sighting of a cormorant, and I felt him watching me like a determined predator.  My poem Cormorant, written not long afterwards, records my awe at the bird's shadowy significance, and how the restless rootless immigrant / is a Gothic God. 
The poem concludes my 2014 collection Random Journeys, and blends various reflections on cormorants, but is rooted in that first encounter, when I watched the cormorant patiently absorbing the tingling rain -

He feels the spray
suggest its self against his talon
like a snake shedding skin

I stood and gazed at this cormorant, transfixed.  Every evening I went back, and every evening he was there - my peaceful, threatening shadow, the bird which stood, defiant and stoic, simultaneously yogi-like and poised like a coiled spring:

Bat-like,
imperially austere
with wings outstretched
statuesque and blackly startling
staring out across the mists.

His pin-prick eyes are poison darts
as fine rain scintillates
transparency of water;
sunset blots the vapour of a lake
into the glasslike mile that meets his eyes.

Never once did the bird fly.  It were as though his stubborn inactivity underlined his freedom, stationed as he was in the centre of a lake and far from the reach of human interference.   Indeed, it felt as if the cormorant were in control - each evening I felt hypnotized and caught in the frame of his omniscient glare. 



In his poem A Cormorant, Ted Hughes responds to this inescapable sense of being watched:

The cormorant eyes me, beak uptilted,
Body-snake low - sea-serpentish.

He's thinking: "Will that stump
Stay a stump just a while?"  He dives.

There is something in the way Hughes' species-twisting presentation of the "sea-serpentish" bird which reminds me, conceptually and linguistically, of the poems of DH Lawrence, and this metamorphosing takes on an acuter, symbiotic edge as predator "becomes" prey, in a passage slickly summarizing much of Hughes' neo-pagan concept of the natural world and its life cycles:

He sheds everything from his tail end
Except fish action, becomes fish,

Disappears from bird,
Dissolving himself

Into fish, so dissolving fish naturally
Into himself.  Re-emerges, gorged,

Himself as he was, and escapes me.





That bony potbellied arrow, begins Amy Clampitt's poem The Cormorant in its Element:

wing-pumping along
implacably, with a ramrod's rigid adherence,
airborne, to the horizontal, discloses talents
one would have never guessed at.

In Book 4 of Paradise Lost, Milton presents Satan disguised as a cormorant, and it is not hard to see why such the devil might choose such a bird for an alter-ego: raven-like, mysterious, yet imbued with a certain mischievousness.  The thick white beaks, which lend these shadowy creatures the jovial expressions of unlikely comedians, seem clamped into a grin slightly reminiscent of another vivacious villain - not Batman, but his jocular antagonist, The Joker.  Showy and flamboyant, cormorants are born exhibitionists.
With words like "potbellied," and "ramrod", Amy Clampitt certainly places her cormorant in more humorous territory than Hughes - or indeed John Milton - though as she depicts him Plummeting waterward, the poet pays tribute to the cormorant's aquatic acrobatics, noting with wonder how:

the cormorant astounding-

ly, in one sleek involuted arabesque, a vertical
turn on a dime, goes into that inimitable
vanishing-and-emerging-from-under-the-briny-

deep act

I feel this description neatly conjures up the dance-like lethality of the cormorant's predatory leap, and provides a picture-perfect image of the bird in its natural element.  The lifestyle of cormorants, though, also takes in various other distinctive behaviours.


The cormorant family - the Phalacrocoracidae - actually comprises some forty different species, and collectively they are found across the world, with two found regularly in Britain - Phalacrocorax aristotelis, and P. carbo - the Great Cormorant.  Their habitats include coastal areas, estuaries, lakes - but also urban areas: I have seen more cormorants by the docks in Liverpool than in any area of countryside. 

Cormorants nest in colonies - sometimes among other avian communities - and also tend to hunt in groups, their diet taking in most available food sources including fish, eggs, amphibians and small birds.  The colonies can range from handfuls or fewer, to several thousands, and their nests may be pitched up anywhere near water - above ground on rocky cliffs, in treetops, and even among scaffolding and disused buildings.




Further from the coast, and closer to the Calder Valley, I have also watched cormorants on the wetlands of Lancashire. 

The reservoirs outside Blackburn are large, isolated gulfs of water nestling between steep, clayey hills and deep sweeps of coniferous woodland.  On a wet winter's morning, I was resting up by Entwistle Dam, the first in Britain to exceed 100ft above ground level when it was built in 1832, and found my attention drawn to a stationery black speck punctuating the jutting beam of an abandoned boat. Like a sullen pirate, the cormorant tilted her head slightly upwards, keeping watch over a flapping gaggle of seagulls.  Transfixed, I stared for some minutes at the restless gulls, bouncing on and off the bars, and their solitary observer, shrouded in silence.  With each side keeping a safe, consistent distance, this asymmetric, inter-species stand-off - or was it a communion - and was reminded of my first cormorant sighting nearly ten years earlier.  Then, as now, it had been the stillness of the bird which awed me, its wintry, stygian fixity against a moving world of water.  How the steely overseer seemed to me now to embody the harsh but tight-lipped disapproval of some Victorian schoolmaster, or the silent condemnation of some mute, God-fearing nun: her sable-cloaked form unmoving and defined by self control, looking on in contempt at the ribald crew of noisy gulls, as if they represented something threatening to the social order.  But also as if she, the cormorant, were somehow untroubled, unaffected, and secure. The squawking, gulls played out their jostling, chaotic anti-ballet, the sharp winds cut through the trees in blasts of punishing cold.  The waters rolled, slashed by jagged slants of February rain, jabbing and elbowing the battered boat into a tilting sway, yet all the while the cormorant stayed steadfastly pinned there like a tough black mast, a flag of fortitude and gutsy composure in a turbulent and changing world.

Through the now driving rain, I walked into the wooded hills, across the flat, narrow, sandy pathways that lead into the quiet, steepled villages of Turton, Entwistle, and Edgeworth, their curling rows of cottages and old English pubs, past farms and fields of horses, graveyards, and long, descending roads that trailed off into blurry morning mists. 

It was mid afternoon by the time my trek had taken me full circle, and brought me back to the battlement-like dam, and save for the soft, slow patter of a few remaining raindrops, almost dry.  I walked along the water's concrete lip, stopped to focus on the bobbing boat, whose metal skeleton still held a shifting cast of pearly white gulls. The cormorant, coal-black, stoic ad unswerving, was till there, casting her impenetrable glare across the crystalline waters like a shadowy, dark star.







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