August - September 2005
Gillian Clarke’s Journal
by Gillian Clarke
Kites falling on flesh. Out of a blue sky, one by one, coming in from all points over the mountains. Two or three hundred red kites. They fire in the sun as they flex and turn, homing in to a field in mid-Wales where fresh, raw meat is tipped from a trailer at the same hour every day.
Once the news is out, every kite in the mountain heartland of Wales knows it. First come the crows and buzzards, testing the ground before the great arrival, getting in first for a snatch of the meat before the competition gets fierce. When the lie of the land looks safe, the first kite sails in. One by one, then in twos, threes, scores, hundreds, an angelic host blazing down on a field of blood.
Here, over our fields, 70 miles south-west of that spectacular daily event, a kite is a common sight these days too. Until recently it was Britain’s rarest bird, its numbers down, at worst, according to DNA evidence, to the offspring of a single female. The other day a neighbour had a combine harvester at work in his big barley field. All day, as the huge machine growled up and down the field, four kites haunted the sky, causing consternation to the buzzards and a crowd of crows, competing for crushed mice, voles, rabbits, frogs.
A single kite is a parable: the beauty and cruelty of nature. A parable, too, for a poet. Its single-mindedness, its obsession, its golden eye burning the ground for the least stirring, its unflinching instinct to survive and to make itself over and over. It dances with the thermals, flexing wings and tail, flaunting its auburns, manoeuvring the wind. It drops on prey or carrion, scarcely touching the ground. Such lazy grace, such beauty, and savagery. A ewe died deep in our gorse last winter. The kite circled, waiting for the crows and the buzzards to open the carcase, then it fell from the sky, and gorged. Flamboyance. That’s the word I want - flame on air. Reds sharpened by the great bow of white under its wings, the black bars on its forked tail. Beautiful, gorgeous, blood-stained.
Twice, in a few days, on the grass, David has found a mangled animal, the size of a stoat or squirrel, its head opened by something like a hooked beak, fur drenched, colourless. Over the field a kite with a stoat in its claw, the very stoat which, R.S. Thomas said, ‘sips at the brimming rabbit.’ With one word, ‘sips’, he turns the rabbit into a cup of blood. So, in turn, the kite sips the stoat. A holy communion.
Our hay is a sea of grasses and wild flowers, to be mowed, tedded, dried in the sun, raked into rows, baled, carried home and stowed for the winter.
It’s hot and still. I can see for miles. Not a hundred miles, as sometimes, one day last week, for example, but more often in winter. Richard Fortey’s The Earth, An Intimate History, begins, ‘It should be difficult to lose a mountain but it happens all the time.’ ‘Vesuvius’, he writes, ‘slips in and out of view.’ Across Cardigan Bay to the north-west, Snowdonia, and the long finger of the Llŷn peninsula, lie lost in sea-haze for most of the summer. The first cold morning of autumn, and it’ll be there, lying on the sea like a legend.
I wade the hay. It smells of so many sweet and bitter liquors and nectars that I’m dizzy inhaling it and only the bees could untangle one scent from another. I stand and listen. The grass sings with insects and airs, the very field from which I heard the wood-voices when I wrote ‘Letter from a Far Country’ almost 30 years ago. No birdsong in the woods today. Except for the crows, and the lament of a pair of collar-doves, August is silent. The birds have nothing to say, not love song, lullaby or territorial outcry of possession.
My senses are busy with all this while my mind hurts with small and big worlds, the private world of small irritations, and the big tragic world, too big and too tragic to speak of. The little and the big deaths.
I argue in my head with a novelist who said he hated poetry because it is ‘complicated and abstract’. My novelist friend is well-known and highly respected. Complicated? Abstract? Layered with secrets and surprises, observant, real, the best poetry so simple it can stop your heart. Shakespeare. Donne. Hopkins. Yeats. Emily Dickinson. R.S. Thomas. Hughes. And the living too, young and old. It was my fault. I said: most poets read novels, most novelists don’t read poetry. Five of us in the bar between events at a literary conference, the novelist, three passionate poetry fans, and one who likes to listen to poetry but prefers the pleasure of reading a novel for the ‘world’ it offers. We three poetry-lovers understood the total immersion in the new world of a novel, the page-turning power of the story. All five confessed that we rarely read a novel more than once. The poetry-lovers, however, owned complete addiction to reading a favourite poem over and over, searching for the secret of its power, finding something new at every reading yet never quite fathoming its mystery. It’s a completely different way of reading. There is no comparison. One moves you on, like a journey; one stops you breathless, as if you saw the burning bush.
Between novels, I’m re-reading Richard Fortey’s The Earth, An American Childhood by Annie Dillard, and I’ve newly discovered David Constantine’s Collected Poems. A novel is a journey without stations. Maybe that’s why novels are good to read on the train, or on those rare but unendurable sleepless journeys through the night when time is slow and the scenery dark and troubled. When the novel is finished I close the book and think about it as long as it remains unfolding in my mind. Hours, days, weeks, forever if it is a truly great novel, by Tolstoy, Dickens, George Elliot. ‘The Earth’ I read slowly, pausing to re-read a passage, to be amazed. I learn a new fact, new words. The excitement of discovery is good for a poet. I take up the notebook, scribble a phrase, an image. The poetry of ideas, physics, stones, natural history, facts simply and beautifully explained by an eloquent enthusiast schooled in a discipline new to me will always start a poem from its form.
And poetry! For days I couldn’t pass the first two of David Constantine’s poems that I read, on the last page in the book. Do other people read poetry books backwards? Should I arrange my next collection to allow for this? One is ‘A Trilobite in the Wenlock Shales’. I am stunned. It is the perfect example of what I’d like to offer all poetry sceptics. Look! I’d say. Listen! It’s a spell, a magic trick, a key to your heart made by a man who doesn’t even know you. This is the thousandth time it’s happened to me. One friend says the first poem that did it for her was Seamus Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist. Another cites Ted Hughes’ ‘Thrushes’. Simon Armitage quotes Hughes too. This is reading of quite a different order. This is physical. The poem has set down its mark in the strata of my mind like the long-extinct trilobite in the stone.
I’m watering tomatoes and French beans in the poly tunnel. A hot job. I consider the carnivorous ways of nature. The blackbird is with me, silent, scuttling close to me under the leafy arcades of French beans. Jac dozes, one eye open, on his favourite pile of old hay. It looks dangerous for the blackbird, so I reach into the beans to shoo her away, actually nudging her feathers. She scuttles off, trotting across the earth like a busy little woman shopping. The swallows wheel over the barn, diving in through the gap above the big doors with their beaks full of insects, then out and over the garden and fields, two adults and eight young from the first two broods, all feeding the last brood, nestlings which must get strong and learn to fly with only weeks to prepare for the flight to Africa. It’s beautiful and incredible to watch this a whole family of wild creatures engaged in such unselfish cooperation.
The forecast is good, a week of warm, dry weather promised. Our neighbour is coming to mow the hay tonight. Its seeding grasses and flowers include yellow rattle and tormentil. The inspector from Tir Gofal (Land Conservation) is pleased, as they are signifiers of unfertilised, chemical-free land. Their presence proves that our land is returning to nature. The flower and grass names are a litany, their names as heady as their smells. Next door, the fertilised, weed-killed fields are a bright, unbroken green, free of flower, molehill or worm.
When everyone else was hay-making it was too soon for us. Our ‘tir gofal’ status - land committed to what’s best for flowers, insects, wild animals, birds - means we are not permitted to mow before mid July. I’m always anxious and obsessed by weather forecasts until it’s done.
The hay is cut. Killed. In Welsh we ‘kill the hay’, lladd y gwair. It’s a good word for it. ‘Kill’ brings images: a field mouse, a red kite, an old suicide, and a more recent one. Cae Delyn, named for its harp shape, smells like vanilla, cinnamon, camomile. When I see this field from the other side of the valley, the combed rows of cut hay look like harp-strings. I love the smell, the curve of the hill drawn in contour lines of hay-rows, the prospect of big machines and the purposeful busy-ness of tedding, tossing the hay to dry in the sun, raking, baling, the swaying load making its way home. I’m off to Oxford for four days and will miss it all. I want to be at Christ Church walking those golden stone spaces, tutoring talented young poets, but I want to be here too.
Back from lovely Oxford. The hay is in. One hundred and sixty seven bales stowed in our neighbour’s shed. We don’t need it. We have enough left from last year to feed our little flock over winter. The smell fades. Left, only the breath of last year’s hay stored in the barn.
The end of August, before the children went back to school, a lovely family visit. On the last evening we thought we’d walk on the cliffs before driving to Aberaeron for dinner. We took the cliff-path from Cwmtydu to Castell Bach, the semi-circular Iron Age fort on the cliff’s edge. Below, above the tide-line on the little beach, lay a seal pup, pure white and only days old. The children had longed to see a seal and they scrambled down the path, banned from too close an approach. The pup lay very still, as they always do, but my binoculars showed its black eyes bloody. Abandoned. The gulls had begun their plunder.
All summer, war and murder, yet a dead seal-pup can still hurt. Like the young swallow Jac caught in the barn as David opened the big doors to let it escape. Slaughter out there in the world is huge, the numbers too great to imagine. I held the swallow. It was warm, perfect. These are metaphors for the greater slaughter, for the mess we make of things. Maybe that’s why the sight of a dead seal pup hurts.
We raced back along the cliff, driven by the sight of a vast black shower dragging its skirts over the sea. Soon we were stung by hailstones and soaked to the skin. We had to rush home for hot showers, towelled hair and dry clothes before dinner at the Hive-on-the Quay, which was all the more delicious for the adventure.
The family gone, I look back on summer. Birds. Reading and writing. Bees. A field of hay. They were my August preoccupations. The August silence of birds. The tame female blackbird. The extended family of swallows. Buzzards. Kites. A crowd of crows that swirl apparently without purpose, sometimes resting on five invisible wires in the middle distance, annotating the air with a tune you could sing. Everyone says they’ve never seen so many crows.
The bees are wild and tame: bumble bees, and honey bees stashing gold in the combs of their many-storeyed hive down at the end of the vegetable garden.
Right on cue the first chestnut leaves fall. Always the first. Spider’s webs with dew on them. Crane-flies. Plums. A few on the grass every morning, and if we’re lucky we get them before the slugs do. The minutes of light slip from the day. I dread the day the swallows go but my blackbird and her mate will stay with us all winter. I haven’t seen her scuttling the ground for a while, out shopping. She must be on the wing again now that the nestlings have flown. The robin is singing.
David has just walked in with a siani blewog on his finger. A woolly caterpillar! It’s not the first I have taken out three or four in the past week. Last night there was a frog in the hall. We have to watch our step. We can’t call our home our own these days.
We can’t keep up with the vegetable garden. Courgettes, beans, peas, cabbage, beetroot. All summer we’ve been eating lettuce, rocket and the immortal cavollo nero, the pull-and-pick-again Italian cabbage we planted in the tunnel last year, forgot, then discovered it flourishing there at the end of last winter. Potatoes we leave in the ground and lift them as needed.
Work, like the garden, overwhelms me. Readings, visits, commissions, writing jobs. I’m at the computer all day and dreaming work all night.
Charles came, with a big box of poems for me to judge the Ledbury Poetry Competition. We talked about reading poetry I’m still obsessed! - and the different ways we read. He said, ‘We don’t read a poem. We scan it. We say ‘this fits here, and this fits there’, and as he explained his hands acted it out, touching the imaginary poem on the table. This reminds me that Helen Vendler said, ‘a line of poetry is a glance.’ In one way the poem is a ‘song’, held true by its cadence and word-order ‘the right words in the right order’. The song holds it, almost exactly remembered. Later I think of a poem as a painting. After that first reading, certain words or phrases become luminous, and the shaping imagery of the poem reshapes in my mind. Then, instead of knowing its place, a luminous word lights the whole poem, like an ice-cube in a glass of water. Like a little red figure in a classical landscape.
We lifted the roof off the hive to check rising aromas of wax and honey, bees crawling through the little trapdoor into the roof-space of their many-storeyed house. The combs are full to the brim. They were busy down at the front door too, worker bees pushing all the drones out to die. Over winter it will be a female household. At dusk if you put your ear to the hive you can hear a million wings keeping the temperature just right. This was a fierce colony when it first arrived a few years ago. Now the bees are calm, and I don’t feel nervous about approaching the hive or working in the garden close to them. They must have a good queen, an ordered and benign royal household.
David accidentally mowed the top off a nest of bumble bees, setting a cloud of the insects into the air. They’d nested in a burrow hidden between the hedge bank, an acer and an old rose where we rarely manage to mow. The terrible blades of the ride-on mower made a hurricane of steel and air. In a moment all they had built was gone, their house open to the elements, a cluster of cells revealed, primitive and vulnerable not at all like the grand wax palaces of honey bees, whose well stocked larder must keep them alive through the winter. After a moment of consternation, the bumble bees set about the work of repair. In half an hour they’d built a dome of moss over the earth burrow. A bee mosque. I think of the hornets’ nest in France, and the man with a ladder who came to cut it from the eaves. A necessary massacre because our host was dangerously allergic to a hornet sting. And there, in a bucket, lay the smashed remains of a civilisation. The hornets had flown, but the little hornet grubs lay swaddled like babies doomed to die in the ruins of their nursery.
Another parable. Another ruined city. This stops us dead. Words are too big for themselves. Only the poetry of blues can speak for it. Prose says too much, and truth is more than fiction. How to lament and at the same time love nature? The red kite doesn’t know it’s beautiful. It knows only its own weight on the thermals. It is hunger. It burns, its yellow eye on the least stirring in the field below. I want that, the kite’s hunger, unselfconscious and undistractable, for nothing but the poem. But the deaths hurt.
The end of September, and suddenly it’s colder. The bumble bees have gone. I haven’t seen the swallows for a few days. The leaves are falling.
Yet still there’s the odd day that remembers summer. Two days in Cardiff, cloudless and warm. Five o’clock. The sun is hot. It’ll be over the yard-arm by now, so I’m sipping a glass of chilled white wine at a pavement table outside Brazz, the Millennium Centre restaurant. Time to reflect on the day, and watch people. I loved the schools thought I’d forgotten how to get kids writing, but it worked. I’m waiting for David, and the book launch at 7.
It’s that hour between workers going home and the first evening people arriving for a book launch, a concert, dinner. There are a few brisk walkers stepping out of the Assembly Building and heading for trains and car parks, some sight-seers in tee shirts strolling towards the bay, outcries of seagulls over stone and water. The new Assembly debating chamber to my left is nearly finished, a glimpse of the shining waters of the new lagoon, the headland at Penarth. The sea, held back by the barrage, used to come and go here. Under those calm waters are secret limbs of mud which, before the Docks became the Bay, were re-sculpted twice a day by the Taff and the Ely and the huge tidal rise and fall of the Severn estuary. I loved those rivers, that mud, the half-submerged boats and buoys and shopping trolleys, but I enjoy this gleaming surface too. Down there, I know, the secret rivers still flow, veins in the sea.
I remember a hot childhood day with my father when we came to see the big ships in the dock. We walked between one dock and another, and saw a small blue butterfly just here, fluttering in the salty sea-grasses.
It feels like September in France, evening in a sunlit square in a European city, a café table, a notebook, a glass of wine, and I’m glad of it.