Ornith-ology: The Poetry of Birds

James Canton finds a variety of ornithological offerings in this celebratory anthology produced by Poetry Wivenhoe and Mosaic, Colchester’s Poetry Society Stanza Group.

ornithologycoverAs humans, we are drawn to birds. We delight and wonder in their ways and we have done so for all our existence on earth. Some of the finest poetry written is on birds. Think of John Clare. Think of Keats and his nightingale. Think of the ecstatic prose-poetry of J. A. Baker glorying in his hunt for what he thought were the last peregrines of Essex. Then there’s the diary poetics of Gilbert White whose simple journal entry on the return of the swallows to Selborne on April 13th 1768 exemplifies that sense of birding glee: ‘Hirundo domestica!!!’

In Ornith-ology, there arrives the latest anthology of bird poetry in this finest of ancestral traditions. The poems are a spry and sprightly collective of pieces all gathered from the pens of Poetry Wivenhoe and Mosaic, Colchester’s Poetry Society Stanza Group, under the watchful eye of editor Tim Cunningham, whose own poetry often holds bird-based themes. Six sumptuous illustrations work wonderfully to frame the poems.

In ‘Crow’, Karen Dennison offers a depiction of a shamanic transformation as ‘I pull on the shape of the crow’s/ silhouette, wear it like a hooded coat’ and we feel the sense of a self-shifting. In ‘Curlew’, as in other offerings, there is a feeling of the local meeting exotic distant worlds. We step into lands where ‘the wind soughs across the Baikal steppes’ and there in the forbidding foreign soils of Siberia hear the same haunting cry of the curlew we hear on the marshes and estuaries of the Essex coastlines: ‘coorr-li, coorr-li’. Some of the poems show a welcome playfulness with gentle tales of avian adventures. In ‘He kept calm and carried on’, Stewart Francis glories in the pigeon who ‘hopped/into the Tube/at one station where we stopped.’ In ‘The Nightjar and the Swift’ by Candyce Lange, those two birds of the title meet ‘for lunch under the eave of a sixteenth century pub/in the tiny village of Nowhere, Norfolk.’

For many birders, the notion of capturing and captivating birds is quite wrong. In ‘Chained’ by Judith Wolton, the falcon only ‘flies as though free’. She is ‘head hooded/feet tied – the jesses clasped/ in the falconer’s hand.’ Yet the relations between human and bird are not always so badly bound. In ‘Benjamin Britten Walks Out in Spring’ Pam Job sees the composer with ‘ears that pick apart the songs of birds’ who catches snippets of a nightingale and ‘hears a cadenza; a cello perhaps’. In ‘Duck Removed from Gresley Tribute Statue at Kings Cross’, Mike Harwood remembers engine designer and duck fanatic Sir Nigel Gresley  whose ‘garter-blue Mallard’s distinctive livery/matches the duck’s iridescent purple blue flurry’ and whose duck-less statue at Kings Cross will tell only half his tale until ‘pro-duckers … will place duck tributes/ at the foot of the statue.’ So it should indeed be. For birds are our daily companions — in observing their ways our lives are lifted and enlivened. We should celebrate them and their various ways just as Ornith-ology does.

James Canton is course director of the MA in Wild Writing: Literature, Landscape and the Environment at the University of Essex. His book Ancient Wonderings: Travels in Prehistoric Britain is forthcoming with HarperCollins.

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