I’m sure I heard that dogs can smell cancer in us – they just don’t know that the information might be useful to us.
There is a tradition, though, when disaster looms, of warnings given by animals – who will even speak at times. C S Lewis drew on it in That Hideous Strength when, before an impending earthquake he writes:
One had heard his donkey, another her cat, say “as clear as clear”: “Go away. ”
Paul Farley speculates that the disappearance of sparrows – once so familiar, ubiquitous, companionable – is a conscious withdrawal, as these old friends leave us to rattle off to hell in our handcarts all by ourselves. Of course, if we were still woken by dawn choruses, the unwonted quiet in the mornings, outside our bedroom windows, would be as clear an alarm as you could imagine.
The poem is, For the House Sparrow, in Decline:
Your numbers fall and it’s tempting to think
you’re deserting our suburbs and estates
like your cousins at Pompeii; that when you return
to bathe in dust and build your nests again
in a roofless world where no one hears your cheeps,
only a starling’s modem mimicry
will remind you of how you once supplied
the incidental music of our lives.
I’ve just put a box of plums in the icebox, for breakfast.
Mits off, William, you gannet!
Many years ago my then brother in law made us a mix tape. It was funny, eclectic and filled with surprises.
It also included poetry – of the wild, beat, ecstatic kind – that he was exploring at the time. Listening to the high incantatory voice of the poet; the golden flow of images and words is a memory of long car journeys into Wales – entranced and dreaming.
The downside is that I never knew who it was or what he was reading.
We lost the tape years ago – and anyway nothing we have would play it now – but I never forgot the poem and today, looking for something else entirely I came across Frank O’Hara’s Ode to Joy and recognised it straight away!
Better yet, here’s a recording of him reading it:
and here’s the Ode itself:
We shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying
on the pretty plains or in the supper clubs
for our symbol we’ll acknowledge vulgar materialistic laughter
over an insatiable sexual appetite
and the streets will be filled with racing forms
and the photographs of murderers and narcissists and movie stars
will swell from the walls and books alive in steaming rooms
to press against our burning flesh not once but interminably
as water flows down hill into the full-lipped basin
and the adder dives for the ultimate ostrich egg
and the feather cushion preens beneath a reclining monolith
that’s sweating with post-exertion visibility and sweetness
near the grave of love
No more dying
We shall see the grave of love as a lovely sight and temporary
near the elm that spells the lovers’ names in roots
and there’ll be no more music but the ears in lips and no more wit
but tongues in ears and no more drums but ears to thighs
as evening signals nudities unknown to ancestors’ imaginations
and the imagination itself will stagger like a tired paramour of ivory
under the sculptural necessities of lust that never falters
like a six-mile runner from Sweden or Liberia covered with gold
as lava flows up and over the far-down somnolent city’s abdication
and the hermit always wanting to be lone is lone at last
and the weight of external heat crushes the heat-hating Puritan
whose self-defeating vice becomes a proper sepulcher at last
that love may live
Buildings will go up into the dizzy air as love itself goes in
and up the reeling life that it has chosen for once or all
while in the sky a feeling of intemperate fondness will excite the birds
to swoop and veer like flies crawling across absorbed limbs
that weep a pearly perspiration on the sheets of brief attention
and the hairs dry out that summon anxious declaration of the organs
as they rise like buildings to the needs of temporary neighbors
pouring hunger through the heart to feed desire in intravenous ways
like the ways of gods with humans in the innocent combination of light
and flesh or as the legends ride their heroes through the dark to found
great cities where all life is possible to maintain as long as time
which wants us to remain for cocktails in a bar and after dinner
lets us live with it
No more dying
Slow I know, but I have just caught up with the fact that a Trinidadian poet, Vahni Capildeo, won last year’s Forward Prize for Poetry for best collection.
This, from a Guardian article, is what the chair of judges said:
Capildeo’s collection [is] “a book you will forever be opening”.
“She is trying to articulate something quite hard to pin down and isn’t afraid to boldly take risks in language and layout,” Booker said. “It is a book that no one else could have written; it is her DNA, her stamp. Every time you open that book, you’ll find something peculiar, something exhilarating, something new, something exquisitely crafted.”
“[Measures of Expatriation] is almost like a swan – calm on top of the water, and underneath it is pedalling furiously, to create a new vocabulary in terms of the layout and language used, the lexicon it uses.”
One of the commenters underneath the article linked to this lovely short of Vahni reading three of her poems.
Back in 1971 my sister – 11 years old – bought me a book of poetry with a title that would now, I guess, be considered offensive.
It had been published first in 1964 and reprinted in 1969. It cost 4/-. A lot of pocket money in those days. I loved it and still have it on my shelves.
The collection of poems include modern and traditional African verse, some American poets and this – rich, vivid, alert, conscious of both past and present – from Derek Walcott, who has died today:
When we visited Snape late last year I came across this book – one long poem – by Julia Blackburn.
I am busy with death
And the fact of it
Because my husband died
Three months ago
Almost to the day,
The landscape of my altered world
Between before and after.
The verses are woven around some beautiful photographs of starlings in formations, flying. Murmurations.
The poet describes the connection between the movement of the birds and her grief:
The way they pull between a celebration of living
And an intimation of things unseen…..
Starlings make me able to believe
That everything will be alright
In its own way
And that is good to know
-If it is knowing –
Perhaps it is more to do with trust.