It’s National Poetry Day and I’m clearing old woody clippings from an allotment that is, thanks to Rosa, coming back to life like something in Frances Hodgson Burnett. As with yesterday’s digging, I am accompanied by a robin. It is friendly enough to allow me to photograph it from close up. I love its jet-jewel eye and the way its chest moves as a bubbling song comes from somewhere in its tiny body. I love its daring proximity – it flies so close at one point, a wing brushes my leg.
Its closeness and seeming trust mean I am able to photograph it – but miss the Mafiosi magpies who swoop and bicker close by, and am nowhere near fast enough for the dive of a sparrowhawk as it twists into the trees, after some luckless songbird. After the robin? My little friend?
The theme of this poetry day is truth, and I do wonder how truth exhibits itself – or is exhibited in Nature Writing. There are the monumental and disturbing images from Underland, and the small but detailed work of taxonomy and the science of magnifiers; there is the work from Peter Fiennes on woodland, and the research from Mat about language and landscape – and then there is this robin, and the magpies and the hawk. Guardian nature writing; Caedmon; Gilbert White; Edgelands and the Shell Country Alphabet: they all bring something to the kaleidoscape that seeks to explore and explain and act as advocate. There is a cloud of witnesses here.
But to think about truth in Nature Writing (why those upper case letters?) and a short poem I was brought back – by that killer robin, terror of the worms I was turning over, and by the sparrowhawk that set the wrens in ear-achingly shrill panic – to the ambiguity of our gaze. The robin as my friend – or as belligerent defender of her/his turf? Sparrowhawk as dangerous thief – or as a beautiful trajectory on an autumn day?
And that gave me the poem for today, a marvel in concise, painterly imagery from Anne Stevenson, and a sharp reminder of the way our truth, our human truth is only ours, not universal:
The sea is dark
by virtue of its white lips;
the gannets, white,
by virtue of their dark wings.
Gannet into sea.
Cross the white bolt
with the dark bride.
Act of your name, Lord,
though it does not appear so
to you in the speared fish.
The sparrowhawk didn’t get the robin, by the way.