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Grasshopper Warbler by Mark Roper

Mark Roper. Dedalus Press

Poet Mark Roper ventures out along Waterford’s Anne River, hoping for a sighting, or hearing, of the grasshopper warbler

A GRASSHOPPER WARBLER is a small, inconspicuous, secretive bird, which likes to spend its time deep inside tangled vegetation, often near to water. Rarely seen, it’s known mostly by its song, a thin continuous trill or whirr, which sounds a bit like the slightly mechanical unreeling of a fishing line, rather than the ‘ticking’ of the grasshopper for which it was named. The trill can last, unchanging, for many minutes; as the bird moves its head from side to side, the volume can alter, and the song, uncannily, can appear to be coming from different directions.

You can hear examples of it here:
https://xeno-canto.org/species/Locustella-naevia

The warbler spends its winters among grassland at the southern edge of the Sahara. It comes here for spring and summer, and can be heard chiefly in the early morning and quite late at night. I had only ever heard the song on recordings, but in May I was told it could be heard in the Anne Valley, where a beautiful walk has been developed which follows the Anne River as it meanders through marshland, on its way to the coast in Annestown, on the Waterford coast.

I set out one evening with my partner Jane. For a long time we heard nothing, except of course for the mutterings of the river and all the other mysterious noises of a riverbank night. Then Jane said she could hear something which sounded right. “Is that it?” she asked me. I couldn’t hear anything. “That’s it, that’s it, listen, listen”, she kept exclaiming. Still I couldn’t hear anything. I began to get annoyed, and even to doubt that she was actually hearing anything at all. Of course I was really getting angry with myself, not wanting to admit to myself that I am beginning to be a bit deaf. And I was jealous, resenting the fact that she could hear it when I couldn’t.

Grasshopper warbler. Image credit: Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

I know that I can no longer hear high-pitched calls. But this trill is a mid-range sound. I had no difficulty hearing it on recordings. In the end I did hear a few small snatches, but never in the continuous way that Jane had heard it. A few weeks later I was relating the story to my brother-in-law, a much better ornithologist than me. He told me that surveys over the last years, around where he lives, in Rothbury, Northumberland, had revealed a sharp decline in the numbers of grasshopper warblers. This decline went against the national norm, and so was a bit of a puzzle. After a while, the person in charge of the surveys suddenly had a thought about the age profile of the volunteers doing the survey. They were all in their sixties and seventies. He decided to send out younger volunteers the next year; sure enough, there were many more birds heard! Although the sound is mid-range, for some reason it is one which older people can struggle to hear.

This made me laugh, and made me feel a bit better about my own experience. As I began to stop thinking about that evening as having been a bit of a failure, so I began to recollect the smells and sights and sounds of that walk by the river, the particular, rich texture of the evening. I started to sense a poem in the making.

I soon realized that description wouldn’t be enough – something had to happen.
I like Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s observation: “You go into a space and something has to have changed by the time you come out of it. I think that is sort of a description of a poem.” There has to be that change, however modest it may be.

Or, there has to be some kind of balance, or tension, between description and emotion. I was aware that I had shut myself off from a full appreciation of that evening, because I had been too focused at first on wanting to hear the song, and then had been too annoyed with myself for not being able to hear it. What began to develop in the poem was a dramatized rebuke to myself. Who from? Well, from the ‘god of all things’, of course! I had never heard of this fellow before, but now s/he made an appearance and was soon taking me to task.

How much we miss because of our unpredictable moods, how they take us over! We have our wonderful set of senses for the appreciation of this most wonderful world, and at least half the time our heads might as well be stuck in buckets. And yet, even though my head had been stuck in a bucket, the god told me I had in fact taken a lot in. It had been a special, shared walk.

Grasshopper Warbler

Walking beside a river at dusk.
Shadows starting to merge
the alder and the willow tree.

Stealthing the rushes, a moon –
a pale face breaking up
and breaking up again

in whorls and whims of current.
The silvery plip of a fish.
Comings and goings in reeds.

At last it unreeled itself,
the song we had come for –
a warbler’s grasshoppery whirr.

Only I couldn’t hear it.
Jane had to hear it for me.
And the world got that bit smaller.

The god of all things laughed.
So you couldn’t hear a song.
Tell me, where are you now?

Walking by the Anne river.
And tell me, what’s it like there?
Dark is round us like a glove,

reeds are creaking in their sleep,
we can taste the scent of water.
Tell me more. Bats are on the wing –

their half-seen threads seem
to draw the stars together.
And where would you rather be?

Nowhere else but here, my lord,
nowhere else but here.

— Mark Roper, January 2023

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My Daughter in Winter Costume by Mary O’Donoghue

Mary O'Donoghue. Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

US-based Irish poet Mary O’Donoghue on the background to her villanelle, My Daughter in Winter Costume, included in the 2017 Dedalus Press anthology The Deep Heart’s Core (eds. Pat Boran & Eugene O’Connell)

 

I saw the sculpture ‘My Daughter in Winter Costume’ (1922) at the Boston Athenaeum Library in 2010, in the exhibition John Storrs: Machine-Age Modernist. This daughter had a stoutness that delightedly flouted modernism’s lean, rawboned lines. This daughter was robust, and in that she seemed safe, even though she stood quite alone on a plinth in the centre of a large room.

Her endearing rotundity — the confusion of where she began and ended — led me to the villanelle. I admire this form because though it mandates nineteen lines the return of those repeated lines means you might, if so moved, outrun the nineteen lines and never come back. It makes sense that the form has its possible origins in dance: the virelai, a category of French chanson depending, like the rondeau, on the tight whirl of rhyme and reprise. (I might also suggest the villanelle’s relationship to ‘Lanigan’s Ball’, where line steps out and line steps in again.)

The poem was written before I met my stepdaughter, Niamh. But a poem can, I suppose, lie in wait for its return. I caught up with it, and it with me, one morning when zipping Niamh into a sleeveless quilted jacket. This jacket, deeply red and flocked with pink flowers, belonged to another child. Her name is written in forbidding felt tip pen inside the collar: Lily. That the jacket was so fat, and that it had looked after the child of a dear friend, seemed as heartening as that chubby sculptural form on the plinth in Boston.
That jacket was much-loved and is now outgrown. The villanelle form is perhaps a net: all those lines shuttling back and forth in repetition, still trying for the same thing as the poem — which is to say, safety.


My Daughter in Winter Costume

after John Storr’s sculpture (1922)

She is sealed like a bomb in her anorak.
Her face is flushed fruit under the hood.
She’s already moving away. I want to call her back.

At nine in the morning the sky is blue-black.
I think of hard falls, split lips, her blood.
But she’s sealed like a bomb in her anorak,

and shouting to friends on the tarmac,
a yardful of children, a tide, a flood
already moving away. I want to call her back,

I’m faint, suddenly starved with the lack
of her, and determined that she should
know, all sealed like a bomb in her anorak.

Grip the wheel. Radio on. The yakety-yak
of today’s talking heads on How to Be Good.
The morning is moving away. I want to call her back.

This is what it’s like to be left slack,
the cord frayed like I knew it would.
She is sealed like a bomb in her anorak,
already moved away, and I can’t call her back.

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Metathesis by Enda Coyle-Greene

Enda Coyle-Greene. Dedalus Press, poetry from Ireland and the world

Enda Coyle-Greene sketches the background to her poem ‘Metathesis’, included in the anthology The Deep Heart’s Core: Irish Poets Revisit a Touchstone Poem (Dedalus Press, 2017)


‘Metathesis’ began with a word I either didn’t know or had forgotten. Words are air to writers and it’s possible I’d absorbed this word in much the same way one breathes through someone else’s perfume in a crowd, or inhales a fug of over-roasted coffee beans while walking past a café. I may have parked it somewhere.

Poems are given to their makers in many ways, and, like most poets, I find it difficult to write ‘about’ a subject when challenged to do so. A poem has to offer me a way in and early drafts usually involve me looking for a door or even a window I can prise open. Poems are never given a pre-composition intellectual work-over.

All I had was a word, ‘metathesis’, and a feeling that keeping that word as a working title would affect the making or not making of the poem. I didn’t look the word up in my dictionary, at least not until I had a grip on what I was trying to do. Images began to surface — vivid, cinematic, and so ephemeral that I was almost afraid to reach out for them. Looking back now at the first of many early drafts, I’m surprised at how many elements from those first scribbled pages in a notebook — the rushing river, the trees, the weather — have survived into the final version.

As a rule, I try to keep myself out of the act of composition as much as possible; any poem I’ve ever over-thought at the outset has ended up filed away in a drawer with a stake driven through its lifeless heart. I had no intentions for ‘Metathesis’ except to try and grab some of those images and take them to the page.

Stephen Spender wrote: “Poetry is a balancing of unconscious and conscious forces in the mind of the poet, the source of the poetry being the unconscious, the control being provided by the conscious.” Examining those drafts now, I notice that I have numbered each hand-written line down to fourteen. This then is the point at which I must have started that balancing.

Catching a poem while it’s still out of reach is always the most terrifying part of the process. Too light a touch and it’s liable to get bogged down in abstraction, too heavy and it can be smothered. Once I move everything to the white screen, away from my handwriting, from my physical presence on the page and my imposition on the words, I pick up a trail and my instinct kicks in. That trail could be determined by the line breaks, the physical shape on the page, or by a single, ‘concrete’ image. It could be what I call the ‘axle’ word, the one around which the poem turns. It could be the rhyme, if there is one, or the form, again if there is one.

The British poet, Paul Farley has said that, ‘Engaging with form — any form — means there’s at least a chance that you’ll say something you weren’t going to say. Too much freedom gives you that rabbit-in-the-headlights thing.’ This is something with which I concur (and repeat so often that I am in danger of having it inscribed on my headstone). Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich have made similar comments. I’ve found that concentrating on the mechanics, so to speak, helps to take my mind away from any intentions I might have for long enough to allow the poem to come through. But I would write in form only if the poem demanded it.

As ‘Metathesis’ developed, I put the initial draft to one side. A second part was written; this rhymed, but with the end words set far apart, and an ‘eye rhyme’ towards the start, not loudly. What became the opening section of the triptych, unrhymed apart from the final couplet, came next. The initial draft I’d put aside ended up being the final part. I decided to experiment with rhyme patterns here to see what would happen. It surprised me by confirming ‘Metathesis’ as being the correct title for a poem concerned with the randomness of life — how a decision as seemingly quick and unfreighted with intent as simply moving one letter about in a word, for instance, can dictate the way in which a life is played out.

As for knowing when a poem is finished— well, I’m with Mr Yeats when he said that, “The correction of prose, because it has no fixed laws, is endless, a poem comes right with a click like a closing box.” I tend to keep going until I hear (or at least think I can hear) that ‘click.’

Even as part of a longer sequence, every poem has its own separate life while I’m working on it. Later, if it were to be placed between covers, I would hope that it should not only ‘click’ but talk to its neighbours. Like one of those vinyl records which, in pre-download days, we listened to all the way through from first track to last — albums written to be heard that way — a poem should be able to stand alone while keeping its place in the overall flow demanded by a book. The older I get, though, and the longer I’m writing, I’m finding that poems often arrive with their own unconsciously chosen place in that narrative already waiting.

But that’s another discussion altogether.


Metathesis

i

While she’s waiting for the lights to change
at City Hall, the storm begins; the wind
speeds the river, lifts dust, yet traffic holds
her captive on the pavement. Pulsating
at the red-to-green, the seconds counted-
out, her body’s dream-stuck lag behind her
ticking heels, the rush her heart’s dictating
to the slow, too slow of other people,
she at last steps off the street. Descended
to the car park’s underworld, on her knees
she tips her bag, finds keys, her ticket,
and becomes Persephone, reversing
fast into the dark — spinning on to where
she shouldn’t go, but has to, doesn’t care.

ii

She knows the story of Iris, rainbow
sent to a goddess with a god’s request —
an order really, it occurs to her
on the platform, the station almost empty,
a gape in the bird-flecked, seascape roof now
holding those seven curved colours, the rest
of the sky pale beyond the glass. Easter
Monday passes, cold as Persephone
who craved the warmth of red, orange, yellow —
the green, blue, indigo, violet, fast-
dyed by the tears of her goddess-mother;
the ground beneath her quaking, she can’t see
the train, still miles away, the ferrous dance
as track locks into track at its advance.

iii

Beyond the window’s skin, a scattered white,
the many weathers March defines as light,
all that’s left of the storm now its surface
of flotsam on the river she can’t hear.
Up-tumbled desperately from mud, it’s dragged
back to an underworld that’s mapped and snagged
in the hollow of her cup. Silted there,
are tea-leaf letters that she tilts, re-shapes
to other orders, different words, the three
attempts to change what she, Persephone,
can only know — bare trees that never felt
the rip and snap until it was too late,
that never had the chance to turn about
in seasons she has made, can’t live without.