Poems from A Curlew’s Cry

A CURLEW’S CRY

Hearing a distant curlew’s bubbling cry
My heart with hiraeth fills. *
This sad, lonely sound distils
Sun and wind on Wales’ hills.

* Hiraeth – A Welsh word meaning ‘a longing to be home’.

RHYTHMS OF THE SEA

When I was born the sunlit, sparkling sea
Patterned the ceiling, light delighting me.
And as I grew, that sea was always near,
Gulls’ cries and wave sounds ever in my ear.
Barefoot among the worm-casts on the rippled sand
I wandered free, my little body tanned
By salty breezes that the grown-ups shun,
My child’s eyes narrowed by a hazy sun
That warmed the pools bait-diggers left behind.
A seagull’s feather was a special find,
Held high, vibrating, thrumming in my hand
Then thrown aloft to spin towards the land,
Forgotten in a moment. Something new
Would catch my eye; a bright green copper screw,
Sand-polished glass, a piece of wood
Cuttlefish bones or whelks eggs, each was good
To handle, smell, abandon – half a minute’s joy –
Each common thing a treasure to this little boy.

I learned the run of currents, times of tides,
I knew the sandbar where the flatfish hides,
I’d find the oyster-catchers’ hidden nest
Amongst the flotsam. Their alarm made manifest
Through plaintive piping, tricks with broken wings
Decoying me away. But other things
Along the high tide mark would catch my eye
A driftwood dragon, seaweed crisp and dry,
(My favourite was many bubbled bladder-wrack,
Pinching each black balloon to make it crack.)
Dead guillemots, striped Brasso tins
Dried dogfish with sandpaper skins
And soggy sailors-hats blown overboard
Such riches – I’d collect a hoard
And leave them on the beach, run home for tea
Tomorrow would bring more in from the sea.

Then there were boats! Learning to row and sail.
My brother’s voice “Don’t let the painter trail”.
The skill of sculling with a single oar,
The thrill of landing on an unknown shore
Across the bay, to sleep beneath the sky,
Only a sail to keep the bedding dry.
Rising at dawn to catch an off-shore breeze
Watching for cats-paws grey on sunlit seas,
Feeling the ropes as stiff as rods, the canvas taut
Heeling with gunwale dipping, braced against a thwart
Then sudden calm, bow-wave and bubbling wake subside,
To drift in silence on the morning tide.
Alert for eddies warning ‘sunken rocks’
We’d drift along. We had no clocks,
The angle of the sun, the rate of flow,
Sounds from the land, the way the seabirds go
Told us the hour. So were these early years to me
A life in tune with tides and subtle rhythms of the sea.

A DROP OF DOGGEREL

I interviewed a man last night
Who’d just come up from Tooting
Though blind from birth his claim to fame
Was – he loved parachuting.
I asked him how he knew the time
To brace himself for landing
He answered with a ready smile
At my not understanding.
“It’s easy, Mike,” the man replied
“I have this simple knack
I know when I am near the ground
My guide dog’s lead goes slack.”

THE CHURCH BY THE LAKE

The wind of Spring was singing in the churchyard pines,
Wavelets were sparkling, dancing in the sun.
The heavy door swung open to my push.

Inside was silence.
In this House of God,I prowled about,
Reading the tablets on the wall,
The roll of Honour, names
Of men who left their lakeside homes
To die.
The flowers from Sunday last
Fading and drooping here, today.

Near to the door, a book invited me:
PLEASE PRAY FOR THESE…
‘A mother, very ill.’
‘A child dying of leukaemia.’
‘People of Bosnia,
Sudan,Somalia.’
A catalogue of human grief.
Not praying, I read on,
My vision blurred.
‘A son on drugs.’
A missing daughter, gone from home
To God knows where.’

I closed the book
And turned to look along the quiet nave
To where a cross gleamed gold.

The heavy door swung open to my pull.

The wind of Spring was singing in the churchyard pines,
Wavelets were sparkling, dancing in the sun.
A mallard flew a cross across the sky,
Marsh marigolds heaped mounds of treasure round my feet.
A pair of swallows, following blind instinct all the way
From Africa, swooped past.
A buzzard mocked me, mewing overhead.
Then, on the wind of Spring,
I heard God crying in a curlew’s call.

CHESIL BEACH

Today there is no wind.
The sea breathes deep and slow
Wet pebbles nudge each other, steal a kiss
And chuckle at their daring.
Portland lies, a lazy dog, facing the land,
Its nose between its paws.
The gulls, disconsolate
Sit bored along the ridge,
Peck at their toes.
Today there is no wind.

Today the wind is in the East.
Waves quarrel, run ashore, then
Change their minds, draw back.
The pebbles groan,
Clatter and tinkle,
Knock their neighbours, try to get away
Give up, surrender, nestle down.
Bright Portland sniffs the air, alert.
Gulls ride the waves off-shore and wait,
This won’t last long.
Today the wind is in the East.

Today the wind is in the West.
Green breakers tower, check,
Hold their breath, crash down – to be devoured
By those that roar and chase behind.
Bruised pebbles scream and churn
Grinding their neighbours and themselves.
No pause – see, here’s a plank – toss it ashore –
This stone is bigger – pass it on. Now –
Pass it on along
Towards where wind-whipped Portland cowers,
Half-hidden by smoking spray.
Above, the gulls float joyously
White wings outstretched,
Tracing the contours of the living beach.
Alive, alive. Alive today.

Today the wind is in the West
And I am here, sea-salt upon my lips,
Alive!

KISSING HANDS

Helen,
When first I saw
Your baby hand, born fingerless
I cried and put it to my lips
A vain attempt to ‘kiss it better’.

Later I learned to kiss each hand
To show I didn’t mind
And let you know that every part
Was just as precious as the rest.

Now, when I watch you play
Handling each problem with such joy and zest
I kiss your hand
From sheer respect

I never notice which.

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