Sitting still enough that the mosquitoes cannot see me,
I watch dark birds commuting to the shore.
Consoled by Feynman’s father as to bird names,
I dub their species Mini-Nevermore
and think, had I the Latin and were first,
there would be many mini-nevermores in books.
The more I see of them, the more like jackdaws
my mini-nevermores appear, or rooks.
Ignored by bird and bug, I cogitate
which species I address compiling stats,
suspecting it’s the one that cannot fly
but does name dogs not knowing names of cats.
Consoled by Feynman’s father as to bird names alludes to my favourite Richard Feynman story, as he told it:
‘The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, “See that bird? What kind of bird is that?” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!” But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: “See that bird?” he says. “It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.” (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)’
I think that I’ve been banned from Saint-Galmier.
The horrid rains that washed us down from Beaune
had stopped, but lengthy queues along the motorway
persuaded us to leave it in Lyon.
We cruised the D-routes till the dwindling day
conspired with tiredness and ennui to hone
our interest in hotels marked tranquille.
Saint-Galmier had one, for our ordeal.
The room is white, innocuous, and clean.
It opens on a garden with tall trees.
The pool is in the garden. Yes, we’ve seen.
And will one take one’s dinner here? Yes, please.
Apéritif? A sherry’s peachy keen.
That’s sherry brandy, waiter. Please surcease
insisting that we ordered it. La carte
before the hors again. Think of my heart!
Bad dinners in this country are bad luck
but happen once or twice each twenty years.
Tonight is one such time: the sous chefs pluck
the quail I planned for dinner to its ears
then poach it with the salad in the buck-
et used for chilling wine. The bird appears,
much as its mother knew it, with its head.
I plop it in the bucket, go to bed.
‘The sheep eat grass. You eat the sheep. Voila!
You are eating sunshine paused along its route
though living creatures,’ laughs the carrion crow
uneasily. He knows he’s next. The beetles
shudder gracefully, for bugs. The mites and smaller
scavengers unnamed put on their bibs.
It had been a normal mid watch for the crew of the Windchill Attic
until Dante had sent them selfies from Circle Seven
and they noticed that behind him in the gore
stood a laughing jackdaw miming ‘never more’
or something. ‘Won’t the Chaplain be ecstatic
when we show him this?’ the Mate said. ‘This proves Heaven
must be real too. I can’t wait to get ashore
and show him this.’ The Captain woke and swore.
He sat up in his captain’s chair and grumbled.
He scrutinised the photographs. He demanded
that the communications officer come to the bridge.
They found said person by the wardroom fridge
and told him. He said, ‘I’ll be there,’ and mumbled
‘toot sweet’ or something. He came up empty handed
and saluted. ‘Look at that jackdaw on the ridge
behind Dante,’ said the Captain, ‘and abridge
that stream of what in the selfie seems invective
that the bloody bird is spouting.’ The corpulent COMMO
saluted again and asked the O.O.D.
to authorise a light so he could see
better all the pixels in the reflective
speech if it were that. The selfie seemed a promo,
he thought, but of what? My lip reading skills won’t be
any use with a bird. Is that jackdaw mocking me?
This bird’s Chapter One has ended.
Fake epic, abbreviated,
bird’s body in the unkempt grass.
Mallard tries to stare me down.
He wins. I win. We draw.
Across the canal, grey cat watches red.
A mower’s motor irritates.
The flowing water’s shades of green
float first fall leaves past us,
mallards, cats duck, me,
and the body of the bird.
The first boat has a rusted rudder.
The second has new, blue covers.
The coot that is silent
swims towards me, and dives.
She surfaces, eating weed.
To whom was this merle’s epic real?
Warmth and mites address the corpse:
its feathers, skin and song.
A mallard splurges wake.
Birds so loud they hurt my ears
contest the chestnut’s branches.
The sander quiets us all,
doing honest maintenance work.
Four more mallards paddle by.
The dead merle’s feathers stay still
while wind ruffles the red cat
as it stares down a floating feather.
What can be stayed, after execution?
I watch the red cat watching water.
Tall weeds dip purple flowers.
Shadows lengthen long enough
to cover more than the merle.
I told you the dirt in the cup
was coffee and you drank
the milk believing me
until you read these lines
although they’re really true
or were until the plover,
perhaps a gull, flew over.