For the requisite wine I head to the harbour to write.
After watching for a minute the zoo on the sailboats today
I give up on those facts which are not what a reader’d believe
such as the man on a yacht with a bone China plate on his knees
who eats like a dog would if Rover or Lassie had hands,
and the two men in short shorts who are mooring their boat on the quay
while they smile at each other more ardently than most couples do.
Then there are the English, who speak — you can tell: they do not move their mouths —
imparting banalities with a welcome so-long-vowel wait.
There are Germans and Spaniards, and also a jackdaw one knows
and a ponderous Pole who is checking for runs in her hose.
Under her table a terrier, shamed by the way people eat,
pretends it’s asleep by remembering to shiver its legs.
The next-table lady who is biting her syllables sharply
looks down at a text every time that her husband speaks up.
How stern she appears, sitting there as she stares down the menu —
or catalogue, is it? — as if she’s remembering back when
she, attired in woad paint, was a pin-up rum punch for the Normans.
Her husband tries lightening things up: he drinks himself blind,
which is slow heavy business, the bottle-blonde waitress distracted
by the jackdaw who teases my snacks, and by the tan terrier’s trembling
and by a bellicose Spaniard who is telling all tolls are atomic.
‘Did you get that?’ the Pole asks. I realise she’s speaking to me.
I’m at sea now, absorbing Merlot like a fly-about magpie
fined for picking up bits from a windswept white rough-water beach
and for cosseting this summer’s rude stage as a fair-weather friend.
‘If you really looked what would you see?’
my table mate jackdaw enquires of me.
I look at him and we both lose
ourselves in snack-filled intervals.
Small children cycle to and fro.
Gulls imitate a pregnant crow.
At dusk, above a script I cannot read
gulls gyre and shriek, imitating maids
that fuelled Vikings in their dreams
of conquering Saxons, quaffing mead.
I drain the glass, embrace the glow
and tell the jackdaw it’s time we go.
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.)’
‘It’s too early,’ says the jackdaw. ‘I’m not an owl 🦉’
He speaks on our private channel. ‘It’s the hour,’
he adds, ‘for roosting. Down there stray cats 🐱 yowl.
With my flock I’m safe here in the Great Church tower
and I plan to stay that way. No need to fly afoul
of whatever waits in darkness to devour
us avians who are taught to do what’s right.
Goodnight again. I’ll call you at first light.’
‘What are the square roots of minus seven?’ the jackdaw asks.
He laughs at my blank stare, says, ‘Try minus four.’
For me that works no better. Of the thankless tasks
he foists on me, this will have been the one that wore
my patience out. I threw my pencil, swore
that there’d be blackbirds on the menu, not the singers,
but the corvid sort, unless he stopped his zingers
about my weak mathematics. ‘Blackbird pie!’
I shouted. ‘No need to get your trousers in the wringers,’
he cawed. ‘It’s time I taught you about i.’
‘You should say IS the square root,’ my inner pedant snarled,
‘and I as a single letter is capitalised,
and anyway “i” should be “me”. Don’t tell me merle
is de rigueur in pie. A euthanised
jackdaw can be as juicy. Don’t act surprised.’
‘My takenabackness,’ the bird said, ‘comes from you.
Imaginary numbers are nothing new.
The useful “i” – small letter – is the square of negative one.’
He pecked at my iWatch meaningfully and flew
away and left me ignorant and blue.
P.S. The jackdaw, having flown away at the end of our get-together described above, came back and deposited the above screenshot and this link on my desk http://bit.ly/2cZi7oz
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?
A susurration of incoming rain provokes the jackdaws’ caws.
The darkening clouds blank off the sun that shone so bright at dawn.
The summer day fades right away and Calvinistic laws
of climate here make weekends drear. Fog rolls across the lawn.
Monday was a sunny day. From Tuesday on it was hot
while we were locked in offices without a chance to shirk
our duties and enjoy outside. Vacationers we’re not.
On weekdays we pursue one thing: we live to go to work.
The weekend is ours. Two entire days to do just what we will.
We can swim and surf and sunbathe if we can survive the chill.
What are these jackdaws saying? I don’t know.
I need translations for the parts I hear.
The conversations of this smallest crow
come through my window loud and klaxon clear
but are more Greek than English to my ear.
These jackdaws lodge most seasons in the tower
of the giant church and grace the sunset hour
with flying squads whose aerial antics bring
them my applause, but now when blossoms flower
they nest as couples, celebrating Spring.