Longing for the swifts

Sabrina’s Stream at Kempsey on Severn by Benjamin Williams Leader

High summer approaches. For me this time of year is very much associated with that most aetherial of birds, the swift. I’m waiting eagerly for them to arrive.  Remembering sitting in the garden at peace on summer afternoons; looking upwards into depth upon depth of blue, where the screaming swifts are seen looping through the sky in their great, unhindered gyres. So sad that their numbers have declined in recent years, not enough people have proper wooden eaves under which they can make their nests anymore.

The poet Geoffrey Hill, once in old age sitting on the banks of the Severn, wanted also to celebrate them, as part of his rich meditation on love, old age, the contradictions of reason and desire, and the alchemical power of imagination – Scenes from Comus. Earlier in the sequence, in the depths of winter, where a harsh Icelandic light seemed to irradiate the scene with nuclear intensity, he had established ‘that we are / at once rational, irrational, possessed by reason. / That this is no reason for us to despair.’ Then later in the year, by the river that holds so many associations for him, the high aerobatics of those birds seem to figure for him both reason in coils and in liberating guise:

Sharpened, sharpening, the swifts’ wings

track and loop back clear skeins

through vanished arches.

See in what ways the river

lies padded – no, dashed – with light.

Show whether the imaged clouds

are litanies or escorts.

A White Throated Swift

The scene is half real, half imagined. He appears to remember some long vanished branch line railway over the river through which the swifts in his mind are still swooping. ‘Clear skeins’ – the ambivalence of being knotted and yet without substance, the looping of memory around things invisible yet present, the V of the swan’s flying formation (its more normal useage for birds) echoing the arrowed V of the swift’s wings. And the light on the River too is ambivalent – both soft and sharp, revealing and concealing what it partly reflects of the sky above. So these things of the mind, clouds in the sky, may be litanies – the heart’s repetitions, past habits of petition & condemnation, or escorts, leading us onwards to the unknown future. Geoffrey Hill has helped me to understand why I love this bird and its looping flight so much. They are both the past in its coiling gyres and the unknown future with all its possibilities, searing the air with wild, joyful screams.

Railway viaduct over the River Severn with Shrewsbury in the background by Agnes Blunt








New Collection from Buddhist Poet

Review SolitudeFrontCoverThe Solitude of Small Doors, Ananda (Stephen Parr)

Wolf at the Door, Bristol 2015, £11.52, pb, 250 pp

(To order go to Lulu.com and search for Stephen Parr

Reviewed by Ratnagarbha

Ananda’s major new collection, The Solitude of Small Doors has a distilled reflectiveness about it. We get the feeling that this is the fruit of a lifetime of reflection, observation and wrangling with the intractibles of this precious, confusing all to brief event we call human life. But human life, in Ananda’s universe, is always reflected and refracted through things, things vividly alive that speak to the poet, each in its own idiosyncratic voice. The kind of things you find in dank back yards:

ropes that parted like rotting

asparagus at the lightest touch.

(‘Sudden Pianos’) Continue reading “New Collection from Buddhist Poet”

Petrarch, Sonnets in translation


Francesco Petrarca (July 20, 1304 – July 19, 1374), commonly written in English as Petrarch, was one of the earliest humanists. Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero‘s letters is often credited with initiating the 14th-century Renaissance. His love sonnets were admired and imitated throughout Europe during the Renaissance and became a model for lyrical poetry. They were all written to express his love for a mysterious highborn lady called Laura, who certainly never returned his affection and may not even have existed. Nevertheless his anguished sonnets to her set the standard for lyrical love poetry up until the present day. Not so well known and celebrated as Dante in the English-speaking lands, his story is fascinating and his emotions are as fresh now as they were hundreds of years ago. Here is my attempt to translate his first sonnet to Laura, in its original rhyming scheme.

Sonnet I

All you who’ve heard in wandering scraps of rhyme
The sighs on which I fed my foolish heart
When in youth’s confusion I felt the dart
Of love – I was not then what I’ve become –
Who mark the reasoned sorrows that are found
Throughout my songs, of hope and fear bred,
I pray, if ever for love your heart has bled,
Then may your pity be with pardon crowned.
But now too well I see how my good name
Has been embroiled in long lived public scorn.
Myself I must convict of foolish schemes,
And the fruit of all my foolishness is shame
With deep repentance of the knowledge born
That life’s sweet joys are merely fleeting dreams.