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Reflections: A Counting Song

This reflection by Professor Angela Leighton, Senior Research Fellow in poetry at Trinity, takes the form of a poem.

A couple of months ago I wanted to light a candle for a friend in hospital, but the churches were all closed.  Of course, candles can be lit anywhere but, as I tried to explain to a colleague, it’s not quite the same – at least not for me, with my half-Italian upbringing.  So instead – a curious alternative, I know – we drove out one evening to a nature reserve in the fens to hear the bitterns boom.  It was a last chance before their mating call ends in May.  The world was deserted, the A14 empty, but the reserve was open, and between about 7 and 9 we were rewarded by the sound of those unearthly intermittent hooos from the reed beds.  Perhaps their unearthliness was my equivalent for a candle . . .

In the weeks that followed I found myself reading the works of the seventeenth-century physician, naturalist and writer, Thomas Browne, whose weird mix of scientific exactness and extravagant Latinisms appealed to something in me, perhaps in part because Browne worked and lived through the Great Plague of 1655-6.  He also, I discovered, kept a pet bittern—they were common then – and speculated about the mechanism of its cry, surmising that it was produced by an inhalation, not exhalation, of breath.  In fact the bittern’s boom does not issue from the wind-pipe at all, but the oesophagus.

These inconsequential facts then subconsciously built up, as they do, mixing with other memories, worries, hopes, into a poem.  Here it is: ‘A Counting Song’.  It’s haunted by another old counting rhyme, ‘Green Grow the Rushes, O’, and recalls that night when we counted the bird’s tremulous booms, up to five at a time, while thinking about other kinds of count: death-counts, breath-counts, the beat of music gone silent, but also, of course, the count that you listen for in the rhythm of a poem.

Professor Angela Leighton
Professor Angela Leighton

A Counting Song

(in times of Corona Virus)


It was dusk, late April, but midsummer warm.

Through the reeds it sounded: who? oh.

Who knows? the translation of a ghost in note-form.

That day no-one spoke for unspeakable sorrow.


Perhaps all I heard was a wing on a thermal

or a five-barred gate in the breeze expel

a conch-shell’s harmonic, low glottal.

A sound-thought carries further than a yell.


The comma of a moon made a curb or crook.

Friend, are you there?  Here’s a pause for breath.

Nothing is written in the sky’s darkening book.

Self’s who, sorrow’s oh.  And the silence underneath.


From a reedy outcrop fringing the void

one note.  Then stop.

It seems the faintest apparition of a noise

a presence caught

on the brink of the imagined.  Perhaps a voice

tuning to call

or a dreamy upbeat, the point of a silence.

(Friend, is it yours?)

The only music in a silent time

this unanswered moan.

One–was it one?  Like the stroke of a bell

mechanical, deadpan.

Then nothing. A tease.  (The musicians are silent

the concerts forbidden

and the world listens to multitudinous breaths

gasping for air.)


Then two, two notes. Like a rumour starting

to fret along a nerve.

Sad slow tymps for a marche funèbre

pitched and counting.

Or else a bassoon warming its woodwork

punctual, hooey

and inexpressive as a practice-drill.

Then I remember

what I knew, forgotten, a word for the thing:

bittern, that rare bird.

observed from any that walketh the fens

Thomas Browne averred.

(Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

It was plague time then.)

The physician-poet noted this same

refrain from nowhere

earth’s auscultation, seismal, probing.

A low pulse in things.

No tune, but just a counting rhyme

a rhythm in time

like two, twothe lilywhite boys.

(Was it someone we knew?)

(Friend, are you there where they count in thousands

names and lives

where breath comes hard, missing its cue?)

These flats lie quiet.

Earth’s a footnote under loaded skies.

One star sends a sign.

And I listen again for that woodwind entry:

two, and counting.

(No music played where breath’s too short

to sound a note.)

But a bittor maketh that mugient noise

the physician observed

the poet improvised: mugient – a moo.

No sound now crosses

the comb of rushes that strokes the horizon.

There’s nothing to see

in those grassy screens twitched by the hold

of a shifty bird

that clambers, freezes, in the reedy stalks

invisibly cryptic

streaked and pointing.  Then another note shocks

the deepening dusk

half bump, half boom, a queer ventriloquism. 

That calling gong

repeats its tally: three, four.

Four for a ghost-breath.

(Friend, can you hear the unsinging bird?

its bottled-up summons?)

I breathe deep in as if I could save

some air, music

to replenish your store, feed the supply

you need to live.

 the inspiration or hailing in of air,

affordeth a sound –

the physician surmised.  No flautist’s flutter-tongued

circular breathing

but a slow peristaltic lunge or gulp

a burp or hiccough.

I hear that pondering note repeat

five times. Then pause.

Five for the symbols at your door.

Five, a quincunx.

A full-fathom-five of notes implore

like something lost

the tiny godhead of a pathogen run

amok in the bloodstream.

Five for the symbols: pentagram or Passion?

Or just five knocks

at the door’s blank face that shuts you from us.

(You breathe in numbers, friend

clocked and checked.)  Acute respiratory

distress syndrome.

But distress too light for the high-tec monitored

life or death

you suffer, beside the digital tick-

tock that silently

works your lungs: trachea, bronchus,

pleura, alveolus.

The physician laboured (it was plague time then)

and wrote his case notes

composed his prose to the rise and fall

of a breathing rhythm:

The sicknesse which God so long withheld from us

is now in Norwich –

letter to his son, 22 September


The counting rhyme that counts us in,

and out, must time

the lungs that hurt, the heart that skips

the tunes we hum

the words we pick.  I send this greeting

in time, like them,

across the fens that feather the skies

with rushes, O.

Friend, can you hear these sound crossings

these calling pips?

The bird that has no song to sing

hones one note.

Then stops . . . to let the quiet carry


Perhaps your magician ear might shape

old hearsays of us

in the locked smiddy of your listening, where

that bony blacksmith

hammers the silence to a dream memory

a hallucinating rhythm.

As when the music ends you hear

the architecture

of a wished intention, a finish extended

memorised as gift.

Friend, can you hear?  the beat that seconds us

by the minute

the count that repeats repeats repeats

beneath our melodies

litanies, tom-toms, the heart’s dance feet.

And then this bird . . .

that seems a wishing in the night’s dark cover

and ghosts a prayer.

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