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.
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
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
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.
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, two, the 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
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
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
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,
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
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.