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Stirred For A Bird

Birds of prey in literature

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

A launched squadron of paragliders is floating off the east side of Midsummer Hill. Canopies of every hue are vivid against August blue. I watch their artificial flight for a while then walk north for a mile or so. Now I’m looking west to Wales from the Worcestershire Beacon, highest point of the Malverns. There is a fair wind today, carrying the crows further than they intended. Blown off course, they soon recover but clearly must work to keep control, just managing to make resting at the nearest tree seem something intended. Out of nowhere, I see a kestrel sitting on the wind below me, using the ridge lift to help it hover over prospective prey. The thrill of the skill of the bird seen from above in all its vital vigilance is an astonishing sight.

Whenever I see this aerobatic display, I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s wonderful sonnet, ‘The Windhover’. It is a poem that dazzles and daunts in equal measure. Like the creature it describes, it is beautifully made. The careful crafting of the sonnet form he chooses is a perfect poetic canvas for its subject, one that celebrates essential creaturehood, ‘the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!’

Like Hopkins, I am always awestruck by the control, consummate flying ability and ‘brute beauty’ of a kestrel but fail as I flail for the words that might do it justice. As a boy, my heart also ‘stirred for a bird’ when my father first pointed out this little falcon, at once still on the wing-quivered air, then scribing itself in the sky with scything arcs. Now, as a poet, I admire the achievement and mastery of this astonishing poem. In the octave, Hopkins ‘inscapes’ the kestrel’s physical appearance and aerobatic prowess in mimetic, athletic lines:

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
 dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! Then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Hopkins didn’t just catch sight of the kestrel, he inscaped it, apprehended its haecceitas or ‘thisness’, a term he learnt whilst reading Duns Scotus. Satisfyingly, the verb ‘caught’ is cognate with the Italian, capire, ‘to understand’ or ‘capture the meaning of’, signalling a poetic insight beyond straightforward visual apprehension. The complex of vowel amplitude, alliteration, rhyme, enjambment and caesurae deployed here captures the bird in an excellent example of what Hopkins called word painting.

This term could easily describe the writing of J. A. Baker, whose The Peregrine provides an excellent insight into the habits of an airborne serial killer, one I have seen on the hills and in St Andrew’s Spire in Worcester. He describes the deadly patience of a peregrine waiting for its preferred prey to arrive as dusk falls:

The peregrine drifted softly from a dead tree, like the dim brown ghost of an owl. He was waiting in the dusk; not roosting, but watching for prey. […] I could see his dark shape huddled at the top of an elm, outlined against the afterglow. […] Down from the wood on the hill the first woodcock came slanting and weaving. Three more followed. As they dropped to the mud at the side of the stream the hawk crashed among them. […] The hawk stood in water, plucked his prey, and fed.

The ‘dead tree’ presages the slaughter that is about to ensue, while the powerful comparison with an owl reinforces the hawk’s ability to fly noiselessly, undetected by unwitting prey. Alongside the supernatural association of ‘ghost’, there is a flavour of the gothic about the hawk’s ‘dark shape […] outlined against the afterglow’. The precise term to indicate that time of day when the light is about to die is also entirely in keeping with the later revelation of the woodcock’s fate. We sense that the first woodcock’s ‘slanting and weaving’ flight will be to no avail. The whole scene, with its climactic, savage conclusion, is an object lesson for all writers.

The slaughter described here reminds me of seeing a sparrowhawk biding its time in a fir tree in my parents’ garden before killing and tearing apart a baby rabbit, an event that haunts me still, conjuring Ted Hughes’s dramatic monologue, ‘Hawk Roosting’. The poem presents its subject’s utter self-belief and conviction that it is the pinnacle of creation, presented through brutal, uncompromising, solipsistic statements such as ‘I kill where I please because it is all mine’ and ‘It took the whole of Creation / To produce my foot, my each feather:’ Hughes’s admiration of the atavistic hauteur of the hawk is entirely understandable.

I have photographed, with varying success, falcons, kites and hawks on walks in Wales and Worcestershire. I am often left thinking that all I have managed is to freeze a moment rather than give the sense of life that writers I admire manage with their powerful evocations in words. Barry Hines’s 1968 novel, A Kestrel for a Knave, is another fine example, matching in prose Hopkins’s description of a windhover in flight:

It braked and lay on the air looking down, primaries quivering to catch the currents, tail fanned, tilted towards the earth. Then, angling its wings, it slipped sideways a few yards, fluttered, and started to hover again. Persistently this time, hovering then dropping vertically in short bursts, until it closed its wings and stooped, a breath-taking stoop, down behind a wall.

Redolent of some of the beautiful entries one may read in some bird books, the impression given here is of a creature utterly at ease and relaxed in its natural environment.

Towards the end of the novel, Hines describes the heartbreaking tenderness with which poor Billy Casper handles his beloved Kes in death:

He carried it into the kitchen and stood with his back to the living-room door to inspect it. Brown eyes open. Glass eyes. Curved beak ajar, tongue just visible in the slit. Head lolling downwards, swinging whichever way he turned it to brush away the dust and ashes from the feathers. Blowing the feathers clean, raising them with his breath, then smoothing them gently into place with his fingers.

The description here could easily be that of a pathologist. It is the language of autopsy, a word meaning ‘I have seen’. Like Hopkins’s and Baker’s, Hines’s observational detail is extremely fine.

I saw again the sweep of a raptor’s view from above on the day of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, which coincided with the rush of a Red Arrows squadron of hawk trainers heading west over the hills to RAF Valley in Wales. There was a real sense of import as the kestrel continued to hover, a reminder of a heraldic past, while the machines of artificial flight hurtled towards the setting bonfire of the sun. This serendipitous confluence of hawks and history put me in mind of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the opening of which is a brilliant complex of representation. Thomas Cromwell is hunting with hawks, named after his dead daughters, making his fatherly predicament poignant and piercing. The aerial perspective of the birds is deployed as a subtle means of showing us the sweep of Tudor history that forms the basis of this magisterial novel, as well as providing us with an insight into the aristocratic pursuit of falconry, and a father’s loss:

His children are falling from the sky. He watches them from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of the feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.

The arresting opening sentence raises many questions. Daughter becomes bird and bird becomes daughter. The relationship between falcon and falconer establishes the sense of a bond of trust in a world of betrayals.

Walking home from the hills, I’m left thinking that what draws so many writers to these birds is their endless aesthetic and atavistic appeal but also the reality that, as Helen Macdonald recognises in H is for Hawk, ‘The hawk had caught me. It was never the other way around.’

Michael Woods has three collections of poems published by Templar Poetry: Absence Notes (2011), Algebra (2017) and Opening Time (2018). His prizes include the Bridport, Poetry Yearbook, Ledbury, and Poetry on the Lake’s Silver Wyvern award.

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