27 November 2016

Like a bird on the wire

For much of this past year an imperfect Mistle Thrush sang from first light to last, in the tall trees that border the field behind my home.  Imperfect in that he had only one leg.

Sometimes, in the afternoons, he would leave the swaying branches at the tip of his favourite ash, to sing from the ridge of the house. In these hours, looking up through the studio roof lights, it was possible to see quite clearly his single pale yellow leg, the delicate pink inside of his mouth, the exquisite dappling of greys and cream on his breast and the sheer bodily effort of every note thrown, head back, into the valley.

For months this hand-full of a bird sang all day and every day.  He sang from four in the morning, through March winds and the long hours of June afternoons, until well after field and hedge smudged into the blue-dark of night.  I wondered when he ate, let alone procreated.  In fact I'm pretty sure he didn't. How can you eat when you have to make sure the world keeps turning? 

Sometimes but only sometimes, in the stillness of evening air, I would hear another thrush calling back an equally elaborate paragraph or two from some oak-top, deep in the valley.

For me, (radio off - unable to take the diet of lies and fear), thrush-song accompanied my every working day. Until late in July when he stopped singing. Quite suddenly from one day to the next.  This is completely normal - all birds go quiet around the time of their annual moult.  Why announce your presence to the world when you are drab and short of feathers to fly with? And now, although the world does apparently continue to turn - the valley seems somehow empty without him.  

The following thoughts - intended as metaphor -  are emphatically not  projection or anthropomorphism.  They have waited, unpublished in my note book for some months.  I'm hesitant to write them out, even now.  After all, what place poetry in a time of catastrophe? 


I have wondered in these quieter months of autumn, in the calm exile of work, if there is something of the song thrush in the painter or poet?  Do you draw all day because you don't know what else to do with life?   Do you write to sing the world into existence?

You work in all weathers, (real,  political and economic),  and although you are intimate with every species of fear, you cannot know fear.  You cannot stop.

With all you have, you try first this phrase and then that, you return to themes over and then over again.  You try the same sequence - starting in a different place. You insist, you persist.  Each mark follows the one before - hard won.  Each line works against the silence - staccato bursts - in themselves and in the moment, entirely abstract...approaching music.

By definition you are improbably and impossibly fragile - unprotected.  No more than a handful of blood, bones and dappled feathers; you exist to sing.  No, not to sing - to hurl your mad songs, (for they are many), again and again, into the world, lest it stop turning, lest, heaven help us, it doesn't make sense after all.

"Presence" Charcoal on paper. 40" X 60" © Sarah Gillespie 2016


Last night, having written the above but still unsure whether to hit 'publish', I went to bed, opened my new copy of Jonathan Bate's biography of Ted Hughes, and read the following:

"Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn't actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of.  Perhaps it's the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic - makes it poetry. The writer daren't actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely, smuggled through analogies...we're actually saying something we desperately need to share.  The real mystery is this strange need.  Why can't we just hide it and shut up? Why do we have to blab? Why do human beings need to confess? Maybe if you don't have that secret confession, you don't have a poem - don't even have a story."

Ted Hughes interviewed for the Paris Review (Spring 1995) 


  1. Thank you for this lovely post. Both your words and your drawing have made me glad. Long ago there was a mistle-thrush who sang here in the night. Some years later another one, not such a fine singer, came for a while. I do miss them.

  2. Thank you, lovely post. Your own words and those of others resonate within. The image is the icing on the cake.

  3. Somehow, I find myself staring at your work. It's sad and beautiful at the same, or in other words, the feeling it gives me is authentic, moving. And for that, thank you. :)
    Classes A to Z


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