Douglas Tawn is a poet, actor and screenwriter whose poems have appeared in the in-trays, at least, of numerous literary journals. His first collection, The Collected Poems of T S Eliot, was disqualified from the T S Eliot Poetry Prize following accusations of plagiarism. Douglas holds a 100m swimming badge, and is now working on updating his CV.
13 Birds in the Way of Looking
(or The Parliament of Fowls)
Following on from the Keats House
they taxi over garden feeders
the green chute’s permanent
flash-spangled guitar licks
ascend with a flourish
of birds gone wild
Para! Para! Para! Para!
So we’re left to ask
what to make of this
to wit: where do they belong?
to whom do we owe the pleasure?
are they not, these birds, out of sight?
‘We know we are supposed
not to leave, but suppose
we had some friends to stay?
They’d brighten up the place … ’
(Letter to a Beefeater, the Ravens)
The kite where I come from
is not I’d say something to write
home about. There again, why write
home when you’re there already?
They’d say it should be taken as read.
Everything has its place, just so
the parakeets of London and just so
there are no hard feelings, feel free
to point them out when you see them.
magpie silent eyes
his pound of carrion
starling spangles sky
dark with murmuring
crows nineteen amass
numbering full murder
they see the carcass
and look no further
‘Brighten up the place—
What do you think we’ve been trying to do?
I don’t wear the uniform for fun you know.’
(Letter to the Ravens, a Beefeater)
Flush with all heaven’s range
blackbird beetles about the town
ready to sing and define the age.
Even the worms all dig her sound
they love her style and critics agree
she’s a bird of high renown.
They offered her a record deal,
all the fat cats in the yard,
lining her up for their next meal.
But blackbird caught them off their guard
“Sure I’ll sign on one condition,
so you just listen up hard:
“In this deal you give permission
for me to sing whatever I please
with total freedom of expression.”
Those foolish cats at once agreed:
they signed up blackbird there and then
and prepared for her first release.
It was a jazz-fusion album. Didn’t do that well.
I am not one for sorrow
nor was meant to join
the dance, signifying union
of man, woman and song
Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!
passing under the stage
the god, Hercules, whom Antony loved
leaves only our senses
dimmed and silver with age
memories of beaten gold
sickening and slow
awake the sinning bird
squatting greedy overhead
like a secret.
Behold the fowls of the air: some of them do sow actually;
nor did my first draft take into account the barn owl.
Behold, they mount the sky; cross-winged embassies to heathen
shores; yet why should foreign masters not call these birds native?
Behold, the peregrine falcon, a native species; how did we figure
that one out? Such divisibility buckles belief.
Yet see how this open secret rewards the kingdom; her white
cliffs shrink and her statues swell.
‘We didn’t mean to offend you.
Maybe we could wear the uniform too?’
(Second Letter to a Beefeater, the Ravens)
Well, that was the day he went completely
cuckoo—riding high on Mellow Fruitfulness
(I’m guessing the guest ale down the Wheat Sheaf).
Real state, yet kinglier in his madness,
somehow, he comes in raving about some bird.
Now I like the guy, although it’s a pain
this nonsense, bursting squawk-eyed mouth oozing
in here, proper disturbed,
crying “So you like sad stories? I’ll frame
you one now: a real traga-doozy!”
“Now I’m out on the heath having a blast:
the birdies were pinging from tree to tree,
the smell of sweet flowers swelled through the grass
(my eyes were blurry, but they looked great to me).
Then I hear a warbling cry overhead.
I look up to find a bird wringing her
wings, frantic: “Detested kite! My daughters!
No feather stirs, no breath
heard—I had hoped to see them grow full singers—
here cracked—some parasite has thwarted us!”
“At my feet lay two fractured crowns, her chicks.
She cursed, forced to feed the alien brood
perched over us. Some opportunistic
fowl, some sterile conveyer of misuse,
some stalking spirit of infestation
had laid them there and waste to her daughters.
Vile cuckoo! To sin against her singing
sisters—” but he couldn’t go on.
He crumpled, still muttering tortured slurs,
tugging at buttons where his shirt choked him.
Þhre crowes gaþered aboute a pyloonne
“A straunge bowre!” proclaimeþ oone,
“Grene leves yt wants,” spake anooþer
“Eke he bereþ not swete fruyts nouþer.”
“Yt carrieþ mens powre accross the dale,”
Resouned þe þrid, “eke illumineþ wele
Hire lyȝtsomme wodes, iwrouȝte on hye.
Ek þes strenges ylonge do kepe armonye,
Makynge a plesaunt noys of musique softe
Yherd alounge þes þreds alofte.”
Ech herkened, wel lykinge the melodye
So þey set þem doon on thys steley treë.
‘This probably sounds like an odd request … ’
(Letter to his Tailor, a Beefeater)
The parakeet’s cry retreats over the heath
le beau oiseau sans birdseed is all
I can think without calling on
more authentic superficies
(e.g. an MA in Creative
Writing, fancy that!)
That was a goose
shrewdly complaining of
the lack of water-fowl under
discussion today, which is fair,
and I think they will agree with me that
truly these high-flyers are out of their minds.
Les Poissons Puissants
I, a fish, I want to—hang on
sometimes there’s the net
(some say a soft cage)
one doesn’t know one’s in it
until we all are—too late.
This is not ideal
but we’re used to going
unminded—now I’m under
the dense cloud of a gunboat
here to assert someone’s rights
(not mine, I’m sure) under these
waters. Dominion over the fish
means you gotta let them have it.
Where was I? Constant motion
makes that a difficult question.
Where going? Ditto. That dreadnought
means life or wreck to someone.
Been a while since one came down
here, all noise until it isn’t
then we get a chance to nip in
and browse: you sink, we swim.
Eventually you’re pulled up
the sky dense with voices
charged with all their differences
left ashore—they sound the same to me.
From Whitman to Dylan,
‘(I am large, I contain multitudes)’
~ Walt Whitman, Song of Myself ~
‘I play Beethoven’s sonatas and Chopin’s
preludes. I contain multitudes’.
~ Bob Dylan, I Contain Multitudes ~
‘Contain,’ we know, has its double sense
(both to possess and suppress)
parenthesis creates and contains
multitudes, in equal parts, suggests
copia is more or less the sum of its parts.
Repetition multiplies and refines
to the singularity from which it starts
restarting similitudes; resonating decline.
The Song of Myself is no more a song
than repeated multitudes mean no more.
Was copia their dominant mode all along?
An epic rhapsody with an unsettled score?
Apparent formlessness finds ease with tradition
tracing a song to the Trojan diaspora
while The Great British Novel might be on television
a saccharine story in aspic vernacular.
‘Past and present wilt’ Whitman tells us
wilting his own name into timeless self
‘wilt,’ too, suggests archaic future (ambiguous,
but better, I think, than saying ‘melt’)
leaving with us wilful tradition
refusing the will to be traditional
the voice withers in the songs of Dylan
as the multitude he’s given have given all.
History is the addition of what is lost
(Today and tomorrow and yesterday too)
to the sum of what is coming to pass
(The flowers are dying like all things do)
and the past is not what is meant by tradition.
Dylan’s flowers wilt in and out of time
in time to the off-beating Whitman’s
feet: by and by, Lord, they walk the line.
Oh my, America! your new-found songs
revive the dead democratically
each season’s bloom of virtuous carrion
stirs equal hosts of union and confederacy:
Oh pick out a tune, boys, of Raleigh or Drake
They’ll be landing here soon, boys, and make no mistake
It’s the song of our doom, boys, sing Lowell and Tate
To the Land of the Free, boys—PAY THE TOLL AT THE GATE
All poems: exclusive first publication by iamb