Last week, I was lucky enough to have a ringside seat at a bird murder. I saw a sparrowhawk take a jackdaw in my neighbour’s garden. It took me completely by surprise. I was padding past the window in my early morning routine when it happened. I did not see the hawk appear, I saw instead, a black mass of feathers hit hard and fast and pinned to the grass like a magic trick. I didn’t see much after that as it took the jackdaw into the shadows, behind the neighbour’s greenhouse, dragging it as it kicked and screamed and fought, really fought back. What I did see was the reaction of the other birds in the garden and in the surrounding trees and roof tops. There was a racket: the herring gulls were circling, dive bombing, crying in a raucous cacophony of excitement or warning. The other jackdaws, whom I know well as they live on my roof, were on the telephone lines around the site of the attack and would drop down, glancing off the sparrowhawk’s back then dive back up, cawing and crying to each other and into the air. Other, smaller birds looked on under the constant circling canopy of seagulls, jackdaws and now crows. After a while I could see the movement was becoming calmer. I could no longer see the shadowed flaps of the jackdaws wings and assumed that the sparrowhawk had killed it. They eat their prey in situ, wings outspread above the corpse. The seagulls had moved in, but were no longer dive bombing. The jackdaws had given up and moved to the roof tops to watch, their caws became quieter and directed at each other. They were huddled. It would be easy to say ‘grief’ and perhaps this was the case. Two magpies turned up and got closer and closer, rasping and hopping through the branches of a nearby tree, several more carrion crows arrived and they too got closer, spiralling down, into the trees and then dropping onto the grass. The Jackdaws had something to say about the arrival of the crows, there is no love lost between the resident crows and the resident jackdaws. It was clear that the killed jackdaw was now a buffet, and everyone wanted some. I think at this point the sparrowhawk had had its fill anyway, and left them to it. And then, calm, quiet, a slight lull perhaps, in which I imagined the birds gathering themselves after seeing an accident, and then the world moved on.
Sparrowhawks are quite a common bird of prey. But that isn’t to say they are background, they are uncommon when witnessed up close. I’m looking at a picture of one now, in my RSPB Wildlife of Britain book. Everything about them is focused, quick, right down to the small black pupils in a disk of bright yellow, the brows ridged for aerodynamic, precision flight. Short wings, long tails, long legs, they are an incredible bird. Look at this:
After the event I went looking for poems specifically about sparrowhawks. The poet, Roy Marshall stepped forward, after I did a shout out on social media, and in his gentle, self deprecating way, offered up the poem below, fresh formed and waiting to be appreciated. I’ve known Roy for a while, the poetry world is small, I follow his career and know him as a poet of incredible, quiet talent. His poems are refined, careful, precise. His poems feel like they are being crafted with a jewellery makers kit, they are delicate, perfectly complete, the sort of poems that make you look and look and look to absorb the thing that he is seeing. I’m reading his collection The Great Animator published by Shoestring Press at the minute, which you can buy directly from Roy (follow him on twitter here) and it is beautiful. I’ve only recently fallen in love with poetry again, I’d abandoned it after finishing my new collection, which has seen delays in publication, but this sort of poetry, the beating circulation of language, is the thing that has drawn me back. I am grateful for poetry during the pandemic and grateful for poets who generously offer up their words. Here is the brand new poem by Roy, which is something special:
I’m coming out of the house
into the sort of quiet, clean air
I remember from a nineteen-seventies childhood,
and spread-eagled on the hawthorn
is a Sparrowhawk, her out-stretched wingspan
surprisingly broad. She is sunbathing
maybe, or waiting for the flit of sparrows
from the heart of the hedge, brown contour bars
rippling down through the cream
of her chest and neck, a flash of yellow leg
visible underneath, as she turns to lock me
with bright citrine eyes; she, caught
in the act of her luxuriant sprawl, and me,
awkward in my trespass, straddling the threshold.
What do I like about it? It captures the ‘commonness’ of this incredible bird and makes it uncommon by placing it within the context of an ordinary event: leaving the house to go somewhere we never find out. It’s directly and precisely narrated, present tense, we’re immediately in the thick of it, and there is no fanfare, no build up, no applause, we step into the scene with the narrator, into the
I remember from a nineteen-seventies childhood,
I like that line. It says something about wild childhoods perhaps, I’m thinking of Kes and playing out in the fields and poking things with sticks; that sort of thing. There’s also a beautiful internal, unobtrusive rhythm to it, a natural rhythm, and the whole thing is contained within fourteen lines. Is it a sonnet? Maybe a flexible, organic sonnet, there is a turn around line eight when the poem’s perspective turns from the narrator observing the bird to the bird observing the narrator. This is what I like about Roy’s work, it is deceptive, it is so well crafted that you don’t notice the craft in it, which is how it should be. Then those final two lines, that observed/observer point of view reenforced at opposite ends of the spectrum in a mirror of physical positioning: the narrator is straddled, awkward, but the bird is luxuriously sprawled.
What a journey the poem is.
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One thought on “Writing the Rural: Sparrowhawk, by Roy Marshall”
I saw a Sparrowhawk kill a pigeon and it reminded of a bird that my wing mirror on a country lane with feathers exploding like a shot angel and how brutal it was the killing process. Ribcage exposed like a blood-eagle ritual from days of valhalla. The camera-eyed checking from left to right as it gozling-gargled the innards it shook me. I think Ted Hughes was heavily inspired by the brutality and honesty of wildlife, the pack culture, the little acts we care to see or ignore but you explain it so well and I love that poem by RM he is how you describe him as I met him at Poetry Bites ages ago.
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