Writing the Rural: Sarah Westcott ‘Messenger’


blue and black bird on top of metal frame
Photo by Philip Ackermann on Pexels.com


The swallows have been back a while; swooping over the lane, picking insects from the air above the village stream. They are quick: a beat of wings and acrobatics, the flash of white and orange. The house martins too are back; building their spit and mud nests under the eaves of the boarded up pub. They’ve been back and forth outside my office window, deciding if they are going to build there. A thin line of brown mud has appeared. They chatter incessantly, argue between themselves about who knows what. And now they have gone again, presumably they have found a better place to nest, one where there isn’t a woman constantly leaving out of the window to look at them.

But it’s the swifts I’ve been missing. I am lucky in that my twitter time line is full of other nature enthusiasts, and I have watched the arrival of the swifts in exclamations: the swifts are back! I’ve watched the way the sightings came slowly up the country until they were here in Yorkshire. Someone, I forget who, even posted a video of herself which she’d accidentally recorded, of herself seeing the first swift of the year, the sudden joy of it. The arrival of the swifts is one of those natural events that brings real joy.

Last week I thought I’d begun to hear the scream of swifts in the village, and yet every time I ran to my window or walked out into the garden, they were nowhere to be seen. And then, just last week, there they were. Three to start with, their silhouettes unmistakable against the blue, blue sky of early summer. I felt a mix of joy and a strange relief; as if they were symbolic of hope, and that hope had not abandoned us, after all.

Yesterday I lay on my sun lounger in the garden reading Matt Merritt’s A Sky Full of Birds and watching the swifts. The book is excellent, incidentally, a truly beautiful read. Later I walked the dog around the lanes of the village. Everywhere is lush-green, the air heavy with scent. We walked up to the wheat field, the wheat moving like water, and there they were agin, more though, maybe six, seven, all swooping and diving and skimming the wheat. I felt myself quite present in the moment, as if a picture was being painted: a landscape done in all blues and greens, with the dog and I in the corner, the wheat rolling away to the horizon, the swifts punctuating the sky.


Today’s poem is by Sarah Westcott and is from her phenomenal collection with Liverpool University Press. Ive just finished reading Slant Light and would recommend it. It’s one of those collections that sings.


We found her in the shadow
of the gas drum;
a pleat of otherness
pinched from her dominion.

Maw like a whale,
head slit to gill air,
a dark scythe
at our feet.

We willed her wings to open
her form take shape,
conflate to airy spaces.
A new crescent moon.

We picked the whole contraption up,
brindled, tawny, creamy throat;
she spilled over our hands
into awe.

Her claws were shriven,
her eyes the eyes of something fallen,
the weight unbearable

so we sent her onwards,
to beat at the heels
of a young god’s sandals,
set her away, windward.


What do I like about the poem? Well, firstly I like that in this poem the swift is earth bound. It’s so easy to think of the beauty of the air borne swift, but thesis a different angle, an interesting look at the bird. We see that a bird that is so perfectly adapted for the air, so magically invested with flight, is broken when in our world. The god/mortal theme runs on through this poem to the glorious last lines. I like that the poem is unafraid of using imagery. It’s a rich soup of images, and they are all strong, arresting. A particular favourite is ‘a pleat of otherness’ which is so perfect for this bird that we so rarely see up close, unless something is wrong.

Later, the bird is a contraption which puts me in mind of a Theo Janson Strandbeest. It’s like we can’t imagine flight outside of human terms. And there is a moment in which the narrator is able to be the saviour, there is an almost biblical raising up of the fallen angel-like creature and the recognisable transcendental experience of saving another person, or animals’ life.

It’s a superb, tightly woven poem, which is so well observed I can see the scene incredibly clearly. Wonderful.

Until next time, take care


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