Elegy (1966)

A host of disasters may overtake a bird
On the wing, its body stricken in the middle air
By nerve-wrack, collision, bullet. Of these I know
Nothing, whatever the casual reporter
Affirms or guesses of course and trajectory.
This was a wholly different matter – a spaniel’s
Velvet jaws stopped the bird’s heart.
No tooth-ruffled breast feathers, but dead nevertheless.
A hedgesparrow, I fancy – some unremarkable
Fustian bird, not of the soaring kind.
His death more unremarkable than a song,
With no spectacular earthward plunge,
No spiring pinions frozen in spread-eagle, no
Lusterless feathers drifting like spoons down,
No light impact to snap the fragile bones.
Earth-borne, earth-bound, arrested, dead here,
The trowelled earth, mother-neutral, accepts
Whatever may be accepted – whatever may be gathered –
Beak, bone, claw, pinfeather, eye – lacking a simple
Gesture of rejection. My fingers number
Each interrupted capillary, every excruciate
Nerve and filament barbed like eyes in the loin
With spears of delight, needlepoints of terror.
Who can order and preen these feathers for flying now?
Or arch these spindle-bones to stride the morning?
Or glaze these eyes to stare the sun into pity?
Or force this mouth, crammed with silence, to empty
The light with its crying or people the desolate city?
Honed to a cutting-edge on the whetstone of frost
The pathways of air are deserted. No bird dare
Thread his flight here for fear his wings
Shiver like glass and scatter the snow with diamonds.
But we are compelled to venture, coming on foot
By a devious unmarked track to a place of stones
Where glyptic records rehearse with adroit precision
Their repetitious and inexpressible sorrow.
And being gathered, our eyes correctly reverted
Each from the other’s nakedness, let us
Commit to darkness eyes that never suffered
The first incredible shock of light; and having
Committed this last and newest testament
Turn – this is no festival for mothers –
Turn to this other man, the one companion,
Bowed with an effort of unprofessional grief.
(Far down in the valley a bird rises
Stiffly into the cruel stillness. A
Jet of affection splinters the numbness –
He should have flown South a long time ago.)
And turning find this other man is gone,
Gone underground, his tottering grief
A frozen gesture of silence.
So many dead, since and before and elsewhere,
Behind the wire, under the olivetrees,
At sea, and not a few in their beds. But here
To my knowledge these two – plenty:
A universe of dying. As for the rest,
I do not know them; let them be mourned in the best
Style. My song and sorrow are
Exhausted and overburdened by a child
Dead from her birth, and a generous voluble friend.
Not far away, in ground unsanctified,
A spaniel – clown bred in the bone, a circus
Prodigy from birth – and a hedgesparrow.
And now that I’ve started, the list spins out a little:
A boy shot through the head for a partridge
(A not uncommon error), a girl unmade
To the hardy fashion of love, and an older maid
Fearless in floodtime who ferried her new-baked bread
Across the river of death. All these
In their due seasons. Here is some bravery.
           No make of mourning
           Can bruise the bones of these
           Who in the end must suffer
           The ways of repose.
           Worn to a habit of silence
           The unrequited lover
           Is caught in a rip-tide
           Of gentleness; another
           Knowing no graceful hope     
           Drowns in a deep pool
           Of accomplished innocence,
           And being made whole
           Goes forth to meet
           The naked terror of vision,    
           The urgency of flight,
           The hard death of song.
           The black flutter of a skylark
           Rising from the corn
           Is a dying fall, no gage of
           His ecstasy of song.
           Even the sparrow’s motley
           Belies his intricate song,
           Conceals how by mystery
           The voice becomes vision –   
           How by a surgical
           Duplicity the vision
           Mounts to the throat and kindles
           A golden flame of song;
           How the amethyst beak
           Releasing the thread of breath,
           Spills from the ruby throat
           The sapphires of death.
           Reverting from their bold
           Venture all come
           In a blaze of jewelled flame
           To the city of the sun.
           The shudder of cockcrow
           Is heard in the phoenix’ cry;
           Betrothal and betrayal
           Are equal, crucified –
           Hung like a broken crow
           In most cruel wise
           On the horns of the heart
           Or spear-points of eyes.
           The ritual silence
           Commands us endow
           The feathers of suffering
           With power to renew
           The virgin’s perplexity,
           A man’s broken oath,
           The clown’s wild sorrow, and
           A child’s small death.