Sunday, 29 May 2016


There's an ambient noise of birdsong - not the excitable, testosterone-fuelled first light spring sounds, but a general mid-afternoon almost summer twittery chunnering of the birds that frequent my garden.

I'm writing this in my summer house/think box.  On Friday night BBC Radio 3's "The Verb" (a programme that fills me with pleasure and irritation in unequal measures) concentrated on dawn and birdsong.  There was a recording of the dawn chorus - shrill, cacophonous, competitive - the kind of dawn chorus that some years ago would wake me early and cause me to close the bedroom window if I wanted a lie-in.  Do they still make them like that somewhere?

Alex Preston spoke on "The Verb" about the work he is doing for a new book - a literary ornithology.  He read from a section on Swallows and described a relative of his who lived in France.  In the summer swallows flew in and out of her house and nested in her bedroom.  She would wake to see them swooping above her head or flitting to a picture rail.  Where had I heard this before?  Alex Preston supplied the answer for me by reading Kathleen Jamie's poem, "Swallows", in which he had discovered an almost identical habitation -

     "they twitter and preen
      from the picture frames ...
      and in the mornings
      wheel above my bed."

I am looking forward to reading the book when it is finished.

When I last visited Prague a friend took me to see the Olsany Cemetery, the last resting place of the remains of Jan Palach, the student who set fire to himself in Wenceslas Square in January 1969 after the Soviet Union's occupation of Czechoslovakia the previous year.  His memory became a focus for Czech nationalism and anti-Communist protests.

It was early spring and the well-treed old cemetery was full of the sound and sight of birds.  The transmigration of souls - Plato's metempsychosis (a word Molly Bloom had trouble with in Joyce's Ulysses).

Metempsychosis in the Olsany Cemetery

What would Plato think of this?
- dry crumbs in a home-made bird feeder
knocked up from wire and scraps of kindling ...

Perhaps he would smile an aftershock of recognition
when something that was a careless might be
becomes is.

Jays are gate-keeping in the trees,
chaffinches and sparrows bathe on the dusty path
and somewhere Jan Palach's soul takes wing

as light as a burning feather

© Mary Robinson 2010

(First published in Envoi 160 October 2011)

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