I walked out of Carlisle railway station on Saturday night and heard, above the noise of the busy streets, a frantic twittering of starlings. Pedestrians looked surprised and tried to catch sight of the birds, which must have numbered several thousands, but in the twilight they were hidden by the trees around the Citadel.
I had just arrived back from a writing week in Tuscany where our tutor was Julia Blackburn, whose book-length poem Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings is published alongside Andrew Smiley’s dramatic photographs of starlings at Walberswick in Suffolk.
When I arrived a friend gave me a copy of Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. It was a tough read but made me understand why Ted Hughes wrote Crow after the death of Sylvia Plath.
Every day I went for a walk through the village of Lippiano where I was staying. There is a lovely fountain in the middle of the Piazza Umberto with a little statue of a heron which gargles rainbows when the sun shines on the spray of water. I was disappointed to find it was being repaired and was dry this year. I followed some of the old tracks out into the surrounding countryside. Kyaa, kyaa cried the buzzards circling on the thermals above the wooded hillsides – I hear the same sounds at home in Cumbria. They are a noisy lot at this time of year as they establish territory and generally sort themselves out after the nesting season. There were pigeons flapping and fluttering over the village rooftops and blackbirds setting off alarm calls in the bushes. Jays were busy foraging for acorns.
It’s not hard to find subject matter for new poems in these surroundings. A tour of the Castle at Lippiano prompted me to write about ostriches after seeing them in a panel in a striking 16th century frescoed ceiling. Two birds were depicted bridled, harnessed and drawing a man in a chariot. Amphorae were strewn on the ground. It seemed like a scene from the Colosseum in the days of the Roman empire. I wondered if it illustrated some mythical story. A quick google search showed that ostriches are still being abused today – in Arizona ostrich racing takes place, with chariots made from old oil drums.
My room was in an elegant large house, the Palazzo Regina. It was a beautifully quiet place to write and my window looked out over the valley to the surrounding hill villages. One day I saw three roe deer (the same kind I see at home in Cumbria).
The weather was quite cool so every day Francesca lit the old clay stove in the entrance hall. The heat rose up the stairwell and spread into the rooms. Coming back through the front door in the evenings there was a comforting warmth in the palazzo and the smell of wood smoke from the oak logs of the fire. I have never seen these stoves anywhere else. They consist of a clay box at the bottom in which the fire is lit, and then a series of clay boxes stacked above through which the warm air circulates. As each box hots up it radiates heat. The smoke went up a very long iron chimney.
The clay stove
All summer the stove has stood cold and silent,
its terra cotta chambers stacked like catacombs.
I carry in twigs, armfuls of logs from the yard,
feel the oak bark grazing my skin.
I lift the latch of the iron door,
sweep soft moth-wing ash from the fire box.
I scrumple newsprint – ink on my fingers –
lay kindling in its clay lair.
Before the sandpaper strike of the match
I hesitate. On this one day
I would like to dwell in the stillness
before the first flames.
© Mary Robinson 2016