Monday, 20 April 2020


Saturday 18 April.  At last, swallows!

I notice them in the place where I always see them first.  They're flying low over the fields bordering the stream and are not far from some dilapidated farm buildings (where 'charm meets neglect', as my New England daughter-in-law says).

My mother would have been 101 last Saturday.  I always reckon on seeing the swallows arriving by her birthday amd leaving just before mine (at the end of September).  The swallows I see here in Wales spend our winters in Africa.  Their umwelt* encompasses a large section of the earth.

Yet annually they return to the same nesting sites.  I imagine them doing a recce, rediscovering what is comfortably familiar and checking up on what's changed since last time - like families going to the same holiday cottage every year.

The swallows at Caerlaverock Castle in Dumfriesshire prompted my poem 'V' (an arrow) in my Alphabet Poems.  Generations of swallows have nested there for hundreds of years.  During seiges people were trapped in the castle.  The swallows were free to come and go as they liked:

     Their volant young
          darted round the hall, out
               through arrow slits,
          swooped over the river
     and nightly returned.

Recently I've been thinking of Norman Nicholson's 'The Pot Geranium' (often considered his best poem).  In his teens Nicholson contracted TB.  He spent two years in a sanatorium in Hampshire and then returned to Millom, which was to become his umwelt for the rest of his life.  During convalescence and ill health he was confined not just to Millom but to his attic bedroom under the eaves at his home at 14 St George's Terrace.

'The Pot Geranium' begins with his view from the attic window - a rooftop view of chimneys, back-garden trees, racing pigeons, a kite flown by 'unseen boys'.  The lines are full of words associated with height, upward movement, flying.  They contrast strongly with the poet's physical confinement in his room where the ceiling slopes over him 'like a tent':

      ... Thighs and spine
      Are clamped to the mattress and looping springs
      Twine round my chest and hold me.

But the poem doesn't end with this almost  claustrophobic restriction.  The poet sees the pot geranium on his window sill, flying 'its bright balloon' of red flowers.  The soil from which it grows holds 'the pattern, the prod and pulse of life' which is 'complete as the Nile or Niger.'

The pot geranium becomes a wonderful symbol of the poet's imaginative freedom despite his physical confinement:

     My ways are circumscribed, confined as a limpet
     To one small radius of rock; yet
     I eat the equator, breathe the sky, and carry
     The great white sun in the dirt of my fingernails.

* More about umwelt and birds in my blog post of 31 August 2019 ('From Umwelt to Underland')

More about Norman Nicholson, including information about 14 St George's Terrace, at the Norman Nicholson Society's website:

You can read 'The Pot Geranium' at

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