Puffins whirr past us like wonders
on stubby clockwork wings
some, all orange legs and nonchalance,
stand sentinel beside the burrows
others bob in flotillas near the boat -
little sea parrots
with beaks of many colours.
Just before the heatwave struck I went over to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) for a day with eight friends from my Welsh class. It was my sixth visit but none of my friends had been there before. The island cast its spell over them and as we waited by the slipway for the boat back they all said how much they had enjoyed the visit. But a special treat awaited us on the return across the Sound. Colin took the boat close to the steep cliffs of the mountain to see the sea birds - razorbills, guillemots, shags, kittiwakes and the showstoppers, puffins. He cut the engines and we floated amongst them, so close we could see their colourful striped beaks. 'There are more puffins this year than I can ever remember', he said and he assumed that the high numbers were the result of favourable weather in the spring.
About a hundred pairs of storm petrels and over 20,000 pairs of Manx shearwaters nest on Enlli. Like the puffins these species are truly pelagic - living on the ocean - only coming to land to breed. The shearwaters nest in burrows on the island and the petrels in crevices in rocks and banks. The parent birds come ashore at dusk to avoid predators. The nesting season is full of risks for birds which are so strongly adapted to life at sea.
In my first collection there is a poem 'Storm petrels at Mousa Broch', written after a dusk visit to see the thousands of storm petrels which nest in the ancient broch on the uninhabited island of Mousa (Shetland). I describe a petrel's eye as 'black as the moon's absence'. A dark moonless night is safest for the returning birds which are so unsuited to life on land:
... birds so frail
they shuffle on crippled legs.
* * *
Would I have used the word 'crippled', even though referring to a bird, if I had read Karl Knights' recent hard-hitting essay, 'The Face not Seen'? Knights attacks the 'ablest' bias of the poetry establishment where disabled poets are too often invisible or excluded. He talks of compiling an alternative 'canon' of disabled poets, including the Japanese haiku master Masoaka Shiki, W E Henley (best known for his 'Invictus' poem), and more recently, Raymond Antrobus and Jillian Weise.
I started to think about disability in poetry. The blind Milton famously dictated Paradise Lost to his daughters and is the subject of a painting by Eugene Delacroix. Milton's sonnet on his blindness is one of the great English sonnets and his verse drama Samson Agonistes is a tragedy about the weak, blinded Samson, captured by his enemies ('Blind among enemies, O worse than chains'). Centuries later the Cornish poet, Jack Clemo, became blind in childhood and deaf in young adulthood. Ilya Kaminsky's The Deaf Republic was published in 2019 to great acclaim.
Knights quotes Virginia Woolf's statement that it is strange that 'illness has not taken its place with love, battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature'. When I opened the current issue of Poetry Wales magazine I found a poem by Hannah Hodgson, a young poet from Cumbria, who is living with and writing about a serious life-limiting illness (her first collection is due out from Seren soon). And searching in my memory for poetry about illness I thought of Philip Gross's The Wasting Game, a collection concerned with anorexia. Dementia is a subject tackled by several poets, usually with the agonising theme of watching a parent decline with this terrible condition.
Knights' article raises some important questions for readers, writers and editors of poetry.
* * *
Make hay while the sun shines
I've been watching the contractors working the field opposite my house. A first sileage crop was taken earlier in the year . The aftermath denotes this second flush of grass which was cut at the weekend and later turned into windrows. Now a large forage harvester is scooping up the grass and shooting it into a trailor being pulled alongside. The breeze winnows the dust from the chopped grass. Crows and rooks strut proprietorially where the grass has been cleared and stab their beaks into easy pickings.
Between my study window and the field is a traditional field bank, studded with purple hardheads (knapweed flowers). About twenty Large White butterflies flicker over the flowers, alighting for nectar and performing intricate flight dances.
* 'Puffins' © Mary Robinson 2021
You can read Milton's sonnet on his blindness at
and W E Henley's 'Invictus' at
Karl Knights' essay 'The Face not Seen' is in the current summer 2021 issue of the poetry magazine The Dark Horse.
More about Hannah Hodgson https://hannahhodgson.com/author/hannahwritesablog/