Birdsong, Brassica said, It’s so lovely to hear the wildlife out and about,
making their nests. I could have sworn that I heard a cuckoo when I was
out walking Andy with Castor and Pollux at the weekend.
(The dog has the more sensible name. Mythology only affected her
twins. Badly, some might say, as their nicknames at school are Bastard
People were always competitive to report the first time a cuckoo was heard in
a given year, I remarked. I saw a posting on YouTube which demonstrated a
very early instance on the first of March this year.
Isn’t there a piece of music about skylarks which was voted the most
popular choice for the nation’s Desert Island Discs? mused Brassie,
nibbling a watercress scone.
Yes, The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, I informed her. But I
once sang a lot of Delius under the baton of Richard Hickox and it stirred
my interest in the latter composer. Of course, he was not the only
musician interested in birdsong. Messiaen was the one who most obviously
springs to mind, with his precise references to garden warblers, orchard
orioles and laughing thrushes.
Wasn’t he the one who was able to have his work performed in Stalag
VIII-A camp, near Dresden? Brassie asked.
Yes, under the auspices of a sympathetic guard. But we were talking of
Delius, I reminded her. I was so surprised to learn that he had been born
A lot of people are, Brassie munched on.
She is incredibly fatuous at times!
Anyway, when I heard a cuckoo the other day, it reminded me that I
written a poem about one, said Brassie laughing and showing that she
is fairly perceptive after all. E-mail it to me later tonight if you want.
I haven’t read one of your poetic compositions for a while.
Okay, I promised. I had the idea when I was walking by The River Test
one day a few years ago. Just to let you know: his wife was called Jelka.
My Lit Theory teacher, the great Philip Hobsbaum, would have challenged
that the poem should be clear in its meaning without notes, Brassie
Well, that writes off T S Eliot then, I countered. So, I will just have to be of
the devil’s party!
On Hearing My First Cuckoo in Spring
Two notes transported me to Picardy,
for this birdcall, with its insistency
was a clarinet conceptualised
by a syphilitic man, who, near-blind,
was propped in his wheelchair in Grez-sur-Loing.
His Gaugin Nevermore had then been sold;
Grieg’s Scandinavian scenery mere
pointilliste impressions. Now sound was all-
the lapping of the river at the end
of his garden; his giggle at the church
when he broke out at his confirmation;
the rhythms of his poet friend, Verlaine;
those Negro spirituals he’d overheard
through the cigarillo smoke in Solano,
when the grove could have been a kind of grave;
Grainger’s laugh; Heseltine’s accusation;
Fenby’s chords; a populous city’s noise;
the barking of the dachshund he once gave
to a favourite sister those years ago;
the rustle of his father’s Yorkshire Post:
(I see that Fritz has given a concert);
the sound of spiteful stones smashing shutters
and soldiers’ boots searching out their wine hoard.
In the New Year they made his cuckoo sing,
but by Autumn it sang over his plot,
laurel-lined in Lingfield. Jelka heard it,
tumour-riddled, from the nursing home.
That day they sent her a boxed-set greeting
on a gramophone recording, but found
she’d already heard it; flown to meet him.
Now as I walk along this river bank,
the trite threnody does not interrupt
the inexorable ongoing flow
of Life itself. This is what makes us rapt:
what Delius sensed, and helped us to know-
that two notes must not usurp the whole scale.