That week before lockdown. When we should have been in lockdown already. Wandering around a medieval market town in North Yorkshire. Thinking: Well, I guess I live here now. What will I need?
There’s a crow flying
Black and ragged
Tree to tree
He’s black as the highway that’s leading me
Eight months previous. I’d walked away. With the clothes on my back. And the contents. Of one small suitcase. Running. With arms outstretched. Partially feathered. Shedding and stashing. Books and clothing. Along the way. The opposite of nesting. More akin to moulting.
Plymouth, London, Coventry, London, Sheffield. I purchased a black wool sweater dress. In Oxford. In October. A-Line. Maxi. Winter plumage. Onwards through Cambridge, London, Limoges. Paris, Rome, Paris. Climbing. Gliding into flapping.
I feel like that black crow
In a blue sky
I purchased a sky blue jumper. In London. In the January sales. On the promise. Of a commission. In Lancaster. A house to myself. In North Yorkshire. The loan. Of a warmer pair of boots. Once I got up there.
And if there’s one thing
Could do for you
You’d be a wing
In heaven blue
Midwinter daydream. The small suitcase and I. Changing trains in Leeds. The litany. Of station stops north to Carlisle. Coming over the tannoy. A long poem. In a tongue I have as yet no mouth for. Pulling into the town of Settle. At the edge. Of the Dales.
If you sleep with the windows open. The owner of the house says. You’ll wake to birdsong.
Morning. In a holly bush, not a wood. Nowhere near Athens. A small bird, not a fairy. Speaks:
Over hill, over dale,
Through bush, through briar,
Over park, over pale,
Through blood, through fire,
I do wander everywhere
Settle, Lancaster, Settle, Grasmere, Settle, Lancaster, Settle, London, Paris, London. Not quite settled. But not migratory either. Not in the avian sense. Dislodged from space and time. Severed from habit. From pattern. The homing instinct. Dulled but not dead.
I’ve been traveling so long
How’m I ever going to know my home
When I see it again
Early March. On a crowded train. Travelling north. Not quite the route. I’d set out on. That morning. Flooding. Between wherever it is I was and wherever it is I was meant to be going. Using the time. To email a translator:
I’m using dog-eared in the sense of the corner of a page of a book that has been folded inwards to mark a place in the reading. Imagine: fields with their corners flooded with water, and swans swimming in this water.
The train swans onwards. Through a half dozen illustrations. Of my own impossible sentence.
Cygnes immobiles dans les coins écornés des champs imbibés de pluie.
Settle, Lancaster, Settle, Edinburgh, Settle, Lancaster, Settle. The month collapses. As a useful unit. A series of named weeks ensues. The week of being scared on trains. The week of cancellations. The week of panic buying. The week before lockdown. When we should have been in lockdown. A roof over my head. But no home. Everything I own. In boxes. In another country. Wandering around a medieval market town. Thinking. What will I need?
In the pet food store. Bewildered. As I have no pet. I’d like to buy a bird feeder, I say. For the small birds, I add. Not yet. On a first-name basis. With my nearest neighbours. For the sounds of early morning. For the flutters past the kitchen window. For the clutter in the holly bush. For the coming and going. For soon we won’t be allowed to.
I hang the feeder. Under the eves. Of the garden shed. Where I can see it. From the kitchen window. The next thing I know. I’m washing all the windows.
No birds, I text a friend. Who has a bird feeder. In her window. In London. And a bag of my summer clothes. In her spare bedroom. Be patient, she says.
In the health food store. The gossip is. The Yorkshire air will blow it all away. Pretty sure that only works if you get out into it. The air I mean. The sun. The sky. The hills. I walk up. Over the tops. Into the karst. To stand for a bit. And watch the rooks. Rising on thermals. Over Attermire Scar.
Still no birds, I text. The next day. Of course there are birds. Just not at the feeder. My whole body. Disagreeing. With the blackbirds’ definition of morning. With the English definition of robins. A black crow. High in the laburnum. Rooks. On the power lines. Increasingly brazen. The racket. In the holly. Sparrows, mostly. House, not hedge.
Then they start building. Nesting but not living. In the eves and gutters. Of this house. We are borrowing. Then they start feeding. The blackbirds also. Wee small birds. We. Shelter awkwardly. Perching briefly. Singing warnings.
Sitting in the garden. In the sky blue jumper. In the sun. Reading. An article. On identifying bird-song. Each bird listed is identified by its size in relation to the sparrow. The sparrow is listed last. In relation to itself. The presumption. I know nothing.
The harder I try. To not dedicate my life. To the research of sparrows. The more I learn about them. I come into the possession. Of a bird book. From before I was born. One doesn’t want to rush. Or flit even. Headlong. Into the present.
Entertaining. The dim notion. Of making a zine about everything I don’t know about sparrows. I order some tracing paper. Thinking of the lightness of feather. A friend in London says. Her 7-year-old has composed a poem about sparrows. I ask her to send it. Air Mail. I would like to come out of this thing knowing whatever it is 7-year-olds know about sparrows.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park issues a handy info-graphic. A conversion chart. For the measure. Of space. Between bodies. What does 2 metres look like? 9 Red Squirrels. 3 spaniels. 2 Swaledale Ewes. 1 Land Rover.
Please queue 12 sparrows apart. I Tweet. A friend replies with an old Borders verse:
3 sparrows, little owl
6 sparrows, crow or auk
9 sparrows, guineafowl
12 sparrows, safe to walk.
Walking down from the tops. Clutching an assortment. Of succulents. Collected from stone walls. In passing. To introduce to the stone wall. At the back of the garden. Of the house. Where I’ve been staying. Living but not nesting.
I pass a woman hacking at a tangle atop a stone wall. At the front of a garden. It’s my friend’s house. She says. They’re not able to travel. An odd sisterhood. Of women who tend to the succulent stone gardens of others. I tell her I panic-bought a bird feeder. She says she had to take hers in. The sparrows are such messy eaters. The fallen seeds. Attracted rats.
Talking on the phone one evening. To a friend out walking. The empty streets. Of London. He’s been taking photos. Of animals he sees. On signs mostly. And statuary. A bestiary, he calls it. I’m describing the black shapes. Blurring past my bedroom window. Bats, I think. Too close and fast and silent. To be birds. And then I see a darker shape. Moving across the garden gravel.
I race down the stairs. Still on the phone. Rat, I think. But no. A hedgehog! Feeding on fallen seeds. Utterly unperturbed by my greeting. A placid acceptance of inter-species enthusiasm.
In the pet food store. Again. Is there such a thing as hedgehog food? I ask. There is.
The back garden is of modest dimensions in terrestrial terms. But vast if considered vertically: worms, bugs, slugs, hedgehogs, robins, collared pigeons, sparrows, blackbirds, crows, rooks, bats, bees, breezes, swallows, swifts, kites, buzzards, cirrus, and the blue above.
I was a wing in heaven blue
Soared over the ocean…
And I was free
Settle. Langcliffe. London. Winging westwards. With two suitcases. This time. Toronto. Edmonton. amiskwacîwâskahikan. Treaty 6 Territory. So-called Canada. Geese amassing. Gearing up for migration. A sight. I’d forgotten. After a decade. In England. After a year. On the wing. I realise. I’ve internalised. A foreign climate. Where migratory birds. Don’t.
A trio of Trumpeter swans. Standing. On a ledge of thin ice. At the edge. Of kisiskâciwanisîpiy. From the Cree. For swift-flowing river. Swans. Standing. On ice. Feels profoundly wrong. I realise. I’ve internalised. Colonial attitudes. About swans. I blame the Queen.
Winter now. Ravens. Close and numerous. Clamorous. Except when silent. There’s no one word in English. For the sound wings make. Unfolding. Rustling. Black and ragged. Tree to tree. The word is pitihkwêkâstan. In Cree. A language. That listens to the world. And loves it.
That week before lockdown. When we should have been in lockdown. Before the independent bookstore closed down. I ordered Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble. And didn’t read a word of it. So much trouble to stay with. Carried the trouble with me. Have it here beside me.
Cover art by Geraldine Javier. A collage drawing. Of pelvis and spine. A butterfly where the head should be. As if. In place of thinking. We should be aiming. Towards metamorphoses. Skeletal feet where wings would be. As if. In place walking. We should be trying to fly.
Haraway writes of curiosity in the practice of the Belgian philosopher of science Vinciane Despret:
Despret listened to a singing blackbird one morning — a living blackbird outside her particular window — and that way learned what importance sounds like.
In the town of Settle. A pair of blackbirds. Nested in a hollow. In the stone wall. Also housing. The bathroom extractor fan. So I stopped using it. Started listening instead. Lying in the bathtub. Soaking. Healing. Thinking. Even this steam is a companion.
Slowly learning. Nesting is brief. What we’re after is breaking open. Breathing. Feeding. Fledgling. Flying. Free.
Joni Mitchell, “Black Crow,” Hejira. Asylum 1976
Patti Smith, “Wing,” Gone Again. Arista Records 1996
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene I, 1596
- R. Carpenter, This is a Picture of Wind. translated by Giles Latour. Versefest 2020
Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press 2016
With thanks to John Hammersley for the house, David Grange for the Borders verse, Christine Stewart for language that listens to the world, and Sharon Venne for the word pitihkwêkâstan.
J.R. Carpenter is an artist, writer, and researcher working across performance, print, and digital media. Her web-based work The Gathering Cloud won the New media Writing Prize 2016. Her debut poetry collection An Ocean of Static was highly commended by the Forward Prizes 2018. Her recent collection This is a Picture of Wind was one of The Guardian’s best poetry books of 2020. http://luckysoap.com