she is of wind and
sheer air alone at the nest-steading turns
voice so rare it burns air clipped as the sea erne's is
['Gyr at the eyrie']
Colin Simms is a naturalist with a long list of publications and years of
experience. With its very specific and intense focus on one rare bird of
prey, this book comes across as a sort of homage to both the elusive creature
itself - 'there's nothing so uncertain
as a Certainty'! [ 'The Chairman of a Natural History Society'] ─ and to the process of field work.
Full of atmospheric descriptions -
'stand still in the melt, and sink/ inches into the muskeg's ink'
['mirage'] - it can also be read as a celebration of wild places, the moors
and mountains of the north, Norway, Iceland, Alaska.
The writing has an energy about it which reflects the excitement, singleness
of purpose and sheer fun of the quest. There is a distinctive musicality and
playfulness: alliteration, assonance, rhythm, rhyme, tricks with double
meanings and a humourous relish for dialect and the colloquial. It is the
writing of someone enjoying what he does both as a naturalist and as a poet.
Coming out of the mirage its one hard fixed thing, point, (spear)
not dovekie's, kitty-weyek's or Snow Bunting. None near
but the level-rowing single scull of The Long Wing. As sere
as that old sail, spar, and as frost-tipped but you still steer
toward it, in the heart...
Footnotes tell us the origins of many of the pieces go back decades, perhaps
as cryptic jottings or brief memoranda, later to be worked up and embellished
by memory. Many precisely observed and vivid descriptions of the bird itself
reward the reader with a sense of discovery and recognition, but awkward
syntax can carry something of the style of field notes, the urgency of
observations and comparisons put down before being forgotten or superceded.
And in the more finely worked pieces the density of ideas and imagery, together with cumbersome phrasing and
the soundplay in the words, can make heavy weather for the casual reader.
However, difficult though some of this writing can be, it is alive with the
poet's love of his subjects, the natural world and the language:
me in my bed sometimes when, for better phrases say,
I'd be out for the 'set' of the words that gives them this land!
A territory between poetry and naturalist's log is suggested by the inclusion
of a few prose accounts and statistics as well as illustrations. Some of the
latter are clearly quick on-the-spot sketches, presumably of interest to
other naturalists and bird-watchers, but not intrinsically pieces of
art. For this mix to work a
reader of poetry needs be drawn into the naturalist's world and/or the
naturalist reader be enlivened by the poetry. But here the naturalist's need
to observe and record everything seems to have won out over the poet's need
to edit and reduce. As a reader familiar with many of the northern haunts
described, and sympathetic to the naturalist's pre-occupations, I relish much
of the description but find the density of the writing and repetitive nature
of the subject hard to stick with for more than a dozen pages at a time.
Perhaps it's best digested in small doses, a way into wild and difficult
places easily retreated from when the going gets tedious.
© Mike Barlow 2008