Out On His Own

Hen Harrier Poems, Colin Simms (211pp, Shearsman)

Hen Harrier Poems is an extraordinary book. At well over two hundred pages (with little white space, often two pieces to a page) it's more hefty than many a Selected. The entire book focuses on hen harriers: the earliest piece is dated 1950; the last, only a couple of years ago, so the writing spans more than sixty years of bird-watching and note-keeping. (Even so, Hen Harrier Poems represents only a small part of Colin Simms's oeuvre: more than forty publications are listed in his 'Selected Publications' at the beginning of the book, including his 2007 Gyrfalcon Poems - also reviewed in Stride.)

But I'm puzzling over which readers to commend it to. Is it too much of a 'special interest' book for poets, with its focus on landscape, weather and a bird? That makes no odds of course where the making of the poems themselves is absorbing. There's a range of material here - from field notes as a page or two of prose ('As I arrived the bird had flushed a party of sixteen golden plover and was pursuing them in the manner expected more of a merlin
; low fast zigzagging, using the ripples of the land to tack') to notes which have been worked on and lineated, usually untitled but often dated:

          Feb 7th, 2005
     'Ringtail' hunting, Crossgill to Tynehead west side
     in intermittent sunshine from 7am. until 10
     puts up blackgame: 13, 4 and 11 toward Dorthgill,
     Raven 4, go away soon.

and on to pieces like 'Solway bivouac harrier', titled and presented as more developed poems:

     Parallelograms, rhombs of easy flight
     repeated beats under lozenges of cloud
     stirring stanzas summing reflecting light

Colin Simms's writing style is consistent over the years, but may be too full for some readers' taste - of whom I'm one. The heavy alliteration he often uses draws much attention to itself, taking my eye off the nest he's approaching in 1974:

     come upon her blunt chisel face as in lace
     fronds of the place - eyes coals-bright
     fringe of a girl's frock or shawl, light behind
     ferns, flourished as wing-feathers on the wind
     forever until found, asphodel flowers a few feet
     from her ground, coil spring stiff on her mound
                                                                (page 133)

But that's on the page; what would be the effect of hearing it aloud? He gives you memorable descriptions of a bird 'winnowing' the air, as well as some less so: 'her pinions / swirlsquaresshimmerscale-skin liquid'. Local people and their talk make a strong showing, especially in the north, and I enjoy his use of local words. (I'd prefer fewer uses of the word 'dihedral' and far fewer exclamation marks.)

How the text is organised isn't readily apparent. It has no chapters or sections or headings to help you find your way around. Most of the pieces are untitled. You move through notes and poems switching date and landscape and country and mood. Answer the phone, then pick up the text to resume reading and it's almost impossible to find the page you last read. Is there an underlying grouping based on the birds' activities? I'd need to read it a couple more times to be sure. 'Colin Simms isn't an easy poet' acknowledges Ian Macmillan in his recommendation on the cover - though I don't think there's anything intrinsically difficult
about the text itself. What Ian Macmillan may have had in mind is a sense of unstructuredness which, combined with the sheer amount of material, makes the text feel overwhelming: certainly it hasn't been edited with a reader's experience in mind. (The obvious reply is that what we call nature does not come in chapters.)

So do I commend it to readers wanting to know more about hen harriers? As it happens, I was one such - delighted when I opened the packet and found this book on my return from three days on a Scottish island where I'd seen my first hen harrier display. Yet curiously, the book hasn't really told me much more about the birds than I already knew. The first page of text (prose) did
surprise me: Colin Simms mentions 'some...breeding cocks display nowadays much less, or noticeably less conspicuously, than their forbears used to' - an atypical comment, drawing as it does on all the years of his observations, whereas almost all of the writing stays within the experience of its moment. I shall test the book on some bird-watching friends (though they may object to some remarks about 'twitchers'): will they enjoy reading someone else's field notes over their shoulder? I imagine so.

Field notes in poetry? Colin Simms is clear (page 18) about the purpose of the form he's using: 'I follow my friend Basil Bunting in believing, from experience, that information is carried best by poetry, verse.' The readers he has in mind are, I think, those interested in the bird - not poets reading the book like I have done. He continues 'Bunting insisted on the “music” of his work; that it should be heard.
My work is not poetry on his level but it is something else as new: a fresh genre of natural-history verse-making dealing with experience of a single species...'

This is an idiosyncratic and inventive way of writing natural history. Using verse as he does enables him to record his feeling and his own experience as part of the natural history he's observing, present in the field. This may enable 'armchair' naturalists to be drawn more deeply into his material. Certainly his way of working gives him a unique perspective on his subject and his lifetime's experience holds up admirably when it is at odds with received opinion. His 'Postscript'(not the last piece - the work goes on) explicitly addresses this. It's also one of the pieces which refuse to submit when arm-wrestled into lines:

     Bringing together these pieces to some sort of assembly
     in October 2008, I am sent a typical example of
     present-day media-opinion - the Daily Telegraph's
- under the
     heading 'Britain's rarest bird of prey not recovering'
                       .../... I get tired of trying to point out that the
     RSPB information is partial (in both senses...) and their 'missing birds'

           © Jane Routh 2015