christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: birds

The Cloud Collector

He keeps cirrus in the cellar,
stratocumulus stuffed like insulation in the loft.
Spare rooms billow with altostratus.
Outside, the sky is a cloudless blue.
He roams the hills with a Hoover and scoops
clouds from summits in butterfly nets,
bagging them on the quiet; he stitches
them into the lining of his jackets
presses them into the boot of his car.
Each summer, he rents a beach hut,
plain white, with yellow bunting hanging
above the door like a row of crows’ beaks.
He watches waves curl like rolling papers
and waits for the clouds to blow in from the sea.

 cromer collage

The Hay-Man and the Scarecrow Princess

A princess danced in the middle of spring
in ragged white skirts with her heart on a string.
She had a sheep bone jaw and stones for eyes
a cornflower gown and a tiara of flies.

She had perched all winter through frost and thaw,
heard the song of the robin, the old crow’s caw,
dreaming of fox gloves, poppies and teasel,
a friend to the badger, the field mouse and weasel.

In bog beans and brambles a hay-man stood
as lonely as a beech tree away from the wood.
His heart cried out for the princess of straw
who he watched from the hill and loved her more.

Through summers of heartache, winters of grief,
they were divided by ditches, bracken and heath.
Fixed to the earth, staring up at the sky
friend of the birds, he wondered why,

they could not be together and dance in the wind
their rags flapping gently, even though they were pinned,
he wanted to know if she felt the same way
or if she was happy alone in the hay.


So he called for a swift who was quick through the air
and sent her a stitchwort to slip in her hair.
He waited ’till dusk for a gift in return
but nothing came back, no flower or fern.

So he spent the next day feeling sorry and flat
while a sparrow made its nest in his old top hat .
It left speckled eggs in his old jacket pocket
while his eye came loose in his old eye socket.

The princess meanwhile watched each setting sun
as the world slowly turned and she had begun
to wonder if ever a prince would see
her dance in the clover, and say, marry me.

For though she was not but a mile away
from the man on the hill, she faced the wrong way.
She could not look upon his scarecrow face
or see how he longed for her soft embrace.

Then one day the clouds turned black
a barn door blew open and then blew back.
The rain clattered down, on the rooftops it beat,
it splattered the mud and darkened the wheat.

But when the storm passed, it was then they found
the wind had blown the princess around.
As the sun crept out of its cloud hideaway
the scarecrow gazed upon his princess of hay.

Their love grew strong, that pearl of a summer,
and at every night’s end they danced for each other
and so all that was left, was one last thing:
she sent over at last her heart on a string.

But it was carried in the beak of a mean-hearted swallow
who dropped it down into a tree’s dark hollow.
The hay man waited for the heart to arrive
as a blood-red sun set in the blood-red sky.

Until at last he sent out his old friends the crows
who rescued the heart and dropped it down at his toes.
And the moment it fell there, a strange light shone,
a real man stood and the hay-man was gone.

He strolled down the hill, his shirt flapped in the breeze
and holding wild flowers, he went down on his knees
at the feet of the princess, now warm to the touch
and said, ‘do you love me’; she said ‘yes, very much.’

And so they married in a field of white flowers
in the eyes of the birds, in the cool evening hours.
A confetti of petals were dropped from the sky
then they slept in the poppies, the orchids and rye.


Starling Wonder

I wrote a poem about a long lost Beatles album and had to think of names for the songs; there were things like The Party At The Centre Of the Earth and Carnaby Streetlights. There was also one called Starling Wonder which might have sounded like this. The tuning is BGDGAD with a capo on the fifth fret.

starling murmurations taken at RSPB Minsmere nature reserve in Suffolk. @RSPB


St Joseph and the Mumuration

I had seen miracles before
but not like this; these starlings in flight
like a cloud of dust; this dance of the heavens.
Staring up, the sky bulged; it billowed
with a hundred thousand of them.
They swooped and for a moment
became a single bird; a kestrel
stumbling, my staff struck rock.

I cowered in a hollow as the flock
swirled like the gas at the start of the universe.
Then one soared up, led the others to a cloud
where they sketched the face of a man
a print on a shroud, before finally roosting
Like a constellation fallen to Earth.

starlings suffolk

From England Underwater by Christopher James

Humming-Bird: the imagination and achievement of DH Lawrence

For those who only know DH Lawrence’s poetry from his more formal pieces, like Piano and Bavarian Gentians, the poems from Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923) are a revelation.  They have a spontaneity and uncanny modernity, freed entirely from the constraints of the Georgians. They follow quick thought patterns, snapping with fleeting synaptic connections and a first draft sense of freshness, as if they have been jotted down in the moment of conception.  They are also humorous, not afraid to be childlike in their sense of wonder (and ignorance). They are both highly personal and universal – and totally without pretence.


Humming-Bird is one such example, quivering with life on the page. The scene is set in a void – early Earth: ‘some otherworld/primeval-dumb . . ./in that most awful stillness’. When the bird appears, it flashes through the poem; ‘it races down the avenues’ goes ‘whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems’. Lawrence controls the pace of the poem beautifully – contrasting the lumbering ‘heave of Matter’ with the agility and darting pace of this tiny bird, which is ‘a little bit chipped off in brilliance’. These clipped lines, contrast with the long vowels of ‘most awful’ and ‘heave.’ The various line lengths also underline this contrast between the world’s ‘slow vegetable veins’ and this fleet-winged bird. It begins with a standard iambic line, followed by a shorter, irregular line, immediately followed by a longer one. The poem bubbles and hisses like an unstable experiment, mirroring the alternating order and chaos inherent in creation.

But what is the hummingbird? What does it stand for? Is it Lawrence’s imagination – which ‘flashed ahead of creation’ or perhaps Lawrence himself: a fearless creative force, underlining his irreverence for the establishment; his refusal to respect the lumbering status quo. He valued sense and feeling above science and reason, the colour and light of love, culture, travel and modernity ahead of the dull monochrome existence of the 19th century. He ruffled the feathers of the censors, the publishing industry and the tastemakers.

It ends with good humour; the thought that this prehistoric hummingbird was ‘once big’ – ‘a jabbing, terrifying monster’ and that we see his smaller, contemporary counterpart ‘through the long telescope of time/luckily for us.’ It is a relief, he says, to live in some tame times – while reminding us that we were not always masters of creation. He warns us against complacency, against the danger of refusing to evolve – that there will also be something new to displace the old.

But what is his achievement with this poem? That he is able to articulate the essence of the bird, its life-force and evoke the cumulative, hidden power of its evolution. The vast scale of the poem  – the whole world – is contrasted with the pinpoint focus on this single bird. The lightness of touch, the immediacy of the voice and quicksilver language are the perfect embodiment of this wondrous bird. The implied message about a new wave of creative thought and achievement provides an added frisson.


I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where humming-birds flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.

We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of time,
Luckily for us.

The Nest


This one bedroom open plan studio nest is offered for sale chain free on the fashionable north side of the city on a gently swaying branch. Access is via a mature beech tree, although the vendor will offer flying lessons to genuinely interested parties. The property would suit smaller buyers, meteorologists, and those not planning an extended stay in the city.

A nest, yesterday

Largely of wood construction, the property retains many original features including bracken, leaves, twigs, and moss carpets throughout. Local amenities include a plentiful supply of grubs and worms, and buds as sweet as honeysuckle. Leisure facilities include the close-by sky, extensive pavement network and the warmth of the sun. Accommodation comprises a single large living room. The property is sold without a bathroom, however a delightful tree canopy offers leafy shade in the summer and conservatory-style space in the winter.

Planning permission has been granted for a second nest in the upper tree canopy. Residents will enjoy the cosmopolitan atmosphere, regular choral and discussion groups and all the benefits you would associate with loft living. Winter accommodation is situated in the lower branches and the southern hemisphere. The nest is part of a secure development with a shared janitor offering a morning call service to residents. The buyer will be responsible for the upkeep of their own branch, must have a good sense of balance and own their own set of wings. The price reflects the vendor’s wish for a quick sale due to emigration. Please note cuckoo gazumping syndicates need not apply.