The Best of May


the small brown birds
wisely reiterating endlessly
what no man learnt yet, in or out of school

          ~ Edward Thomas

chalk’s cursive
loop, line and curlicue
whiter than the moon
more black than the earth
the peewit and its cry

It would be too much to bear without my window to the sky and the morning sun to blot my copybook.

“Price, why aren’t you writing”?

“I can’t find my pen, Miss”.

Before I can blink she’s at my desk, conjures my pen from the disorder, slams down the lid.

“You don’t look farther than your nose”!

I’m grateful that my pen is full and that there is some freedom in monotony. Swoop and glide, wing-tip and tail-streamers, briefly in formation – break! You might look, Miss, but do you see? I walk the same paths each day, but it takes autumn, with the wind in her fingers, to uncover the industry of spring. The birds’ nests (some torn, others dislodged, all dark) are suddenly plain to see, high or low in tree or hedgerow. Do you feel some shame, Miss, like me, that you passed most by even at eye’s level till the leaves blew off and made the seeing no game?

drilled to chant
to learn by rote and rhyme
nine times nine times nine,
not for the joy of singing
like the dunnock in the hedge

Hours and lessons blend one into the other. Yet I could stand at the end of the lane and hear all day long the thrush repeat his song. What does he have to say with such diligent abandon, and always from the tallest pine — can you answer me that?

History next. Many an age, unforgotten and lost – the men that were, the things done long ago. The Battle of Hastings, 1066. “One in the eye for Harold”, quips Stanley, the class clown. What matters is that I can think of nothing but summer’s end and the swift’s black bow stretched in the harvest blue.

was the arrow fletched
by Matilda’s fair hand?
stitches in time…
the starlings parleying
then as now

Was the tapestry the handiwork of the French queen and her gentlewomen, or was it the pride and joy of the Canterbury guild? I sit with my own swatch of Bayeux, think of my grandfather’s war and the still, green pond, the tall reeds like criss-cross bayonets, where a bird once called.

Miss commends
my satin stitch,
my French knots,
my too-long thread
my slapdash finishing

Over-sewing. The pattern of my thoughts. Maths, History, Science. Enough hills and sheep-tracks for my mind to wander.

The bend in the river, my favourite place of all, where the children have flattened the bank…silvered it between the moss with the current of their feet.

shadows of minnows
weightless as words and dreams
sun on the water
I stepped in, a child,
but wade with adult feet

The last hour in this fusty room. Each tick of the clock takes me half a breath closer. Poetry, at least, is a better way to bide my time. Will you choose me, you English words?

how shrill, how pure,
the one sound under the sky
three notes, clear by heart
my day begins
with the final bell

what did you learn
in school today?
after the rain
the chittering of warblers,
how green the reeds!

Author’s note: italics indicate lines excerpted from the Collected Poems of Edward Thomas (1878-1917).

Contemporary Haibun Online, 8:3, October 2012


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