Now the Robin, Hamish Whyte
HappenStance Press, 2018 £5.00
A relaxation of poems
Charmed by the robin on the cover, watching for him from the opening lines (‘Looking Out’), following the life of a garden through the poems, for a while I missed seeing how shapely they are and how much the title poem stands out from the others, because of form.
‘Now the Robin’ is an almost square of words, a ‘writing / to the edge of the page’ with a freedom from punctuation that slows you down as you read. There’s nothing spare. I like the way it’s contained on the page (a freedom of words caught in an invisible box) and how the last line stops short of completing the shape, allowing the eye to linger over ‘everything is green shadow’.
There’s a relaxing stillness in the garden: ‘cross my legs lilt / straw hat doze a bit it’s easy to feel the world’s this garden’. An invocation of the senses adds to the enchantment.
In ‘Treasure Garden’:
with eye patch
a wooden leg
and a rusty
and I’m hooked by the image, by the easy-on-the-eye repeating shape, caught up in the journey to his ‘trove’ of flowers, lulled by an imagined humming.
‘Dominic’s Hens’ opens with another colourful image:
A parcel of grey and black hens
came at my white gate this morning
red combs bobbing —
It’s easy to imagine the clucking and chucking outside the gate (such a relaxing sound if you sit and listen).
‘Hypnagogic’ is relaxation caught in a poem. Yellow poppies catch the eye. So do the closing lines:
I close my eyes again
and see the flowers.
The quiet after a storm brings a sharp clarity (‘8 February, 2016’):
the sun hits the shed door
the damp wood lights up
the drops of rain on the rose branch
are crystal, the fuchsia leaves
are greener, the blackbird’s beak
I search for a half-remembered quotation, fail to find it, only to be reminded of ‘the robin who showed the way’ (Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden), which takes me back to the robin on the cover ...
‘Days are where we live’ wrote Philip Larkin (in ‘Days’) but writing about them (their routine ordinariness, their lack of drama, their simple everyday-ness) demands a quality of observation that eludes many poets. That fashion for flashy titles, the lure of the surreal, the mind-stretching cryptic nature of the abstruse – you know what I mean.
Hamish Whyte has none of that. He is writing in the present, in the small world of everyday and its birds – the regulars who turn up for crumbs, who are our daily companions all the year round. These aren’t the celebrity summer visitors – the first cuckoo/swift/swallow, or the web-cammed peregrine nest on the cathedral spire. Unglamorous (possibly) but loved, the robin (as in Whyte’s title) is Britain’s most popular bird.
I’m looking out for the robin,
the robin’s looking out for me.
A matter of reciprocity: rituals of feeding crumbs, the pecking order of the garden, where (for the birds) it’s all about the basics of survival. So a pared-back simplicity in language suits this subject –
The blue tits flit
at the coconut shell hanging
from the clothes pole,
empty it of fat
dab by dab.
Movement is closely observed. The birds flit ‘at’ the shell, and dabbing is what they do. That motion leads to the next line – ‘They’re anxious birds’. Exactly. This poem is all small movements and worry, even for the poet, who ends with
I’m anxious too, about many things –
though not about lunch.
Which brings me to the dunnocks, a word on which my state-of-the-art Mac bestows the red underlining of doubt, querying the spelling or even the existence of the word.
Dunnocks: small brown loyal birds, so familiar they get little mention in the wider poetic world, although Whyte notes them ‘chittering in the hedge’ (a perfect echo of their sound) and their place in avian society. When the Oxford Junior Dictionary cut a number of words (acorn, kingfisher, bluebell, for example), deeming them obsolete, there was an outcry. Now my computer doubts the dunnock. We need poets like Hamish Whyte to continue naming what we see – and showing our world so exactly.