Sunday 20 March 2011

Suffolk: birds, reeds, Hölderlin and Bruisyard

photo copyright Ashley Dace

I’m staying on the edge of Blythburgh, a few minutes’ walk from the marsh on the River Blyth estuary.  Have just been there to see what birds are around at dusk.  There’s a bird-hide down a path through the reeds.  I wish I’d brought the connection that downloads photos from my camera; as I haven’t, this is someone else’s photo. 

Mostly it’s a bird-city here, even a gull-slum – but just now, though it’s low tide, there were only a few: an avocet taking long-beak swipes at its own reflection in the mud; a backing group of 3 more (oh, they are so sweet); a curlew whose white-underneath tail end made it look as if it was wearing a too-short tutu each time it upended to jab the mud; a few shelduck showing up well in the dark; some redshanks; a few smaller waders hard to see but maybe dunlin; and a helmet-like duck head that when the rest of the bird emerged would have been exotic, except that it was a mallard. 

When I lifted the binoculars to look at the far shore, I was startled to see giant black shapes lumbering along, which were cows. 

By the way, I’m not a bird expert but like watching them, it’s a way of getting transported somewhere, not quite sure where...  I have also seen some bearded tits!  Yes, that’s a bird, believe it or not – and rare, they live  in the reeds. 

As it gets darker, the washed-out reeds turn brown, bright brown in contrast to the grey water/mud/sky.  Yesterday morning around high tide, they were cracking – the sound came from the waterlogged ground they grow out of, so must have been made by the water coming or going.  It was like standing in the middle of a bowl of Rice Krispies. 

The sound reminded me of Hölderlin’s poem ‘Hälfte des Lebens’:

         Mit gelben Birnen hänget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See,
Ihr holden Schwäne,
Und trunken von Küssen
Tunkt ihr das Haupt
Ins heilignüchterne Wasser.

Weh mir, wo nehm ich, wenn
Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo
Den Sonnenschein,
Und Schatten der Erde?
Die Mauern stehn
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen.

I cut-and-pasted this from the internet, hope it’s right, can’t check until I get home.  ‘Fahnen’ usually means flags, but the experts think here it may mean weathervanes (usually Wetterfahnen I think, am hampered by lack of German dictionary, not sure how far to trust online ones).  I translated this poem a while ago (because I love it) and wondered if in this context it could mean reeds or rushes.  ‘Klirren’ means clatter, rattle, clink.  And reeds do rattle in the wind, as anyone brought up in the Fens knows; and I wanted to be taken back to the lake.  Now I know reeds can also go snap, crackle, pop. 

        Half of Life                                         by Friedrich Hölderlin

The land with yellow pears
and full of wild roses
hangs down into the lake,
you lovely swans,
and drunk with kisses
you dip your heads
into the pure and holy water. 

But where, oh where shall I find
the flowers, when it's winter, and where
the sunlight,
and shadows on the ground?
The walls stand
speechless and cold, the reeds
rattle in the wind. 

That’s how I translated it.  Thanks to a commentary on the poem by John Irons, here, I’ve found out that David Constantine and Michael Hamburger, who both know a hundred times more about this than I do, have weathervanes or weathercocks respectively, and clatter as the verb.  So that must be right. 

photo from
Here’s an angel from Blythburgh church, cathedral of the marshes, a very beautiful church so full of light that it seems to float when you’re inside.  Angels are all along the middle of the timber roof rafters.  She (I think it’s a she) may be praying to avert the next flood.  Several of the footpaths I’ve tried walking on have been closed because of flood damage, or for repairing flood defence works; or are signposted for humans but navigable only by  oyster-catchers and wigeon.  The River Blyth runs just below the church, so I hope she is praying really hard.

The reason I’m here is that I spent last week at a seminar organised by the Poetry Trust, bless them, at Bruisyard Hall near here.  Eight of us were extremely spoiled for five days, tutored by the incomparable Michael Laskey and Peter Sansom (hardly need say that the adjective is meant for both).   We all had a lovely time, and I think everyone wrote quite a lot… anyway, there must have been something in the water, or air, or Maggie’s amazing cooking, because for the first time ever I was able to write in workshops.  Usually, even if surrounded by people I know a bit, I just can’t do that. 

So I’m staying up here in order to write, in the hope that more of the magic will stick than would at home.  So far it’s working, touch wood, despite cold-but-soft spring weather and a cottage with lots of books in it, from Dostoyevsky to Woolf, le Carré to Christie, and much else including Do Cats Need Shrinks?, Death by Spaghetti and St Bridget of Sweden.  Plus one of the few Rebus books I haven’t read, which I’m going to read now as an antidote to poetry.  And dvds, and a rather dodgy internet connection which wasn’t working when I wanted to post this earlier. 


  1. About to spend a day just off the Euston Road - I'll take this with me (mentally) - thanks for the angel and the translation. Ali

  2. Enjoyed the Hölderlin. Good to see a picture of the bird hide – I love the reedbeds around Blythburgh. Lovely picture of one of Holy Trinity's carved angels too. As you say, hope she's guarding such a fragile landscape. I do hope it's being protected not only from flooding but from development. Presumably Suffolk council and whatever's left of English Nature are protecting its SSSI/nature reserve status.

    Glad you saw a Bearded Tit. They're such delicate birds and I love the way they flit in and out of the reeds and 'ping' their presence. Talking of reedbeds I went to Oare marshes this morning and saw a Little Grebe sitting on its nest in the reedbed.

    It was very misty first thing and wonderfully atmospheric – there was a fishing boat like a ghost ship moored on the blurred border where the mudflats merged into mist and sea. It reminded me of Mark Doty's poem 'Fog Argument', where he writes about the New England coast: 'That edge where you/can't tell endings/from beginnings, life from/death, the land from/the sea'.

    Good to hear that the writing went well.

    Stephen Elves