This is my uncle’s seventy year-old doodle,
the Squander Bug still stuck,
though yellowed and foxed, on the top of the chest.
Every box inside is crammed with eggs,
there must be one of each species to be found
a bike ride’s radius around Deopham.
All have the date and place they were taken,
some with an extra note, like the moorhen’s:
From the dyke, west end of the Yank airfield.
I slipped off the branch of a rotting sallow.
Drenched, tore my trousers and rawed my knee.
Mother wholly cross when I got home.
There’s a Golden Syrup tin of Coke bottle tops,
Hershey’s Bar wrappers, 50 calibre casings
and a 1941 DiMaggio card –
then there are lists and dates of those other raids,
the B-17s he counted back:
The Duchess of FUBAR, Why Worry,
That’s All Jack, Sunrise Serenade.
The wisecrack invention of so many names
in a receipt book of his own notation,
ticks and red ink crosses, and at the back,
under browned tape, the crushed platelets
of a skylark egg, some hair-trigger bones.
From the Ussuri
for Sooyong Park and his field research on the Siberian Tiger
Despite all orders of the state
eighty years ago, to renounce belief
in the animals and forest, to give up
every notion of totems and spirits,
there are those, even now, who persist
with the old drums. And the stories –
that the soul of a man returns
to a willow, and woman’s to a birch;
or, long ago, that there was one person
who gave birth to all the sadness
that will ever come to the forest.
Sooyong, I don’t know what you believed
though I can imagine the rolling of the sea,
some order in the emergence of stars each night;
your night-lens, winter-long vigil
with something calling between sleep:
To wait for a tiger is to wait for yourself –
you tracked around the Basin of Skeletons.
Yet all that truly translates is the moment
of leaving your 2m2 bunker:
six months of a body’s rankness, dandruff;
watery-eyed in the thawing and unsteady
with muscle wastage. Returning
through the first flowers, (I have looked them up):
foxtails, azaleas, white chrysanthemums,
with all the longing and silences you have kept
and will now break but somehow deepen.
I’ll need you for an old dog rose,
it’s all scrambled up and through the sallows
at the choked dyke. It’ll be hard graft,
so bring rough gloves and drink.
Scrambled up and through the sallows,
it’s all thorn with no flower.
Bring your roughest gloves and drink.
Not one stem will brash –
it’s all thorn with no flower,
but we’ll set the fire close
and as no stem will brash
we’ll burn that scrub of grief.
With the fire set close
we can make quick work of deadwood,
burn that scrub of grief,
drag it, hand over hand.
We can make quick work of deadwood.
We’ll haul out our own hollow,
drag it, hand over hand
and though thorn can near wreck a man
we’ll haul our own hollow.
It’ll be hard graft by the choked dyke.
You know thorn can near wreck a man,
so I’ll need you for that old dog rose.
Take a robin’s pincushion, witch’s broom,
a juniper’s swollen tongue of fire; even better,
go raw your knuckles knocking on an oak trunk.
Then see all this fretting, this tease, as no more
than a similar gushing forth. An ooze; an outgrowth;
a disease: clubroot, rust, powdery scab, canker,
or an egg laid in a leaf or flower bud.
So it all comes with some altering of the tissues,
the lava still unfolding within
a green, sticky chamber. And it’s unflinching,
that gnawing idea of you and me,
this small, glistening thing
working a way free by sheer force
of its own mandible, maxilla and labium.
Matt Howard lives in Norwich, where he works for the RSPB. Matt is also a steering group member of New Networks for Nature, an eco-organisation that asserts the central importance of landscape and nature in our cultural life. His debut pamphlet, The Organ Box, is published by Eyewear.
You can read more of Matt’s poems on The Compass HERE