Vol. 38 No. 10 · 19 May 2016

Crane Watching in Ostprignitz-Ruppin, November 2014

John Burnside

397 words

for Lucas

There is too much light in the world
to bear the weight
of Euclid, too much
fog, with shore birds, bright in the salt-water channels
thinning the sands, the Black-Tailed

Godwit, the Curlew
Sandpiper, named
from the field guide, but still
uncertain, still
defiantly heraldic.

I’ve lived through days like these
before and scarcely
noticed, skylarks
hidden in my sleeves, whole afternoons
of stork

and oriole.
I’ve learned to recognise
their several customs,
how some birds appear on the wind, while others
arrive in a flurry of snow

from who knows where,
finding the last of the haws
on a thorn tree, then gusting away
in a scatter of shadow
and ice,

and these are the ones I have loved, beyond all
geometry: snow bunting, fieldfare,
waxwing – it barely
matters, when the whole idea
is colour:

how, sleepless and given to bouts
of fasting, I have come to share their hoard
of pearl-grey and blue
and scarlet, as I vanished from a world
I’ve had to learn by rote

since I was born.
Maybe it’s what I guessed at, years ago,
coming from church to something not yet
visible, but felt,
along the hedge, a weather

quietly set aside, while I laid
the table, all the while
conscious that something was there, at the scullery door,
or pressed to the kitchen window, the green of it
urgent as rain.

To think that so little persists
beyond that unlearning:
another gravity,
a subtler motion;
but, given the choice,

I would live at the end of the season,
the last day of autumn,
the men at the Linum fish-house
laughing and cracking jokes

as the dark seeps in,
night on the ponds,
where the next wave of cranes have come
to settle in their thousands,

ciphers of grey and crimson
vanishing into the reeds
as they settle down.
On Hauptstrasse, under the streetlamps,
the stalls are piled with gourds

and pumpkins, brick red and butter
yellow, finely
ridged or smooth as glass.
An owl calls from the far end of the track
that runs out to a wash of marsh and sky,

then everything is still: the street, the moon,
the fish-house, with its red and yellow
lanterns draped on lines along the pier,
making a place like home, from a little light,
their muddled reflections spotted with pondweed and stars.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences