Of Wind and Sheer Air Alone


Gyrfalcon Poems, Colin Simms [108pp, Shearsman ]


she is of wind and sheer air alone at the nest-steading turns
        voice so rare it burns air clipped as the sea erne's is
                     ['Gyr at the eyrie']

Colin Simms is a naturalist with a long list of publications and years of experience. With its very specific and intense focus on one rare bird of prey, this book comes across as a sort of homage to both the elusive creature itself  - 'there's nothing so uncertain as a Certainty'! [ 'The Chairman of a Natural History Society'] ─  and to the process of field work. Full of atmospheric descriptions -  'stand still in the melt, and sink/ inches into the muskeg's ink' ['mirage'] - it can also be read as a celebration of wild places, the moors and mountains of the north, Norway, Iceland, Alaska.

The writing has an energy about it which reflects the excitement, singleness of purpose and sheer fun of the quest. There is a distinctive musicality and playfulness: alliteration, assonance, rhythm, rhyme, tricks with double meanings and a humourous relish for dialect and the colloquial. It is the writing of someone enjoying what he does both as a naturalist and as a poet.

        Coming out of the mirage its one hard fixed thing, point, (spear)
        not dovekie's, kitty-weyek's or Snow Bunting. None near
        but the level-rowing single scull of The Long Wing. As sere
        as that old sail, spar, and as frost-tipped but you still steer
        toward it, in the heart...
                       ['Gyr']

Footnotes tell us the origins of many of the pieces go back decades, perhaps as cryptic jottings or brief memoranda, later to be worked up and embellished by memory. Many precisely observed and vivid descriptions of the bird itself reward the reader with a sense of discovery and recognition, but awkward syntax can carry something of the style of field notes, the urgency of observations and comparisons put down before being forgotten or superceded. And in the more finely worked pieces the density of ideas and imagery,  together with cumbersome phrasing and the soundplay in the words, can make heavy weather for the casual reader. However, difficult though some of this writing can be, it is alive with the poet's love of his subjects, the natural world and the language:

       me in my bed sometimes when, for better phrases say,
       I'd be out for the 'set' of the words that gives them this land!
                      ['Gyr windbird']

A territory between poetry and naturalist's log is suggested by the inclusion of a few prose accounts and statistics as well as illustrations. Some of the latter are clearly quick on-the-spot sketches, presumably of interest to other naturalists and bird-watchers, but not intrinsically pieces of art.  For this mix to work a reader of poetry needs be drawn into the naturalist's world and/or the naturalist reader be enlivened by the poetry. But here the naturalist's need to observe and record everything seems to have won out over the poet's need to edit and reduce. As a reader familiar with many of the northern haunts described, and sympathetic to the naturalist's pre-occupations, I relish much of the description but find the density of the writing and repetitive nature of the subject hard to stick with for more than a dozen pages at a time. Perhaps it's best digested in small doses, a way into wild and difficult places easily retreated from when the going gets tedious.

                  Mike Barlow 2008