Like a bird on the wire

For much of this past year an imperfect Mistle Thrush sang from first light to last, in the tall trees that border the field behind my home.  Imperfect in that he had only one leg.

Sometimes, in the afternoons, he would leave the swaying branches at the tip of his favourite ash, to sing from the ridge of the house. In these hours, looking up through the studio roof lights, it was possible to see quite clearly his single pale yellow leg, the delicate pink inside of his mouth, the exquisite dappling of greys and cream on his breast and the sheer bodily effort of every note thrown, head back, into the valley.

For months this hand-full of a bird sang all day and every day.  He sang from four in the morning, through March winds and the long hours of June afternoons, until well after field and hedge smudged into the blue-dark of night.  I wondered when he ate, let alone procreated.  In fact I’m pretty sure he didn’t. How can you eat when you have to make sure the world keeps turning? 

Sometimes but only sometimes, in the stillness of evening air, I would hear another thrush calling back an equally elaborate paragraph or two from some oak-top, deep in the valley.

For me, (radio off – unable to take the diet of lies and fear), thrush-song accompanied my every working day. Until late in July when he stopped singing. Quite suddenly from one day to the next.  This is completely normal – all birds go quiet around the time of their annual moult.  Why announce your presence to the world when you are drab and short of feathers to fly with? And now, although the world does apparently continue to turn – the valley seems somehow empty without him.  

The following thoughts – intended as metaphor –  are emphatically not  projection or anthropomorphism.  They have waited, unpublished in my note book for some months.  I’m hesitant to write them out, even now.  After all, what place poetry in a time of catastrophe? 


I have wondered in these quieter months of autumn, in the calm exile of work, if there is something of the song thrush in the painter or poet?  Do you draw all day because you don’t know what else to do with life?   Do you write to sing the world into existence?


You work in all weathers, (real,  political and economic),  and although you are intimate with every species of fear, you cannot know fear.  You cannot stop.

With all you have, you try first this phrase and then that, you return to themes over and then over again.  You try the same sequence – starting in a different place. You insist, you persist.  Each mark follows the one before – hard won.  Each line works against the silence – staccato bursts – in themselves and in the moment, entirely abstract…approaching music.

By definition you are improbably and impossibly fragile – unprotected.  No more than a handful of blood, bones and dappled feathers; you exist to sing.  No, not to sing – to hurl your mad songs, (for they are many), again and again, into the world, lest it stop turning, lest, heaven help us, it doesn’t make sense after all.

“Presence” Charcoal on paper. 40″ X 60″ © Sarah Gillespie 2016

Last night, having written the above but still unsure whether to hit ‘publish’, I went to bed, opened my new copy of Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes, and read the following:
“Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of.  Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic – makes it poetry. The writer daren’t actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely, smuggled through analogies…we’re actually saying something we desperately need to share.  The real mystery is this strange need.  Why can’t we just hide it and shut up? Why do we have to blab? Why do human beings need to confess? Maybe if you don’t have that secret confession, you don’t have a poem – don’t even have a story.”
Ted Hughes interviewed for the Paris Review (Spring 1995) 



6 comments on “Like a bird on the wire

  1. Kateri on

    Hi Sarah. I stumbled upon your blog and website and have enjoyed spending time here so much. I’ve read several postings. I feel like I have found a kindred soul. Truly beautiful in every way, all that is here. I look forward, so much, to reading more.

    • Sarah Gillespie on

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. The writing doesn’t come easy, which is why I don’t post very often, so its lovely when someone ‘gets it’ and responds so warmly.

      • Kateri on

        Sarah, I️ understand about words not coming easy, but like anything we do from a place of authenticity, nothing beautiful or worthwhile come easy. I’m grateful to have found your words and your art. I’ll be checking in 🙂

  2. Kateri on

    I hope you don’t mind, but I want to share a story. For many years a woodthrush would come back to my woods and begin to sing its silvery song. Every year…on May 1. It was my ritual to wander outside on that morning, steaming coffee in my hand, and sit….and listen. And every year, on May 1, I heard that most beautiful song. Several; years ago I decided I wanted to paint a woodthrush. I hesitated because I have not seen the illusive bird in life, only in books and field guides. Nonetheless I began to sketch him as I imagined he would be, using field guides as a resource. One after noon I had out my paint brush down to take a break and sit outside. As I stepped onto to my patio I saw a tiny creature lying near one of my windows. I walked to it and my heart just sank. It was the woodthrush. I sat with him for a time and said a quiet prayer. I held him and admire every centimetre. I was in awe of his chestnut markings, his lovely spots and creamy white feathers. I laid him to rest and put the painting away. Somehow I felt it significant that I was just painting him…and then there he was, dead.

    The thing is, I’ve never heard a woodthrush in my forest ever since. He has become a mystical creature to me. Your story above meant a lot. Thank you.

  3. Michael Chaitow on

    This is the first time I have seen your work , Sarah , on your web-site . I find your work very moving & attractive . Yes there is poetry in your work , the observation , the understatement , a moving prescence, held moments in Nature that collectively touch us .
    I would like to see originals ..
    Incidentally your mother , Ann , used to come to my course , here in Bath , & I am still in contact with her .
    Best wishes Michael Chaitow


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