Subsong, Holly Corfield Carr
National Trust Books, 2018 £8.00
Listening to Silence
This impressive illustrated sequence of poems, notes and songs, needs to be read in the quiet when you’ll hear them singing from every page. Holly Corfield Carr asks us to look and listen to the inner melody of nature’s voice — rather like its own orchestra tuning up.
At the pre-breeding stage, young birds present a lower frequency song that can only be heard if we find the silence to listen for it — their ‘subsong’ — as if they are practising and warming up for their full song our ears are more tuned to hearing.
In Carr’s piece based on the anonymous medieval poem ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’, a nightingale complains to an owl for wailing her all-winter-night-long song of ‘woe! / woe! / what a woe! / what a woe!’. Upset, the owl asks the nightingale to learn how to listen rather than beat on and on all day and night, saying: ‘I sing even with full dream and loud voice’.
But it’s not only birdsong we hear — the inspiration for this collection comes from the sounds and sights the author experienced while wandering amongst ancient rocks along the coastline of Dorset / Devon — echoes that emerge from stones, out of landscapes, and from the very ground we walk on, sounds no longer heard unless we allow ourselves the silence in which to listen, as in ‘Sound’:
In the rock, echoes take place
upwardly from that one dark line
so exactly like the shock of a jay
whose crushed love all at once sings
like burnt compacted ash sings
in a land alive with rain.
In ‘Drum’, even dreams were once a sound to be listened for:
A rain would dream a ruckus at our window.
A bell would dream us awake
It’s a privilege to discover this collection — for me it teaches something significant about the value of listening. In a modern world full of white noise, it’s a reminder of what we seem to have forgotten, namely that we too have an inner voice and by listening in silence we’ll come to respect its wisdom and experience before uttering words we may regret.