Good Ground Beneath My Feet (Poems from Iona), Martin Hayden
The Garlic Press, 2020 £6.00
Martin Hayden is an ornithologist who writes warmly about animals and people as well as birds. He’s a visitor/helper at Iona’s religious community so while some poems look at, others are about looking for — and sometimes the two come fruitfully together, as in‘God and the Corncrake’:
Sword-like leaves in clusters, the iris beds
quicken and grow dense from April into May,
attracting rows of visitors with tripods:
their heads, their ’scopes and cameras point one way.
They lift the whole paraphernalia
each time the rasping ripping-velcro of the call
[…] shifts its stall,
their crouching backs undeterred by failure
Lovely descriptions! And, as this is a sonnet, there’s a ‘turn’ coming, leading to the conclusion:
Imagine the fervour and commotion when they know
behind them there’s a plain and doughty bird
on its favourite evening stone in open show.
Poet, as well as reader, is amused. Since the title mentions God, one wonders if this is by more than ornithological error. Even a cursory reading of other poems in the pamphlet, however, establishes that Hayden — erudition notwithstanding — is a tentative seeker, not someone claiming to have the answers. He includes himself among those who may at times face the wrong way spiritually.
This is clear in ‘Traigh Bhan Nam Monach’ (playfully translated as ‘The Place of Openness to Many Directions’). A description of gannets ‘wheeling sun-white wings / whiter than the wave-tops’ is followed by ‘ringed plover, the flock / perfectly spaced through every veer and swerve / knowing in every feather how they’re thrown and held / by the pummelling wind […]’. This is skilful writing, applicable to one feeling upheld by God in testing times. Then we are introduced a pilgrim who:
grasps my shoulder for the one word, ‘Magic!’
though I find I cannot speak to thank him,
a tongue-tied ex-teacher
seeking the sine qua non,
a would-be latter-day St Francis
preached to by the birds.
There is profound modesty here.