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HALCYON (AN ESSAY)
(A 12 minute reading of the essay Halcyon can be found on vimeo.com/2551294. Access by googling Mark Roper Halcyon)
My mother had a very strong need to be outside, in the fresh air, using her body. She loved to walk, to swim, to play tennis, to row. It wasn’t a case of her feeling she ought to take exercise, the need ran much deeper: it was a fundamental part of her nature, something independent, solitary, even wild in her, something which had to go its own way, outside.
When she came to visit us in Ireland, she’d often go for a walk if we were out at work, through the wood opposite our house, Gortrush Wood. It’s a conifer wood, at that time about forty years old: the trees were spread well apart, there was room for other kinds of trees to grow in between them. It was a walk we’d grown very fond of.
One day when we got back from work she told us, excitedly, that she had seen a kingfisher on her walk, on a small pool at the edge of the wood. This pool was actually more a long shallow puddle, where rainwater would collect in a hollow between trees. It was brackish, and would all but dry out in the summer. It was a long way from any reasonably sized stream. It had nothing in the way of a bank. It surely couldn’t have contained any fish. For all these reasons I was quite convinced that she must have been mistaken, she couldn’t possibly have seen a kingfisher there.
Over the years that followed, I used to tease her about this, linking it to her general vagueness about the animal kingdom. This was a woman, after all, who had only just discovered that elephants didn’t eat through their trunks. It became a shared joke. We’d send each other cards with kingfishers on, cuttings from newspapers about them. One of us would pretend suddenly to see the bird, in the most unlikely setting. It was a shared joke, but it also became a kind of shared tenderness. Slowly a kingfisher began to come alive, to appear between us. When she came to the first poetry reading of mine that she was able to attend, I saw she was wearing a medallion with a kingfisher on it. It was quite a large medallion, made of pewter, on a long metal chain, quite ostentatious in its way – not the sort of thing she wore normally at all.
A few years after her claimed sighting, the wood was cut, and replanted in the modern way, the trees very close to each other. Now that they’ve grown a bit, it’s impossible to walk there. But, for a few years before the new trees grew, I continued to do so, and one day I realized that every time I approached the pool, I was looking for the kingfisher. I was quite sure my mother hadn’t seen one, sure that in fact she couldn’t have seen one there, but all the same I was expecting to see one. In this way too, the bird had come alive.
At some point, the line “I’ve never seen the kingfisher” came into my head. Poems often start this way for me, a line cropping up, a line with some kind of ring to it, around which other lines might eventually start to cohere. I didn’t know what to do with this line, but it was there, and one day I discovered that the word Kingfisher is linked to the word Halcyon. I knew the phrase Halcyon Days, days of idyllic happiness or prosperity: my dictionary told me that Halcyon came from the Greek word for kingfisher, Alkuon or Halcuon, from Hals meaning sea, and Kuon meaning conceiving. I consulted my Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, where I found Kuon translated as ‘to brood on’. Brewer’s added: “The ancient Sicilians believed that the kingfisher laid its eggs, and incubated them for fourteen days on the surface of the sea, during which period, before the winter solstice, the waves were always unruffled.”
My father had died some 20 years earlier, and my mother had mourned him deeply. Suddenly I began to see a connection between the word Halcyon and her situation. I saw that ‘to brood on’ could mean both to breed, to conceive, but also to think deeply about something, often in a melancholy way. I went on to look up the word in Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, but I couldn’t find it in the Index. Eventually it occurred to me to look it up under ‘A’, where I found Alcyone (incidentally underneath Alcyoneus, meaning Mighty Ass, which I took as a deserved rebuke for my slowness). Graves gives a fuller version of the story:
“Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, guardian of the winds, and Aegiale. She married Ceyx of Trachis, son of the Morning Star, and they were so happy in each other’s company that she daringly called herself Hera, and him Zeus. This naturally vexed the Olympian Zeus and Hera, who let a thunderstorm break over the ship in which Ceyx was sailing to consult an oracle, and drowned him. His ghost appeared to Alcyone who, greatly against her will, had stayed behind in Trachis, whereupon distraught with grief, she leapt into the sea. Some pitying god transformed them both into kingfishers.
Now, every winter, the hen-kingfisher carries her dead mate with great wailing to his burial and then, building a closely compacted nest from the thorns of the sea-needle, launches it on the sea, lays her eggs in it, and hatches out her chicks. She does all this in the Halcyon Days – the seven which precede the winter solstice, and the seven which succeed it – while Aeolus forbids his winds to sweep across the waters.”
I had my poem now, about my mother, a woman who loved the sea, whose need to swim in it had been heightened by the loss of her husband, a loss she brooded on. She was still deeply united with him. In the other sense of the word ‘brood’, I had been part, along with my sisters, of her brood. This was the poem:
I’ve never seen the kingfisher
you claim to have witnessed
on the stand of brackish water
at the edge of our wood.
Years I’ve been looking.
Not a sign. Wrong habitat
too: no bank for nesting,
indeed no fish. Face it
there was no bird yet
each time I pass I peer into
that gloom and each time
this comes to mind:
a flash of chestnutsapphire.
A small flame brooding on ooze.
Your words made light.
Your bright idea. You diving
through the long years
of grief to surface here,
And not one bird but a pair.
My mother died last autumn. Around that time, I had seen a deer vanishing into another small wood nearer to our house. This small wood faces Gortrush Wood over a large field. It’s a wood of alder and willow, on wet ground, many of the trees thickly coated with lichen and moss, quite a few fallen. It’s the last patch of wood left now along this stretch of road and it must be something of a refuge, a way station, for wild creatures. The deer had most likely escaped from the large agricultural college, some 2 miles away, where they have a deer farm, but it was still a special experience to witness it crashing into the trees.
I hadn’t seen it again, but early on this year I was walking past the wood, and I realized that I was straining to see it, in just the same way that I had strained for so long to see the kingfisher that my mother couldn’t have seen, in Gortrush Wood. I grinned to myself, thinking that now I would have to repeat this new pattern, looking for the deer every time I passed this spot.
At that exact moment, from the edge of the wood, where a small stream runs under the road, a kingfisher flashed up, swerved left along the road, then veered right, out across the field, heading toward Gortrush Wood where my mother claimed to have seen one so many years before.
It was an extraordinary moment, an extraordinary coincidence. The bird appeared exactly when I had been thinking about my mother and her kingfisher. And of course that made it an encounter with her, with her spirit. And then I realized that she had been right all along, here was the proof of her claim, a kingfisher in nearly the same spot. I felt a huge need to tell her, to share the news, and then I remembered that she was dead. I stood in the middle of the road and told her anyway.
I have since read that kingfishers roam widely in winter. They can be found far away from water inland, they can be found by the sea. Maybe the bird I saw lives around here, maybe it was a visitor. “Only the righteous see the kingfisher” is a saying recorded in Mark Cocker’s Birds Britannica. After unrighteously denying her sighting, I had been given a second chance. Why I was so sure she hadn’t seen one, I don’t know. But I have learnt to try to check my judgement. And I think I understand more deeply now that what we might actually witness is only a tiny fraction of what there is. I see more deeply how our thinking is formed, has always been formed, by the world around us. So much passed between my mother and I through the image of that bird. I wear the punishment for my unrighteousness lightly: condemned, whenever I pass that wood, to be on the lookout for both deer and kingfisher; condemned to try to be open to every possibility.