Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

by
03 November 2017

Malcolm Guite delights in a kingfisher’s persistence

I WAS strolling early this morning with my two greyhounds, George and Zara, along Kingfisher Walk — a path that winds its way between a modern housing estate and a sinuous, high-banked, green-arched stretch of the Granta — when a sudden flash of dazzling electric blue, and a shimmering shape skimming at speed above the purls and turns of the water, announced that the kingfisher himself had graced us with his presence.

There is something all-transforming about the sudden appearance of such a bird, as though a veil has been lifted: for a moment, everything else is more beautiful, too; a familiar path has new possibilities.

For I had walked this path over the course of a year with no sighting, and had begun to fear that it was “Kingfisher Walk” in name only, that, like all those suburban cul-de-sacs called “Bluebell Wood” and “Badgers’ Sett”, it was named after the very thing it had destroyed.

But here was the kingfisher taking possession of his domain again, as though his name alone had summoned him. Indeed, some words of summoning came immediately to my mind; for I had been reveling in Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane’s magical new work The Lost Words: A spell book.

Macfarlane wrote a famous article some years ago lamenting that The Oxford Junior Dictionary had excised from its pages a whole cluster of words for English nature, as no longer used by modern children, words such as acorn, bluebell, conker, dandelion, fern, heather, heron, and kingfisher. Now he has made a spell book inviting children and adults to use these words again, and summon back all they have lost. His summoning spell for the kingfisher begins: “Kingfisher: the colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker, river’s quiver.” And those words were on my lips even as the kingfisher flickered upstream.

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Macfarlane is a worthy successor to those other poets for whom the kingfisher’s sudden presence was transformative: from Hopkins “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”; to Heaney, meandering on the banks of the Moyola,

 

Recalling the river’s long swerve,
A kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk.

 

But my own sudden kingfisher summoned more than Macfarlane’s summoning spell. It summoned a memory from years ago when I floated on this same river, a little further downstream, in an old wooden canoe, paddling out from Cambridge and up towards Grantchester, trying, with each stroke, to leave behind me a little of the fret and anxiety I had been absorbing as a chaplain.

Suddenly, a kingfisher flitted ahead of me, skimming the water with its ethereal blue, summoning me forward. I thought that was it, a single instant of blessing, but the bird waited and as I came up it skimmed forward again. Three times it glanced and skimmed ahead, like the robin in Narnia leading the children to adventure. By the time I came to Grantchester, and pulled out my canoe on the meadows by the Green Man, I was myself another man, blessed and charmed by the bird that Macfarlane calls

 

Evening angler, weather-teller, rainbringer and
Rainbow bird — that sets the stream alight with burn and glitter.

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