Category Archives: poetry

Owls bring the night in.

In the late fall I was sitting here at my desktop after dark when I heard an owl in my back yard. I knew it was an owl because he sounded just like the ones in the movies. I don’t think I had encountered one in person ever.

But I didn’t know what species he might be. I spent a good hour listening to various owls on Cornell University’s site All About Birds site, and the owl cooperated by demonstrating his distinctive call many times. He came another night not long afterward. For a while that first night I thought perhaps he was a Barred Owl, but eventually I knew for sure that he was a Great Horned Owl.

In my research I found advice about how to build a platform for this owl to nest on, how high up to attach it, and that it should go up in November so that the owls might find it when they go looking for good nesting sites in February. I did wish that I could start on one more project like that, but it was obviously not the right thing for me this year.

Probably everyone has more familiarity with owls than I do, but if you’d like to hear the calls of five owls this is a helpful Audubon page that limits itself to just that many: Identify Five Owls

You can guess how honored I felt that such a creature had visited me, even if he couldn’t be seen. His voice seemed full of romance, and let me in on the secret drama of the night. Of the five owls on the linked page, his call is surely the most pleasing, low and soft. So many owls are screechy.

Richard Wilbur wrote a poem about an owl’s voice. His own voice is more pleasant to me than that of the Barred Owl that he writes about; maybe that’s why someone came up with the explanation for a child, and why I like his poem so much. You can listen to him reading it: here.

A BARRED OWL

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

-Richard Wilbur,  from Mayflies: New Poems and Translations. © 2000

When blood is nipt, drink Hypocras.

When long ago I was beginning to explore the world of poetry for the sake of my children whom I was homeschooling, I ran across this poem by Shakespeare. It’s from the play, “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” and every time I read it, especially in winter, it drives the damp and chill right into my bones. That is poetic power!

Notes on words and phrases: Dick is blowing into his hands, or on his fingernails. Joan is likely skimming the pot. The roasted Crabs are apples. People say the owl may well have been the common Tawny or Brown Owl, pictured below.

I’ve transcribed the poem as I found it originally in Walter de la Mare’s Come Hither. In his notes on this entry he gives a recipe for a warming drink such as Dick, Joan and Marian would have welcomed:

“To make Hypocras the best way.–Take 5 ounces of aqua vitae, 2 ounces of pepper, and 2 of ginger, of cloves and grains of paradice each 2 ounces, ambergrease three grains, and of musk two grains, infuse them 24 hours in a glass bottle on pretty warm embers and when your occasion requires to use it, put a pound of sugar into a quart of wine or cyder; dissolve it well, and then drop 3 or 4 drops of the infusion, and they will make it taste richly.”

That recipe doesn’t say that the ingredients are finally heated all together, but I would think so…? The one below, with an owlish theme, is on the rocks – brrr! A cup of Hypocras might feel pretty good today, as I am still “coffing” away, but lacking that I concocted my own steaming drink from ginger tea and Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Almond Beverage. I hope all of you who are in winter are staying warm enough, and merry, too.

Tu-Whit To-Who

When Isicles hang by the wall,
   And Dicke the shepherd blows his naile,
And Tom beares Logges into the hall,
   And Milke comes frozen home in paile;
When blood is nipt, and waies be fowle,
Then nightly sings the staring Owle,
               Tu-whit to-who
               A merrie note,
While greasie Jone doth keele the pot.

When all aloud the winde doth blow,
   And coffing drownes the Parson's saw;
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
   And Marian's nose lookes red and raw;
When roasted Crabs hisse in the bowle,
Then nightly sings the staring Owle,
              Tu-whit to-who
              a merrie note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

-William Shakespeare

He should make use of water.

Could Philip Larkin have intuited something that he did not personally encounter, about faith and life? The images he presents in the poem below evoke the reality of the ancient and present sacramental church I know, which doesn’t need to be constructed, because it was born at Pentecost by a sousing of the Holy Spirit Himself.

I’ve kept Larkin’s poem in my drafts for months, hoping to collect a few thoughts and sentences that would properly introduce it on the occasion of Theophany, that wonderful commemoration of water and light and the Incarnation. Here we are at the feast, so let’s just go to the poem:

WATER

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

-Philip Larkin