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Poem of the week: A Bone Flute by Judith Willson

Whooper swans flying over the Cambridgeshire fens.
‘Sky filling with bells’ … whooper swans flying over the Cambridgeshire fens. Photograph: Renee Morris/Alamy

A Bone Flute
made from the radius bone of a whooper swan wing, circa 40,000 years ago

Swans flying in across the lagoon at dusk, muscled as horses;
sky filling with bells. The swans dip and rock, lanterns

on the grey water and we raise our phones’ small lamps
as if we should honour the messengers returning at nightfall

to patient souls who stand beside cars with their children
in bright winter coats holding bags of grain,

provisioned for a journey. The swans lift their necks,
open the great doors of their wings. Our faces are fading

behind our white breath; a flute’s seven feathery notes
still dissolving on the air. Mothers or sisters

walking towards us, hold out their hands.
They will sit with us, watch the hours swing round,

skeins streaming north. Soon the year’s sharp light
will sing in the bone. Soon they will take what they came for.

The whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) is a winter migrant from Iceland, resident in the British Isles and Ireland between November and March. Judith Willson’s poem, from her fine debut collection, Crossing the Mirror Line, seemingly begins with the dramatic, late-autumn scene of the birds’ arrival. Its opening couplet packs the description in tightly, the arresting image of these large birds, “muscled as horses”, mutating to one that adds sound effects. Bells, though, are not pure sonority: they are solid, sky-lit, space-packing, highly distinctive shapes, and so suggest an enriching, defamiliarising visual metaphor.

The mass-landing is as clean and contained as the verbs, “dip” and “rock”. On the quiet grey water, they morph rather magically into lanterns. Lantern light, diffuse and ancient, is qualitatively different from the keener glow of the “phones’ small lamps”. The kinship of the two words, lamp and lantern, delicately heightens their distinction, an important one for the poem’s retreat into prehistory.

As I read on, I remained curious about the sound of the swans. The name “whooper” is suggestive, of course, but how well does it work as onomatopoeia? In a poem in Goat’s Milk, Frank Ormsby describes it as “a dolorous whomp”. That’s certainly evocative of some of the lower-pitched whooper notes, as I discovered when I played various recordings. The birds have quite a range of pitch: here they sound less deep and stereophonic than elsewhere. Wilson does well in not attempting to be “tweet-of-the-day” specific. Her soundscape is subtler and, as will be seen, altogether stranger.

Meanwhile, the narrative continues on its almost-realist way. People have gathered to welcome the swans. They have brought their children, and might have driven some distance, “in bright winter coats holding bags of grain”. That’s a wonderfully concrete line, splashing clear vivid colour, Breughel-like, against winter white and grey. And there’s another connection with that Dutch painter, distant but compelling. In Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, the speaker praises the old masters’ understanding of: “How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting / For the miraculous birth, there always must be / Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating / On a pond at the edge of the wood.” In Willson’s poem, any “miraculous birth” is presented obliquely. It’s not simply the advent of the migrant swans. That literal arrival is only part of the whole story.

Some other order of consciousness is already infiltrating the poem. Filming the birds, it’s “as if we should honour the messengers returning at nightfall / to patient souls”. Are the witnesses cheerful middle-class bird lovers parked beside a perfectly ordinary lagoon, or shades on the banks of the river Lethe? Are the swans themselves becoming souls? Now, unexpectedly, the call of the bone flute lifts the narrative into another time. Dualities of life/death and breath/sound are erased with the image of “our faces (…) fading // behind our white breath” and the sound of “a flute’s seven feathery notes / still dissolving on the air”.

Bone flutes were among the first musical instruments. Archaeological investigations at the Hohle Fels cave in the Swabian Jura yielded many such flutes. The tune heard in the poem, played “circa 40,000 years ago” has yet to vanish. It’s so placed that the swans seem to have retreated through “the great door of their wings”. Encapsulating and distilling all that’s left of their hungry, muscly, noisy presence is the sound of the small flute.

Now the realism loosens and the poem becomes more associative. On one level, it might trace the transition of life into art, via death. I find the phrase “mothers or sisters” particularly mysterious. Are the women swans or people, or swan-people? They seem to have risen from the dead, with an ambiguous offering for the living. They are almost but not quite specific. We don’t know if they are the speaker’s dead: the casual option of identification (“or”) suggests not. The gendering might imply particular demands made by women on women, especially on the woman artist. Though they “will sit with us, watch the hours swing round” they will be overseeing a deepening of winter. The acts of sitting and watching suggest the traditional death bed, while the “skeins streaming north” imply the homing flight. Once the swans have left, will the mothers and sisters “take what they came for”? These strange, harsh figures seem more dangerously predatory than the swans. But perhaps, like the swans, they simply want to live.

What very definitely happens in the poem is that it gets colder: deathly cold. Any bone in which the “year’s sharp light” can “sing” must be a bone without flesh or feather. Listen to this recording as you re-read the poem. It’s the sound of a palaeolithic flute, made from a swan’s radius bone. The one that inspired the poem? I don’t know, but it’s the very sound of winter, the thinnest, coldest icicle of a not-quite-tuneless tune.

And then, come in from the cold, and get warm again hearing Judith Willson reading Common Things Explained.

This article titled "Poem of the week: A Bone Flute by Judith Willson" was written by Carol Rumens, for theguardian.com on Monday 8 January 2018 11.25am

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