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The geese fly North

by nickb 

Posted: 16 February 2018
Word Count: 243
Summary: Sorry it's been a while. Not sure if it's a bit sentimental or not.

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Overhead, a ragged wishbone heads North
to Spring quarters.  Wings lever against fat bodies,
bird bones and feather fall shoulder the air.
On the downbeats they call to the horizon,
wheezing like holed bagpipes monotone as the dark sky,
they fly over the edge of the hill,
disappear like a magician’s trick.
At the gate she watches them.
And now with a hiss of salt wind
on this stubborn, stillborn day
she is, for a moment, the most solitary person.
Standing alone, she strains to hear the voices
of all the people she has known,
or sense the paper threads that joined her to them.
The geese, she says, are the slow hand of the year
a reminder of her own flock
that she loved to swaddle against the cold.
But they too flew North
leaving time in their place, and plenty of it.
On some days she opens all the windows,
cocks her head like a bird to listen.
News of their losses and victories seeps in
as she sleeps in the afternoons.
Sometimes she wakes and is twenty five again,
for a few seconds at least,
her goslings around her feet.
As Autumn comes she scans the hilltop,
longs for rain and sleet and the
shortening days that unknot her heart.
When they come, they take apart
the long summer piece by piece,
filling the air with noise.
Their return turns back a hundred years
as if it was yesterday.

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Comments by other Members

James Graham at 21:16 on 16 February 2018  Report this post
No need to apologise, Nick – a good poem can be slow to germinate. On first reading it doesn’t seem sentimental at all, but I’ll comment more fully in a day or two.

James Graham at 15:16 on 18 February 2018  Report this post
Hello Nick – I can begin to comment today but may have to do it in two chapters, not because there’s a lot wrong with the poem but because there’s so much in it!
I don’t find it at all sentimental. It’s a moving portrait of a woman grown old and lonely, who built her whole life around her family until their departure left her very bereft. It’s not unrealistic – it’s how it goes for some people. You describe the geese very vividly, reflecting the intensity with which the woman watches them. The loneliness of her present life and the poignancy of her recurring memories come across clearly. Maybe the best feature of the poem is the way you bring together those two elements – the geese and the family. As we read, we’re aware of course that the geese somehow represent or symbolise her distant family, but it’s in the last stanza that the whole thing comes together.
When they come, they take apart
the long summer piece by piece
Just beneath the surface of this I hear a kind of echo:  ‘Were they to come, they would take apart…’ The geese will come, she can depend on that; but if only her own ‘goslings’ would return…
This is reinforced in
Their return turns back a hundred years
as if it was yesterday
which implies – almost says it out loud – ‘Their return would turn back a hundred years…’
I’ve one general criticism. The woman seems too isolated. I imagine her living in a rural cottage with no close neighbours, but it does seem that she never comes into contact with other people at all. I suppose that’s possible, but I think it would be more realistic if she were to go down to the village a couple of times a week, meet people she knows well enough (though she has never made friends) and chat briefly before moving on. There may be neighbours too, not too far away. She could have these casual contacts and still feel very isolated – in fact even more so. It would sharpen her loneliness. I note a tiny detail in stanza 4:
The geese, she says, are the slow hand of the year
‘She says’ – to whom? There may even be someone in the village with whom she can talk about her feelings. None of this would make her any less lonely and bereft.
Now, you don’t have to put all this about the village or her neighbours into the poem in any detail. A few words or an extra line would probably do it. I thought of
The geese, she says to someone in the street,
are the slow hand of the year.
A reminder of her own flock
That ‘someone in the street’ is maybe a bit feeble, but I hope you see what I mean. There’s a new sentence after ‘year’ because what follows isn’t something she would have said to anyone.
Well, as I say the critique of this poem will have to be continued. There are still a few suggestions to make about how some lines could be strengthened, and I’ll get to work on that. Let me know what you think of the above idea. This is another poem out of the top drawer – no surprise there!

James Graham at 21:00 on 19 February 2018  Report this post
Hi Nick – Just a few bits and pieces, things that either puzzled me or that I thought could be improved.
First, this line is a little cryptic:
bird bones and feather fall shoulder the air
I’ve probably got the wrong end of the stick, but it seems as if feathers, and maybe even bones, are falling from the flying geese. What do you mean by ‘feather fall’? I’ve watched geese flying – south over the US border, as it happened, in September at Niagara Falls. Some Canadians were calling up to them, ‘Don’t go there, they got too many guns!’ But no feathers or bones were falling. (Maybe soon some dead geese would be falling.)
No criticism here, these are superb lines, and I don’t want to let them pass without saying something about them:
At the gate she watches them.
And now with a hiss of salt wind
on this stubborn, stillborn day
she is, for a moment, the most solitary person.
This is so vivid that you not only visualise the scene, but virtually feel and hear that wind. The wind is not pleasant; it’s not necessarily cold, but it’s not comfortable. You don’t use any elaborate means of conveying the sound that must be in her ears all the time she stands there; just a monosyllable, ‘hiss’. It’s enough. And ‘stubborn, stillborn day’ would make any reader pause and take notice; ‘stillborn’ especially with its oblique reference to her own children, who were born alive and healthy but seem to her almost as if they were dead.
or sense the paper threads that joined her to them
Why ‘paper threads’? It’s a figurative way of saying the ‘bonds’ that connected her with people she has known were not strong or lasting but tenuous and temporary. It’s just that the literal side of the metaphor doesn’t work: you can’t have threads made of paper. You need an alternative. ‘Gossamer’ is a poetic cliché. I would suggest that ‘tenuous’ works well enough:
or sense the tenuous threads that joined her to them
but you may come up with something better.
leaving time in their place, and plenty of it
Just leave out ‘and plenty of it’ – the context of the whole poem makes it clear how great that gulf of time seems to the woman, making this phrase unnecessary.
Their return turns back a hundred years
as if it was yesterday
Perhaps ‘turns back a lifetime’? It’s just that it was rather less than a hundred years when she had ‘her goslings around her feet’. The return of the geese turns back the clock to that happy time, and it’s their childhood which seems like yesterday – as it does in those waking moments when she’s ‘twenty five again’.
I hope at least some of this will be helpful.

nickb at 21:38 on 19 February 2018  Report this post
Hi James, many thanks for your comments, some really useful pointers here.  I'm not sure I was ever entirely sure where this poem was going; it started as one thing and ended up as something completely different.  You are right about the isolation, of course she wouldn't be entirely alone.  It would be good to set her in a wider social context, after all you can be just as lonely in a crowd as by yourself.  I saw the bit about the slow hand of the year more as one of her sayings rather than her saying it to someone at a specific moment.  Maybe I need to re-work that bit to make that clear..

With regard to "bird bones and feather fall" I think I am guilty of liking the sound of something without entirely thinking through the meaning - a habit of mine I'm afraid.  You are also right about "paper threads".  I think you hit on what I was trying to convey with this but I need to look at this too.

I'll try and tidy it up over the next few days.  Thanks again.


James Graham at 20:59 on 20 February 2018  Report this post
Glad this was helpful, Nick. I look forward to your revision.


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