Getting Personal, Too: ‘Being Kept by a Jackdaw’

My staff of thousands tells me that if I post any more poems by Heathcote Williams, I will be making a mockery of this blog’s stated purpose. I’m a small “d” democrat who rules Straight Up by popular consent, so I had to admit I’ve been banging on about his poems. But — with a capital “B” — what are his poems if not “arts, media & cultural news with ‘tude?”

More than mere ‘tude, they’re truth-telling CAT scans of historic figures and cultural history (“Shelley at Oxford,” for example, or “The United States of Porn”); of political and moral issues (“The Lord of the Drones and the White House Fly”); of environmental matters (“The American President Is Really a Tree” and “Selling the Earth”); of war and pacificism (“Harry Patch: Anti-War Hero”).

But that is not all his poems are. Some of them are deeply personal, telling private stories about himself. This one, for example. I first read it in FORBIDDEN FRUIT: Meditations on Science, Technology, and Natural History, published by the Oxford-based Huxley Scientific Press in the U.K.

Read (below) and enjoy. If you prefer to watch and listen, click the video. It is narrated beautifully by Alan Cox, with his own montage.


At a country fair a couple called Dave and Di Nelstrop
Came from Bow, in Devon, to sell tansy pancakes —
Bringing skillets, a brazier, a mound of flour and eggs,
They drew customers to their tent by the good smell.

Behind a striped awning there was a stack of wooden cages
Which they’d carried with them, each with an injured bird.
One was a large crow, a raven, they referred to as Aubrey;
His door was left open and he caught me in his glare.

Between bites washed down with a blue mug of sweet tea
I began confessing to something I’d always yearned for.
“Ever since childhood . . .” They looked patiently quizzical.
“I’ve wanted . . .” I paused again, transfixed by the crow —

Hopping on black legs, scanning me with a needle eye,
Black as those Victorian jet stones from Whitby,
He’d expose a scarlet throat and then he’d caw in my face
With a sound as old as Egypt that said, “I know you —

“I’ve pecked your ancestors’ bones and nibbled your DNA
And I’ll penetrate your soul with my carrion cries.”
Aubrey’s eerie presence triggered an old boyhood dream
Of having a jackdaw on your shoulder, like a pirate.

Whispering secrets in your ear, this jackdaw would speak
In a language that only you could understand
You and the jackdaw. You and this bird. A medieval bond
Like young Arthur’s falcon trained by Merlin.

Only a jackdaw would be much more worldly wise,
Independent, and even faintly criminal.
Lifting jewels from open windows if you were broke;
Teaching you things no one else knew.

As I watched Aubrey retire to his cage, demanding food
And a cloth draped on top so he could sleep,
Dusk settled and Aubrey fell silent; then I blurted out,
“I’ve always wanted to look after a jackdaw.”

Dave Nelstrop said casually, “Oh, we’ve got one.
A fledgling. It was too poorly to bring.
It’s being fed by a dripper. With touches of brandy.
It just fell out of its nest in a bell-tower.”

They promised to bring it when next they were passing.
“Does it have a name?” I asked when they arrived.
“Could call it Jack,” Dave suggested. “Surname of Daw.”
He grinned. “Until something else better occurs.

But “Jack Daw” seemed workman-like and so it stuck.
Then I stared, bewildered by this quaint creature:
Once childishly romanticized, it was radically different
From the parrot on Long John Silver’s tricorn hat.

At close quarters its feral behaviour was dominated
By a consuming curiosity, but who was it exactly?
This bird that had lived its life in a tower, then fallen,
And whose cowl made it look like a hooded monk.

It would wake at dawn and shadow me till dusk.
We’d find mealworms, then warm up some milk.
The one fact it knew was that in order to survive
I’d have to be converted into a servile minion.

So Jack behaved like some tyrannical movie star,
Demanding full attention day and night
With a vampire’s knack of spotting the submissive,
The getting them to run endless errands.

Almost immediately I became the bird’s captive,
Existing solely to attend to its needs,
Wondering if I’d experience Stockholm Syndrome,
Which means you fall in love with your captors.

But this bonsai pterodactyl was quite hard to love —
A dive-bombing comet of energy and appetite.
At daybreak its beak was pushed between my lips,
Searching for a morsel from last night’s meal.

A bony road-drill picking at your teeth was how Jack
Alerted you to the unpalatable fact
That instead of being an independent human being
You were now mobile carrion ruled by a bird.

My body clock was retuned to jackdaw hours:
To wake at dawn, then to feel tired at dusk.
It was unsettling to fall asleep as soon as it got dark
And realize how electricity had made you a moth.

Yet there were long days of elation: digging up a patch
With a jackdaw perched on your head;
Keeping watch from its new tower and swooping down
To display its skills as a metal detector.

Burried bottle tops would be brought to the surface,
Along with fragments of bright silver foil,
Invoking the ghosts of picnics past, then sixpences
Were teased out and offered as treasure trove.

“He’s trading you level,” an old countryman said,
Stopping by to watch such transactions.
“You give him food and shelter. He gives you coin.
What you’d call satisfaction all round.”

When the philosopher Thoreau was hoeing his garden
A young sparrow alighted on his shoulder;
Thoreau said he felt “more distinguished by that event
Than by an epaulet.” I knew what he meant.

Another visitor, Bernie Skuse, a poacher from Bristol,
Said, “Tell you what we used to do, boy.
Sharpen the edge of a coin and set it under his tongue.
Cut through the tendons, then he’ll talk.”

I thanked Bernie but said I wasn’t sure that I wanted
To torture Jack into speaking my language —
I guessed he’d just tell me what I’d taught him to say,
And I imagined he had thoughts of his own.

Bird-like thoughts. From a miniature mind, aeons old,
That had evolved feathers and grown them from skin.
Initially earthbound, it had had Icarus’ dream of flying,
Flinging itself higher and higher till it stayed aloft.

I’d now also dream nightly I had wings on my shoulders,
I steered with the feathers sprouting from my heels.
And I’d wonder, since I woke feeling a firm ally of this elf,
If he could have been the projectionist of such flights.

Then gradually I suspected that he was preparing to go.
Being mended, the fierce bond that he’d made
First with the Nelstrops, his rescuers, and later with myself
Was now weakening at the sight of other birds.

Each evening there were flocks of rooks and jackdaws
Passing overhead on their way to the estuary.
Jack looked up at them and gave a quietly uncertain cry
Belonging neither to one world nor the other.

Each day was spent on my shoulder and each day
He’d fly off, and would always come back —
He flew in circles but they’d increase in diameter
As the time would come for him never to return.

I’d look up at the sky, studying tree after tree,
And ask people if they’d seen a jackdaw.
“Pinch something of yours? That’s what they do.”
And I would realize that in a way he had.

When seeing a clattering of jackdaws — the collective noun
For these gregarious birds that pair-bond for life —
I’d be more alerted by their gatherings than by anything else:
The jackdaw tribe’s peripatetic parliaments.

Spread across the fields, seething carpets of glistening flecks —
I’d scrutinize each jackdaw in turn.
Watch them scavenging a sheep’s carcass on the hillside
Hoping to jog one avian memory.

A judgemental friend said, “You shouldn’t have tamed it.
You’ve put its life in peril. I heard of someone
Took a bird in, then, when they released it, it was so tame
It landed on the barrel of a sportsman’s gun.

“Got itself blown to bits, didn’t it?” I became troubled.
I hadn’t tamed it, but undeterred they finished off
Their unsolicited obituary with, “Just a bird, wasn’t it?”
I then buried myself in folklore, it being less brutal.

To country science nothing’s “just a bird” but can foretell rain
Or death, when jackdaws nest in a chimney.
A jackdaw can signify a birth whenever seen on the rooftop;
Each movement in nature is meant to be read.

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”
Contains all the letters of the alphabet,
As does “Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz,”
Yet no arrangement of the letters solves the riddle —

The riddle that I was left with, far harder to resolve
Than the age-old riddle of the Sphinx:
“What goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon,
And on three legs at evening time?”

The answer being man himself, who crawls first on four,
Then stands on two, then on three counting his stick —
But the impossible riddle the jackdaw has posed was why
Man has determined to end his life with no legs at all.

Yet while civilization proves to be of questionable value
In helping him to find his niche in the universe,
A jackdaw can behave as if completely assured of its place
And with a comic beauty that’s close to perfection.

Someone told me that Hermann, Kafka’s father, had a sign
In front of the family’s fancy goods shop in Prague.
It was a painting of a jackdaw set above their trade name —
For kavka means “jackdaw” in Czech.

I discovered Kafka had always identified with his namesake:
He described a jackdaw kept by the coal merchant
Near Tein Cathedral as “my relative,” saying he sympathized
With its longing “to disappear between the stones.”

Kafka told the young poet Gustav Janouch,
“We find relations with animals easier than with men.”
Adding that, “Animals are closer to us than human beings.”
The coal merchant’s jackdaw struck a chord.

Unspurprisingly — for birds are the uncredited inventors
Of music, and all of them continue singing for joy:
Cost-free, unlike man’s derivative warbling for profit.
“I hope you love birds too?” Emily Dickinson asked.

“It is economical. It saves going to heaven.” I do. It is. It does.
I still see that questing figure; I pick up his cries.
The tchack tchack, eight times. And the eyes, the pale blue iris
And the intense pupils studying things miles away.

Jack Daw. A foot long. Black, shot with steel blue. Grey nape.
Demonically sprightly. Bustling and strutting.
Jerkily swaggering, then pausing to shuffle along the ground
As he turns everything over, clods and stones —

Searching for something reflective to present with a flourish
While ripping up rival possessions, like books, into shreds.
“Anyone,” Kafka said, “who keeps the ability to see beauty
Never grows old.” A jackdaw’s hop puts a skip in my step.

 Jack Daw and the Poet [Photo: Jacquetta Eliot]

Jack Daw and the Poet. [Photo: Jacquetta Eliot]

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  1. Jerry Crombie says

    Beautiful. Touching. I have my own jackdaw, her name is ebony, she is deaf and has one good eye. she captivates me also.