Only this morning on the day of releasing this poem, I heard a crow or most likely a rook caw three times outside my bedroom window. I can’t recall hearing the caw of a corvid so near before, I usually hear seagulls but these poor birds seem as mystified as us about the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic.
As a bus driver, I have recently been driving the Penzance to Lands End route quite a lot more than usual and have become fascinated by the crows/rooks that line the tight single-track lanes around the inland village of St Buryan. I wanted to write a poem about the images I was seeing but I couldn’t find the hook to hang them on. Then along came the coronavirus, Covid 19. These birds have long been known as instruments of divination or bad omen and might not have given me cause for concern had I not gone through an unprecedented series of lone magpie sightings (known as a harbinger of sorrow) whilst driving the bus around the area. I didn’t count how many instances but it was well into the teens…poetic licence and the name the virus we are all sheltering from caused me to settle on nineteen.
The reality of the nearness of death and having a lot of time on my hands to worry about things (I have been taken off driving duties for twelve weeks because of an underlying condition that makes me perceived to be at risk from dealing with the public for ten hours at a time). This poem is serious, there is no humour in it, there cannot be (although, I did toy with the idea of calling it A Crow and a Virus but even someone as flippant and lacking in seriousness as myself knows where to draw the line).
Ironically the place name Crows an Wra mentioned in the poem has no connection with crows at all. ‘Crows’ is Cornish for ‘cross’ and ‘wra’ (mutated from ‘gwra’ means ‘witch’…so it means ‘the witch’s cross’. A beautiful coincidence. Even more weird was when I was discussing the place and the poem on social media, I initialised it for brevity and referred to it as CAW!
COUNTING CROWS IN A TIME OF PLAGUE (Corvid 19)
One sorrow, two mirth, three wedding, four birth;
Then it’s five for silver and six for gold.
Where did it come from this virulent plague?
Perhaps that’s the secret not to be told.
I’ve been counting crows round St Buryan
Between Lamorna Turn and Crows an Wra
They’re saying sooth in their garrulous tongue?
And I don’t think they’re wishing me ‘dydh da!’
Driving through the tight lanes of Boskenna,
I cause them to flee their lines of power.
In the distance they flap in the wind like
Scraps of old bin bags snagged up on barbed wire.
As the engine guns they burst like shrapnel;
Silent explosions behind tall hedges.
Near the tarmacked trenches of Nomansland,
Filling the sky with their jagged edges.
The rookery rocks with those racking coughs;
See them self-isolate up in the trees.
Jet-beaded eyes and their plague doctor beak;
Waiting, waiting for that ultimate wheeze.
Saw another single magpie today;
It’s nineteen of them I’ve seen in a row.
That’s a lot of sorrow banked up ahead,
Based on my sightings of this piebald crow.
I’m beginning to feel like Rosenkrantz
Or was it Guildenstern in Stoppard’s words?
Who repeatedly tossed a coin to heads;
Much like me meeting those singleton birds.
But Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are dead;
Succumbed to underlying conditions.
Now it’s my turn to reap the grim truth as
The victim of corvine premonitions.
Perhaps I should have paid tribute to them
By saluting and bidding them good day?
Surely my lack of respect didn’t cause
The four horsemen to set off on their way?
Is this, the last poem I’ll ever write,
In my be-singled bed with laboured breath?
Waiting, hoping, like some cold Lazarus
For a perfect word that will rhyme with ‘death’.
The corvids knew and they tried to warn me;
Let Odin glean his ravens’ mutterings
Or like the Morrigan foretelling doom
Beneath the battle banners’ flutterings.
And are there ravens still in the Tower?
Go check the aviary just to be sure.
They’re all gone, you say, but will they return?
The raven-master replied, “Nevermore!”
© gray lightfoot