As a child growing up on a farm you encounter death at an early age. Sometimes this is when looking after something. A lamb is unwell and so is brought into the kitchen for warmth. It dies in a cardboard box by the fire as you sit down for your dinner.
Sometimes the encounter with death is putting something out of its misery. It could be an injured fledgling which is beyond recovery. Your father taps it on its head with a stick.
Sometimes the encounter is different. Sometimes you are the killer — or at least you are complicit in the killing. You might be asked to help out on a pheasant shoot. You spend the day cutting off escape routes and watching birds blasted out of the air. Another time you load cattle onto a truck. You know where the truck will take them.
These things stay with you. Later, they make poems. The poems are not an endorsement. They recount what happened. That is all.
Do they console? They are certainly sad and angry. You feel different after writing them, though neither better nor worse. You imagine that others will object to their violence. But censorship is out of the question. So why offer them at all?
Because these things happened. And these other things got written. And because otherwise the creatures that died on your watch would have done so without being acknowledged. And because your task is not to condemn, but to show and for others to judge.
Many of your poems are elegies. For pheasants, dogs, family members, even poets. The principle is the same. It does not deal in hierarchies. The death of a field mouse can make a great poem and the birth of a royal a bad one.
Even the water has died.
A scalp of winter wheat
raked to the bone with ice.
Copses are coral, bleached
castles of lime, stranded
in depth-sounded stillness.
A buzzard mews. Departs.
The ground steams. Hot coals.
Snow breaks from poplars.
A shot in this empty place
and mild hills echo mountains.
Figures, in position, walk.
The valley springs its trap,
muntjac slipping the net —
pheasants glide to death.
It intensifies like fireworks.
Smoke clears: a beaten wood.
Silent staring sheep.
Heaney at Sutton Hoo
In the photograph, he’s handling it —
his right hand occupying the headspace
of a Saxon — as if it was a puppet
and he the voice of that time and place.
The expression on his face tells us
the helmet’s alive, the way his wrist is
raised, his left hand (gloved white as
his hair) holds the straps like jesses —
for now the replica’s a bird of prey,
a barn owl that threatens at any moment
to bate. The poet bids it — stay.
I imagine that after the moment, he sent
the iron raptor into Suffolk sky —
and left them gasping as sparks let fly.
The Fox and the Stop
They were driving the brook downstream. I could hear the beaters’ rush getting closer, the breath
of the dogs carried on the water. Get on, get on.
I tapped my stick against the bark. Found my rhythm and tapped. Kept tapping.
I could hear the guns being loaded, the cartridges slotting into barrels. The wind was up.
The valley began filling with the sounds of the drive: the calling, the beating, the anger at a stray
dog. Fall in. Get them up. Make a noise boy. Keep tapping.
Then through the briar I saw them — heads up, feather ears flecked, eyes full of panic. Trapped.
I had trapped them.
The birds scattered as quick as they came and straight into the frame — easy as you like — walked
It skulked onto the bank opposite, sleek with a diet of pheasant. It saw me and stared and I have
never seen a face look more like a man’s.
It darted and ran for cover under the fizz of flying pheasants with their rainforest echoes.
I was greeted by the dogs and the drive was over. We collected the corpses and met the guns and
at the feet of one lay the fox, dead.
‘You’ve got gloves.’ Dad said. ‘Carry it to the bridge and I’ll bury it tomorrow.’
So I took a leg and lifted the orange body, stinking dead. My face was met with its needle mouth
and up this close it didn’t look like any man I know.
I struggled with it, holding it at arms-length with one hand, careful not to breathe in its stench.
I slumped it down and walked away, but no matter where I went that day it was there, in my head,
smoking me out in revenge.
After seven days, I looked again. My father had forgotten or rather cared more to forget.
And so there it remained in a hot stink, untouched by the birds, the rats, the flies, but not out of
I said sorry to it, with regret. It looked at me from beyond its death, its slack jaw set in a smile.