Saturday, 11 February 2012

Andrew McNeillie’s Late Night Pheasant

Yesterday we had half a dozen of them still scrounging under the bird feeders.  (The shoots don't get very close to us).  Later in the year we see pairs of males sparring in the garden.  Which means I’ve often seen them up close – not to mention the times you disturb one when walking, and they burst from under your feet with that strange panicky honking, wings whirring.

So I went back to Andrew McNeillie’s poem ‘Pheasant’, published as ‘Plato’s Aviary (Puts Out a Wing) in his 2002 collection ‘Now, Then’ from Oxford Poets.


Comes under the wall where it’s broken, onto the road:
Humble not a word for him, though; nor his gait

In his scaly crocodile party shoes walking
Delicately on his toes like an elderly gent with corns.

But so burnished, Oriental in his princely ornament,
So finely beaten, his dark copperware

Laced like damascene, with the black rim tip
Indent of the craftsman’s hammer mottling

His waistcoat-breast.  How well he has worn the night
Down all these years, a thousand and one years exiled,

Out late and looking for the way home, his majesty
In all his finery, still dressed for the banquet, at dawn.

I enjoy this poem both for its sustained joke and its wonderful observation.  The male pheasant is so exotic, ‘so finely beaten’ that none of this is exaggeration.  Even the self-important strut of the bird is captured so neatly ‘Delicately on his toes like an elderly gent with corns.’

Pheasants have been in Britain since the 10th century, introduced as a game bird.  And are native to Ancient Colchis – now Georgia. So –all dressed up, but lost.  ‘How well he has worn the night’. 

If I’d had this poem before ever I’d seen a male pheasant in the early morning, I’d have recognised him by it.

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