A Parliament of Crows

Wheat Field With Crows (1890) -Vincent van Gogh

Wheat Field With Crows (1890) -Vincent van Gogh

Myths and tales of crows are as old as language. For thousands of years they have been feared, revered and seen as portents of good and bad luck. In Greek mythology, the once white crow is turned dark by Apollo’s glare. Ted Hughes tells a version of this myth in his poem Crows Fall:

When Crow was white he decided the sun was too white.
He decided it glared much too whitely.
He decided to attack it and defeat it.

He got his strength up flush and in full glitter.
He clawed and fluffed his rage up.
He aimed his beak direct at the sun’s centre.

He laughed himself to the centre of himself

And attacked.

At his battle cry trees grew suddenly old,
Shadows flattened.

But the sun brightened—
It brightened, and Crow returned charred black.

He opened his mouth but what came out was charred black.

“Up there,” he managed,
“Where white is black and black is white, I won.”

The collective noun for multiple crows is a murder, inspired perhaps by their dark plumage, haunting calls and tendency to eat carrion. There are tales of flocks of crows holding trials and executing fellow crows for bad behaviour. Long considered folklore, such gatherings have now been witnessed. In Sweden these trials are called “kråkriksdag,” roughly translated as “crow’s parliament” with as many tales of crows acquitted as found guilty and torn apart.

A crow was found guilty in my back garden this week. From the kitchen I could hear a tumult of coarse caws. From the window I saw three trees filled with crows, maybe forty or fifty in total. Some circled, others darted down to attack a single crow which, for a while, stood its ground, surrounded by another dozen crows. The noise was overwhelming. I looked away for a moment, distracted by the telephone. When I returned my gaze the bird lay prostrate, wings spread wide on the ground. I thought it dead and opened the door onto the garden. The crows flew into the trees, still making their coarse calls. As I walked toward the spreadeagled jackdaw, it rose to its feet (do crows have crows feet?) and hopped circumspectly into the nearby hedge. The crows, after a while, dispersed. I looked into the hedge but could see no sign of the bird.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

The term ‘mansplaining’ is genius and deserves to be listed in the OED. This is where I first came across the term.

Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, Essay on Abjection.

Martha Nussbaum – How to write about poverty.

The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society by Joan Bamberger.

Politics and the English Language an essay by George Orwell.

Charles Bukowski’s so you want to be a writer.

The David Lynch mixtape.

Franz Kafka: The Meaning of Life is that it Stops.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the surprising physical reality of this world as he sees it.

The ideal way to read Marx’s Kapital is with David Harvey.

One of my favourite Desert Island Discs with writer Al Alvarez (friend of Plath and Hughes).

On Fear – a wonderful essay by Mary Ruefle (the distinction between emotion and feeling is perfect)

Julia Kristeva’s essay – A Freudian Approach: The Pre-religious Need To Believe.

Adam Kirsch on The New World of William Carlos Williams.

Italo Calvino’s 14 Definitions of What Makes a Classic.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

The HTMLGiant Beginner’s Guide to Deleuze.

The TLS try to classify the ‘unclassifiable’ Clarice Lispector.

English translations of all 12 journals of the Situationists.

Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, Essay on Abjection.

Martha Nussbaum: How to write about poverty.

Joan Bamberger: “The myth of matriarchy is but the tool used to keep woman bound to her place.”

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language.

Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the surprising physical reality of this world as he sees it.

The ideal way to read Marx’s Kapital is with David Harvey.

One of my favourite Desert Island Discs with writer Al Alvarez (friend of Plath and Hughes).

Julia Kristeva’s essay – A Freudian Approach: The Pre-religious Need To Believe.

The first ten Penguin books – Treasures of the Bodleian.

>"Last Letter"

>Via night rpm, Ted Hughes’ poem about the night of Plath’s suicide.

“Last Letter” by Ted Hughes

What happened that night? Your final night.
Double, treble exposure
Over everything. Late afternoon, Friday,
My last sight of you alive.
Burning your letter to me, in the ashtray,
With that strange smile. Had I bungled your plan?
Had it surprised me sooner than you purposed?
Had I rushed it back to you too promptly?
One hour later—-you would have been gone
Where I could not have traced you.
I would have turned from your locked red door
That nobody would open
Still holding your letter,
A thunderbolt that could not earth itself.
That would have been electric shock treatment
For me.
Repeated over and over, all weekend,
As often as I read it, or thought of it.
That would have remade my brains, and my life.
The treatment that you planned needed some time.
I cannot imagine
How I would have got through that weekend.
I cannot imagine. Had you plotted it all?

Your note reached me too soon—-that same day,
Friday afternoon, posted in the morning.
The prevalent devils expedited it.
That was one more straw of ill-luck
Drawn against you by the Post-Office
And added to your load. I moved fast,
Through the snow-blue, February, London twilight.
Wept with relief when you opened the door.
A huddle of riddles in solution. Precocious tears
That failed to interpret to me, failed to divulge
Their real import. But what did you say
Over the smoking shards of that letter
So carefully annihilated, so calmly,
That let me release you, and leave you
To blow its ashes off your plan—-off the ashtray
Against which you would lean for me to read
The Doctor’s phone-number.
My escape
Had become such a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted,
Only wanting to be recaptured, only
Wanting to drop, out of its vacuum.
Two days of dangling nothing. Two days gratis.
Two days in no calendar, but stolen
From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.

My love-life grabbed it. My numbed love-life
With its two mad needles,
Embroidering their rose, piercing and tugging
At their tapestry, their bloody tattoo
Somewhere behind my navel,
Treading that morass of emblazon,
Two mad needles, criss-crossing their stitches,
Selecting among my nerves
For their colours, refashioning me
Inside my own skin, each refashioning the other
With their self-caricatures,

Their obsessed in and out. Two women
Each with her needle.

That night
My dellarobbia Susan. I moved
With the circumspection
Of a flame in a fuse. My whole fury
Was an abandoned effort to blow up
The old globe where shadows bent over
My telltale track of ashes. I raced
From and from, face backwards, a film reversed,
Towards what? We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.
Why did we go there? Of all places
Why did we go there? Perversity
In the artistry of our fate
Adjusted its refinements for you, for me
And for Susan. Solitaire
Played by the Minotaur of that maze
Even included Helen, in the ground-floor flat.
You had noted her—-a girl for a story.
You never met her. Few ever met her,
Except across the ears and raving mask
Of her Alsatian. You had not even glimpsed her.
You had only recoiled
When her demented animal crashed its weight
Against her door, as we slipped through the hallway;
And heard it choking on infinite German hatred.

That Sunday night she eased her door open
Its few permitted inches.
Susan greeted the black eyes, the unhappy
Overweight, lovely face, that peeped out
Across the little chain. The door closed.
We heard her consoling her jailor
Inside her cell, its kennel, where, days later,
She gassed her ferocious kupo, and herself.

Susan and I spent that night
In our wedding bed. I had not seen it
Since we lay there on our wedding day.
I did not take her back to my own bed.
It had occurred to me, your weekend over,
You might appear—-a surprise visitation.
Did you appear, to tap at my dark window?
So I stayed with Susan, hiding from you,
In our own wedding bed—-the same from which
Within three years she would be taken to die
In that same hospital where, within twelve hours,
I would find you dead.
Monday morning
I drove her to work, in the City,
Then parked my van North of Euston Road
And returned to where my telephone waited.

What happened that night, inside your hours,
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen,
As if it was not happening. How often
Did the phone ring there in my empty room,
You hearing the ring in your receiver—-
At both ends the fading memory
Of a telephone ringing, in a brain
As if already dead. I count
How often you walked to the phone-booth
At the bottom of St George’s terrace.
You are there whenever I look, just turning
Out of Fitzroy Road, crossing over
Between the heaped up banks of dirty sugar.
In your long black coat,
With your plait coiled up at the back of your hair
You walk unable to move, or wake, and are
Already nobody walking
Walking by the railings under Primrose Hill
Towards the phone booth that can never be reached.
Before midnight. After midnight. Again.
Again. Again. And, near dawn, again.

At what position of the hands on my watch-face
Did your last attempt,
Already deeply past
My being able to hear it, shake the pillow
Of that empty bed? A last time
Lightly touch at my books, and my papers?
By the time I got there my phone was asleep.
The pillow innocent. My room slept,
Already filled with the snowlit morning light.
I lit my fire. I had got out my papers.
And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: ‘Your wife is dead.’