Joyce Hinnefeld


Friday, October 10, 2008

"Only the Righteous See the Kingfisher": Mark Roper and "Halcyon"

My friends Pat and Tom Phelan (advisors on the birds of Ireland, among other things) have made me aware of a beautiful essay by English poet Mark Roper, and Mark has graciously agreed to allow me to include the essay here. Thanks to all three of them, and also to Tim Guthrie, who has also posted Mark's essay at
I've enjoyed making these trans-Atlantic connections.

Here is Mark's essay:

My mother had a very strong need to be outside, in the fresh air, using her body. She loved to walk, to swim, to play tennis, to row. It wasn’t a case of her feeling she ought to take exercise, the need ran much deeper: it was a fundamental part of her nature, something independent, solitary, even wild in her, something which had to go its own way, outside.

When she came to visit us in Ireland, she’d often go for a walk if we were out at work, through the wood opposite our house, Gortrush Wood. It’s a conifer wood, at that time about forty years old: the trees were spread well apart, there was room for other kinds of trees to grow in between them. It was a walk we’d grown very fond of.

One day when we got back from work she told us, excitedly, that she had seen a kingfisher on her walk, on a small pool at the edge of the wood. This pool was actually more a long shallow puddle, where rainwater would collect in a hollow between trees. It was brackish, and would all but dry out in the summer. It was a long way from any reasonably sized stream. It had nothing in the way of a bank. It surely couldn’t have contained any fish. For all these reasons I was quite convinced that she must have been mistaken, she couldn’t possibly have seen a kingfisher there.

Over the years that followed, I used to tease her about this, linking it to her general vagueness about the animal kingdom. This was a woman, after all, who had only just discovered that elephants didn’t eat through their trunks. It became a shared joke. We’d send each other cards with kingfishers on, cuttings from newspapers about them. One of us would pretend suddenly to see the bird, in the most unlikely setting. It was a shared joke, but it also became a kind of shared tenderness. Slowly a kingfisher began to come alive, to appear between us. When she came to the first poetry reading of mine that she was able to attend, I saw she was wearing a medallion with a kingfisher on it. It was quite a large medallion, made of pewter, on a long metal chain, quite ostentatious in its way – not the sort of thing she wore normally at all.

A few years after her claimed sighting, the wood was cut, and replanted in the modern way, the trees very close to each other. Now that they’ve grown a bit, it’s impossible to walk there. But, for a few years before the new trees grew, I continued to do so, and one day I realized that every time I approached the pool, I was looking for the kingfisher. I was quite sure my mother hadn’t seen one, sure that in fact she couldn’t have seen one there, but all the same I was expecting to see one. In this way too, the bird had come alive.

At some point, the line “I’ve never seen the kingfisher” came into my head. Poems often start this way for me, a line cropping up, a line with some kind of ring to it, around which other lines might eventually start to cohere. I didn’t know what to do with this line, but it was there, and one day I discovered that the word Kingfisher is linked to the word Halcyon. I knew the phrase Halcyon Days, days of idyllic happiness or prosperity: my dictionary told me that Halcyon came from the Greek word for kingfisher, Alkuon or Halcuon, from Hals meaning sea, and Kuon meaning conceiving. I consulted my Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, where I found Kuon translated as ‘to brood on’. Brewer’s added: “The ancient Sicilians believed that the kingfisher laid its eggs, and incubated them for fourteen days on the surface of the sea, during which period, before the winter solstice, the waves were always unruffled.”

My father had died some 20 years earlier, and my mother had mourned him deeply. Suddenly I began to see a connection between the word Halcyon and her situation. I saw that ‘to brood on’ could mean both to breed, to conceive, but also to think deeply about something, often in a melancholy way. I went on to look up the word in Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, but I couldn’t find it in the Index. Eventually it occurred to me to look it up under ‘A’, where I found Alcyone (incidentally underneath Alcyoneus, meaning Mighty Ass, which I took as a deserved rebuke for my slowness). Graves gives a fuller version of the story:

“Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, guardian of the winds, and Aegiale. She married Ceyx of Trachis, son of the Morning Star, and they were so happy in each other’s company that she daringly called herself Hera, and him Zeus. This naturally vexed the Olympian Zeus and Hera, who let a thunderstorm break over the ship in which Ceyx was sailing to consult an oracle, and drowned him. His ghost appeared to Alcyone who, greatly against her will, had stayed behind in Trachis, whereupon distraught with grief, she leapt into the sea. Some pitying god transformed them both into kingfishers.

"Now, every winter, the hen-kingfisher carries her dead mate with great wailing to his burial and then, building a closely compacted nest from the thorns of the sea-needle, launches it on the sea, lays her eggs in it, and hatches out her chicks. She does all this in the Halcyon Days – the seven which precede the winter solstice, and the seven which succeed it – while Aeolus forbids his winds to sweep across the waters.”

I had my poem now, about my mother, a woman who loved the sea, whose need to swim in it had been heightened by the loss of her husband, a loss she brooded on. She was still deeply united with him. In the other sense of the word ‘brood’, I had been part, along with my sisters, of her brood. This was the poem:


I’ve never seen the kingfisher
you claim to have witnessed
on the stand of brackish water
at the edge of our wood.

Years I’ve been looking.
Not a sign. Wrong habitat
too: no bank for nesting,
indeed no fish. Face it

there was no bird yet
each time I pass I peer into
that gloom and each time
this comes to mind:

a flash of chestnutsapphire.
A small flame brooding on ooze.
Your words made light.
Your bright idea. You diving

through the long years
of grief to surface here,
halcyon, incorruptible.
And not one bird but a pair.

My mother died last autumn. Around that time, I had seen a deer vanishing into another small wood nearer to our house. This small wood faces Gortrush Wood over a large field. It’s a wood of alder and willow, on wet ground, many of the trees thickly coated with lichen and moss, quite a few fallen. It’s the last patch of wood left now along this stretch of road and it must be something of a refuge, a way station, for wild creatures. The deer had most likely escaped from the large agricultural college, some 2 miles away, where they have a deer farm, but it was still a special experience to witness it crashing into the trees.

I hadn’t seen it again, but early on this year I was walking past the wood, and I realized that I was straining to see it, in just the same way that I had strained for so long to see the kingfisher that my mother couldn’t have seen, in Gortrush Wood. I grinned to myself, thinking that now I would have to repeat this new pattern, looking for the deer every time I passed this spot.

At that exact moment, from the edge of the wood, where a small stream runs under the road, a kingfisher flashed up, swerved left along the road, then veered right, out across the field, heading toward Gortrush Wood where my mother claimed to have seen one so many years before.

It was an extraordinary moment, an extraordinary coincidence. The bird appeared exactly when I had been thinking about my mother and her kingfisher. And of course that made it an encounter with her, with her spirit. And then I realized that she had been right all along, here was the proof of her claim, a kingfisher in nearly the same spot. I felt a huge need to tell her, to share the news, and then I remembered that she was dead. I stood in the middle of the road and told her anyway.

I have since read that kingfishers roam widely in winter. They can be found far away from water inland, they can be found by the sea. Maybe the bird I saw lives around here, maybe it was a visitor. “Only the righteous see the kingfisher” is a saying recorded in Richard Mabey’s Birds Britannica. After unrighteously denying her sighting, I had been given a second chance. Why I was so sure she hadn’t seen one, I don’t know. But I have learnt to try to check my judgement. And I think I understand more deeply now that what we might actually witness is only a tiny fraction of what there is. I see more deeply how our thinking is formed, has always been formed, by the world around us. So much passed between my mother and I through the image of that bird. I wear the punishment for my unrighteousness lightly: condemned, whenever I pass that wood, to be on the lookout for both deer and kingfisher; condemned to try to be open to every possibility.

© 2008 - Mark Roper

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Last Book Show

I started this post very early on Saturday morning, Oct. 4, when I sat down and wrote the following:

I’m in Oakland right now, in my room at the Marriott, looking out the window at San Francisco Bay as the sky gradually starts to lighten. It’s 6:15 AM, and I’ve been up for a while now; I’m still on Eastern Standard Time.

I’m here for the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association conference; I’ll meet booksellers throughout the day today and at a reception this evening, and tomorrow I’ll drive up to Book Passage in Corte Madera (in Marin County), to sign copies of In Hovering Flight for Book Passage’s First Editions Club. I’m looking out the window now and trying not to get nervous about navigating those multiple, intertwining freeways.

Last night I had dinner with my editor at Unbridled Books, Fred Ramey. We talked about a lot of things, and it was great fun, but I keep thinking about a question Fred raised. Why, he asked, aren’t more American novelists writing about the here and now—our contemporary lives in this moment, the particular social and political backdrop that surrounds us now. We got to this, I think, by talking about the very strange phenomenon of airport security. We take off our shoes and belts. We put our little plastic baggies with our personal toiletry items on the conveyor. It’s weirdly invasive, and we all do it without making eye contact. Except with the man or woman on the other side of the screening device. Very important to smile and make eye contact there, when you hand over your boarding pass, so you don’t look at all questionable.

I’ve been traveling so much lately, and I’ve just started to find this fascinating, and to wonder: Are we going to look back on this at some point and think, Wasn’t that really strange? Or is this it, the way it’s going to be from now on? Will our kids go through their days fully expecting to be patted down several times a day, just as part of going about their business?

Then, a few flights later, I added the following:

The freeways weren’t too bad. Book Passage ( is a fantastic bookstore. I’m grateful to Mary Benham for helping me sign all those books—and also for her part in selecting In Hovering Flight for the store’s First Editions Club.

When I’d finished signing I met up with my friend Shae Irving; we had a lovely walk around Corte Madera, past Shae’s old elementary school, the park she used to play in, the apartment building where she lived until she was nine. We stopped so she could photograph a yellow-and-black road sign that’s apparently been up at the same spot in Corte Madera for a while now: “Changing Conditions Ahead.” You can say that again. (Shae: Please don’t forget to send me this photo.)

Sunday night I stayed at Shae’s place in Berkeley, where I’d never been before this brief visit but where I have decided, based on my breakfast at CafĂ© Fanny Monday morning, that I need to live. That evening I met up with two old college friends, Rafal Ofierski and J.D. Meadows, who both live in San Francisco, for a dinner spent catching up and ranting about American politics. Monday morning I was up early (I never really adjusted to Pacific time), so I drove up to Centennial Drive and looked down on a fog-enshrouded Berkeley; it looked like a gorgeous sea of clouds. I don’t see how people in the San Francisco Bay area get any work done; I’d spend all my time looking out the window if I lived there. Mountains and water everywhere!

NCIBA was interesting; at the reception/signing on Saturday night—similar to the one in Boston, at NEIBA a couple weeks ago—I chatted with booksellers from all over California. At the book exhibit I enjoyed meeting and talking with fellow Unbridled author John Addiego; I’m loving his novel The Islands of Divine Music, which is set in the Bay Area ( I should have done a bunch of grading on the flight home, but I kept picking up this wonderful novel instead.

So that’s it for Independent Booksellers’ Association meetings for me. I won’t miss airports and Marriotts, but suddenly I’m feeling a little sad that these trips are over. Now it’s on to some bookstore readings, first in my area and then a bit farther afield (see for the current list). To any and all booksellers I’ve met over the past few weeks who might be reading this: Thanks for your warm welcome. Thanks, too, to Steven Wallace and Fred Ramey for sending me.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Candidate A and Candidate B

At first glance this post might seem unrelated to my novel In Hovering Flight. But keep reading; there are birds eventually.

Lately I’ve been imagining alternate scenarios for the morning after the next U.S. Presidential inauguration.

It starts the same. The new President wakes up that morning feeling tired but happy. The parties were great. He was surrounded by the love of his family and his whole nation. He came home and made love to his wife.

He basks in the glow of all that for a while, before waking up enough to realize that he is, indeed, the new President of the United States. Maybe, he thinks, he’d better get up and do something.

That’s when the scenario changes, and there are two possibilities.

Candidate A tries to decide what to do first. There’s offshore drilling to attend to now (he can still hear Rudy and the rest of them shouting “Drill baby, drill!” at the convention). He should talk to his vice president about how to proceed with that. But wait, she’s on a two-week hunting vacation with some of her oil-industry buddies.

There’s the economy, but now that he’s in office they can go on with the bailout, as he’d always assumed would happen.

Beyond that, there isn’t too much to do. Iraq, regulating Wall Street, health care, blah, blah, blah. He knows that those to whom he’s most beholden, those who got him elected, would like to see things stay pretty much the same.

And all that whining about global warming. Protecting the planet, that sad old song. Sure it’s a shame we might lose some species.* But isn’t that what all those nice Audubon and National Geographic photographs are for? We’ll remember what they looked like. And hey, don’t we still have all those national parks? Can’t he at least take some credit for appreciating the natural world, since Theodore Roosevelt is his hero?

Candidate B thinks he should probably get to work. His vice president is probably already at his desk. He thinks about his wife and kids. He thinks about the people who elected him, the people to whom he feels beholden. A lot of these people are young and aren’t thinking all that much about amassing or protecting personal wealth; their hearts and minds are still alive enough to imagine other priorities. Some are old and worried; some are really afraid of getting sick. They’d all like to feel that they’ll be cared for when they’re sick or dying. They’d like their sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and husbands and wives to have more options—more ahead of them than another tour of duty in Iraq.

They’d all like the planet to survive. And speaking of that, some of them—some of us—are concerned about biological diversity for reasons that are more than aesthetic or recreational.

He’ll know, I think, that we’re all waiting for him to get to work.

Sometimes when I think about these possibilities I feel hopeful. Sometimes, though, I feel genuinely panicked. At least the choice is clear, for me.

*According to a recent article in The Globe and Mail, populations of twenty of the most common North American birds have declined by more than fifty percent in the last forty years. Not that I imagine Candidate A has seen this article.