Heron at Port Talbot by Gillian Clarke

Snow falls on the cooling towers
delicately settling on cranes.
Machinery’s old bones whiten; death
settles with its rusts, its erosions.

Warning of winds off the sea
the motorway dips to the dock’s edge.
My hands tighten on the wheel against
the white steel of the wind.

Then we almost touch, both braking flight,
bank on the air and feel that shocking
intimacy of near-collision,
animal tracks that cross in snow.

I see his living eye, his change of mind,
feel pressure as we bank, the force
of his beauty. We might have died
in some terrible conjunction.

The steel town’s sulphurs billow
like dirty washing. The sky stains
with steely inks and fires, chemical
rustings, salt-grains, sand under snow.

And the bird comes, a surveyor
calculating space between old workings
and the mountain hinterland, archangel
come to re-open the heron-roads,

meets me at an inter-section
where wind comes flashing off water
interrupting the warp of the snow
and the broken rhythms of blood.

by Gillian Clarke
from Letter from a Far Country (Gwasg Gomer, 1982)

A recording of Gillian Clarke discussing the poem’s inspiration and reciting the poem itself at 0:44

Additional information: The steel works plant in Port Talbot covers a large area of the coastline near the southern area of the town. The plant’s two blast furnaces and the steel production plant buildings are major landmarks visible from both the M4 motorway and the South Wales Main Line when passing through the town. The air when passing is notable suffice to say.

Here is an analysis of the poem.

If you’re reading this on Boxing Day 2021, when this post was published, I hope you had a nice Christmas Day (for those who celebrate it) yesterday.

Журавли (Cranes) by Rasul Gamzatov

Sometimes I think soldiers, who have never

come back to us from the blood-covered plains,

escaped the ground and didn’t cross the River,

but turned instead into white screeching cranes.

 

And since that time the flock is flying, narrow

or wide, or long – and maybe that is why

so often and with such a sudden sorrow

we stop abruptly, staring at the sky.

 

On flies the wedge trespassing every border –

a sad formation, ranks of do-re-mi,

and there’s a gap in their open order:

it is the space they have reserved for me.

 

The day will come: beneath an evening cloud

I’ll fly, crane on my right, crane on my left,

and in a voice like theirs, shrill and loud,

call out, call out to those on earth I’ve left.

 

by Расул Гамзатович Гамзатов (Rasul Gamzatovich Gamzatov) (1968)

translated by Irina Mashinski

 


 

This poem was set to music, first performed in 1969, soon becoming one of the most famous Russian songs about World War II.

 

 

The poem’s publication in the journal Novy Mir caught the attention of the famous actor and crooner Mark Bernes who revised the lyrics and asked Yan Frenkel to compose the music. When Frenkel first played his new song, Bernes (who was by then suffering from lung cancer) cried because he felt that this song was about his own fate: “There is a small empty spot in the crane flock. Maybe it is reserved for me. One day I will join them, and from the skies I will call on all of you whom I had left on earth.” The song was recorded from the first attempt on 9 July 1969. Bernes died a month after the recording on 16 August 1969, and the record was played at his funeral. Later on, “Zhuravli” would most often be performed by Joseph Kobzon. According to Frenkel, “Cranes” was Bernes’ last record, his “true swan song.”