Reading: Larksong by Douglas Dunn

Today I read Scottish poet Douglas Dunn (b. 1942) avoided draft in Vietnam by returning to Britain, where he worked in a library with Philip Larkin. He is said to be a reflective rather than a reactive poet. I read a compact and intriguing poem about a lark (laverock in Scottish):


A laverock in its house of air is singing
May morning, May morning, and its trills drift
High on the flatland’s abstract hill
In the down-below of England.
I am the aerial photograph it takes of me
On a sonar landscape
And it notates my sorrow
In Holderness, where summer frost
Melts from the green like her departing ghost

The bird is called by his Scottish name laverock but is ‘down-below’ in England where the hills are abstract. Holderness is in Yorckshire. The call “May morning may morning” sounds like “May day may day”, what is so alarming?

The poet imagines how the bird from his vantage point of the free skies sees him and offers a beautiful metaphor: the aerial photograph on a sonar (blurry like a sonar image) landscape. Standard fare: the author identifies himself with how he is seen by others, in this case a bird that perhaps stands for his native Scotland. The bird notates (registers somewhere, not just notes) my sorrow. Summer frost is a very English weather phenonemon, but here it is retreating like the departhing ghost of ‘her’. I think he is referring to a lover (the laverock would also be possible because the house of air associates with the ghost, but it is already referred to as ‘it’). So the lost other, whose absence makes our poet turn to the bird, is only mentioned very briefly and mysteriously.