Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
7:36 AM 16th March 2024

Poem Of The Week: Owl By George Macbeth (1932-1992)


Is my favourite. Who flies
like a nothing through the night,
who-whoing. Is a feather
duster in leafy corners ring-a-rosy-ing
boles of mice. Twice

you hear him call. Who
is he looking for? You hear
him hoovering over the floor
of the wood. O would you be gold
rings in the driving skull

if you could? Hooded and
vulnerable by the winter suns
owl looks. Is the grain of bark
in the dark. Round beaks are at
work in the pellety nest,

resting. Owl is an eye
in the barn. For a hole
in the trunk owl’s blood
is to blame. Black talons in the
petrified fur! Cold walnut hands

on the case of the brain! In the reign
of the chicken owl comes like
a god. Is a goad in
the rain to the pink eyes,
dripping. For a meal in the day

flew, killed, on the moor. Six
mouths are the seed of his
arc in the season. Torn meat
from the sky. Owl lives
by the claws of his brain. On the branch

in the sever of the hand’s
twigs owl is a backward look.
Flown wind in the skin. Fine
Rain in the bones. Owl breaks
like the day. Am an owl, am an owl.

Image by 51581 from Pixabay
Image by 51581 from Pixabay
George Macbeth’s sense of language, of its uses and dispositions, facilitates an easeful passage for the bird upon whose instincts his poem focuses. Aided, in its silent flight and airborne manoeuvring, by run-on lines, a changing rhythmical pace and the dynamically suggestive endowments of rhyme and alliteration, the owl is rendered as a wonderfully calibrated and frighteningly convincing killing machine, an apex predator in the rustling shadows of the nocturnal world. ‘Like a nothing through the night’ describes, with precise intent, a natural impulse that is, at once, vanishing and lethal.

Macbeth out-Hughes’ Hughes here. A masterpiece of control, ‘Owl’ is stitched with the kinds of metaphor that capture the brutality of evolutionary purpose in simple, uncompromising phrases: ‘Cold walnut hands // on the case of the brain!’; ‘Black talons in the / petrified fur!’. The repeated exclamation marks reinforce the narrator’s near-mystical awe: obeisant before the bird’s meticulous vision, low-level, hyper-observant glide (‘hoovering over the floor’), and deceptive feather-light delicacy, the poet makes of the owl an anthropomorphic god of the night, as terrifying, in copse and thicket, as Ted Hughes’ ‘hundred feet long’ pike nestling in a pond’s reeds.

The owl is sublime, irresistible, a conveyor of impossible knowledge whose predatory perfection reduces the pliant observer to précis, as if apprehension of its majesty beggared the means by which to distil it. Macbeth’s final lines subsume his narrator in words that melt the bird’s sheer velocity into something approaching identification: ‘Owl breaks / like the day. Am an owl, am an owl.’

'Owl’ is taken from The New Poetry, Selected and Introduced by A. Alvarez, published by Penguin Books (1962).