Down there, where seemingly nothing can breathe,
in an active volcano’s crater filled with toxic fumes,
emerald-green parakeets reside.
This windless ash pit is their breeding ground.
They dig out burrows in walls that are subsiding,
they preen their feathers there, and hatch their eggs
above the red-hot, molten, open bowels of the Earth.
A bright green cloud of wings breaks through the morning blue-black
cloud of mercury and sulphur: the birds fly from the crater
into the more perilous world of feral cats and falcons, people, cages.
They’re in search of food. Feeding their young, they circle
between the catacombs of nests and their hunting ground.
Towards evening they’re back again.
They gather on the trees, to call each other in, and count the losses,
then dive into the steaming chasm ‒ a home
lit up by lava, the place where their nestlings
sleep and fledge.
The Masaya volcano in Nicaragua is unique, because it emanates gases that are not filtered by underground waters, but come straight from the magma, leak through vents and destroy the local plant life.
THE PARAKEETS AND THE HAWK
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
In February I was in Nicaragua, a land of multiple volcanoes. One of them, Masaya, though no different from the rest in size, is unusual in another way: it emanates great clouds of toxic gases, which emerge from it in a pure state, not filtered by underground waters. These fumes are capable of destroying all the plant life in the vicinity. People are not allowed to spend more than five to ten minutes above the crater.
During my five minutes at the summit of Masaya I noticed a flock of birds, flying into the depths of the crater and disappearing in a fog of vapour. They turned out to be an everyday sight: parakeets returning for their night’s rest. In a place that for us would mean death, they have found a refuge.
Before returning to their nests in the walls of the crater, the parakeets flock together on particular trees, perhaps in order to do a count, to estimate their losses. Thinking about it, I was reminded of Ted Hughes’s poem in which a hawk roosts at the top of a tree, alone and imperious. For him the high branch is an observation point. Lurking there like a sniper, he hunts his victims. They might include Nicaraguan parakeets that defend themselves against predators ‒ hawks, falcons, people ‒ by trying to live in a place where it might seem impossible to live, and where their persecutors cannot reach them.
Ted Hughes’s roosting hawk watches the world from on high, with the imperturbable pride of the possessor: it took the whole of Creation to produce his feet and feathers; now he holds Creation in his foot, and revolves it all slowly. The parakeets in my poem hide in cracks in the Earth, behind a curtain of volcanic fumes, to avoid being spotted and caught. They are defenceless. They can’t allow themselves the luxury of detachment, of being above and beyond the world. They are on the inside, in the very middle of the elements, of restlessness. Hughes’s hawk, like every tyrant, wants to preserve the status quo, his eye has permitted no change, it petrifies reality, which must be kept as it is. The parakeets live in constant change and uncertainty: the walls of their earthen burrows are collapsing, the lava in the crater is fluid, and danger lurks beyond the limits of the volcano, where they go in search of food for themselves and their nestlings.
‘For the one path of my flight is direct | Through the bones of the living’, says the hawk in Hughes’s poem. It’s easy to see it as a symbol of the ruthlessness of death, an image of the sheer instinct to kill ‒ outside the bounds of morality, rational arguments, or categories such as cruelty. But what intrigues me the most about this and other of Hughes’s poems, what for me is their greatest strength, is that before becoming allegories, the animals in his work are above all evocatively captured in their animality. His hawk is in the first place quite literally a hawk, and only then a metaphor. And that’s what makes the metaphor so strong.