Noticing 1

Arctic_Tern_141 IBC

from the International Bird Collection

This post is inspired by Mary Ruefle’s poem ‘After a Rain’ (Selected Poems, Wave Books, 2010), in which she explores being ‘a noticing kind of person‘.

Like the arctic tern in the photo above, many of Ruefle’s examples of noticing are grounded in observation.  Here is one of them:

………, I noticed an infant will grip your hand like
there is no tomorrow while the very aged
will give you a weightless grip for the same reason,

And here is a recent observation of mine, not so beautifully condensed as Ruefle’s.

I noticed that the heron on the other side of the canal did not flap away in the usual indignation as I passed by with the dogs.


Grey heron by Andy Holt for RSPB.

On my return I checked and saw it in the same intent position. Moving on, a sharp splash made me look again, to see the heron backing away from the water’s edge, a flash of silver in its beak, and then its thin neck bulging as it swallowed.  I have passed countless solitary herons staring into the water, but this is the first time I’ve seen one get its reward.

In this kind of noticing we rely on our senses – sight, of course in my case, but also hearing, and touch in Ruefle’s consideration of  the grip of a hand.  Perhaps you can think of when smell or taste have been part of something you’ve noticed?

Ruefle also makes use of another type of noticing in her poem.  Here is an example:

……… and I noticed the road followed roughly
the route of a zipper around a closed case,

Here, you may say she is drawing on sight, but this is imaginary vision, a noticing that draws on her language knowledge to make new connections between things.  She also mixes the two kinds of noticing together – as in the first example ‘I noticed an infant will grip your hand like there is no tomorrow‘.  This kind of noticing is a primary staple of poems, of course, and is also part of the work of visual artists, using the power of image rather than words.  Louise Bourgeois’ work immediately sprang into my mind as I was thinking about this kind of noticing:

BOURgeois NY Times

One of Bourgeois’ spider works from the New York Times.

This kind of noticing is a creative process of course, and so here I am, thinking about creativity again, which wasn’t my initial intention in this post!  As such it needs a great deal more practice than those based on observation only, at least to make connections that open up the eyes and minds of the rest of us.  Here is another sculpture example, this time from Kiki Smith:

Rapture by Kiki Smith


My journals are jampacked with small incidents I have noticed.  They are there for me to remember and rejoice over, but these quickly written notebooks are not the place for this second kind of noticing, such as the kind of connections Mary Ruefle shares with us in her poems.  This kind of noticing makes me go ‘oh yes!’ as the image she has summoned up in words enters my mind, and I begin to savour the rich meanings invoked.

Honing our senses to notice what is going on around us is though, something we can all make more space for in our daily lives, and prepares the ground for the second kind.


Watching the terns

clouds and sea

I stood, a small static spot in the wide sweep of
the white sand and seething sea, amazed by
the show as terns flew above the shore and hurtled
into the waves below.

J.Audubon 'Birds of America'

J.Audubon ‘Birds of America’

These agile artists etched erratic silver
streaks into the deep blue canvas of the
sky; haphazard strokes connecting sunlight to salt grey
water, then dissolving.

Sometimes my slow eyes could only catch the quick
flick of sea foam as these sea swallows plunged beneath
the waves, creating sporadic explosions
of stippled spray.

The bravura patterns of moving light, made from these
acrobats’ sheer steep falls from the air, are seasonal star
performances within the eternal drama of sea and sky unfolding
on Embleton sands.

But these winged artists also use a different set of rules to
draw on land, I found, while loitering along the shore and
snooping into rock pools. At the water’s edge I saw
a pair of terns begin their act.

First they faced each other, then
each turned to sketch a perfect
circle on the wave polished sand.

Facing each other once more
they dipped their heads and brought
the tips of their beaks together,
before each carefully stepped out
and round their circle again,

incising their spiked claw prints,
firming, confirming, returning.
Finally they stood close together
looking out to sea, two small grey
backs resolutely excluding me.

from the International Bird Collection

from the International Bird Collection

The nonchalant ease of their plummeting sky falls and careful
courtship circles kept me returning to these sands, trying to
interpret these abstract forms produced from
their briny elements.

sea and skyI watched these terns on Embleton Sands, Northumberland, but I was so busy ‘snooping’ that I didn’t take photos while there.  For this post I have used photos of another sea on the opposite side of England, on Morecambe Bay.  There are no terns here, sadly, but there are shorelines, sands, clouds and big skies.  The photo above was taken, not by me, but by a friend (thanks Mary) on a a late afternoon walk we shared, walking around just one small part of it.