I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain it must sometimes make a kind of singing – Robert Hass One two three four breathe Swimming lengths in my local pool each evening after work trying to unwind the day’s coil and write a song for all the species in my lifetime to have died An anthem for the Angel Island mouse A carol for the Christmas Island shrew An aria for the Aru Flying Fox the bottom of the pool, tiles like skyscraper windows A patter song for Po’uli An old Roman chant for O’ahu Alauahiu Breathe Remember the beach at Marselforn and the boys thwacking jellyfish out of buckets onto the pier and prodding them with spades and puncturing them with the bamboo poles of their crab nets fried egg jellyfish that had bloomed across the sea like a thousand flowers, beautiful, terrifying, domestic, harmless, brought on a current against their will to pulse gently into the whim of boys whose butchery could not be reasoned with A round for the Central Rock Rat A ballad for the Bramble Cay Melomys Imagine Deep Time the bottom dropped out of a well black sky volcanoes plates colliding into Paramount ghosts planing over ice sheets small clear sea things growing like floaters on a hot day hurtling past stars sun an emergency flare heartburn violences speed zoom in camera boom For the Wondiwoi tree kangeroo a terrific twelve bar blues Slower, think of my slow movements of nothing, then suddenly something: a sound a rumble a thunder slick slop of liquid a clang a whistle a creak a bubble go deep do not believe that if it doesn’t make a sound there’s no one to hear it Breathe Two three four how else can we imagine the age of the Earth? A bass for Bouvier’s Red Colobus A mass for Maui Akepa, a drinking song for the Dusky Seaside Sparrow Flea-wide, detrital, forever, zircon crystals from Jack Hills, Western Australia are the oldest rocks on the whole round planet their memory locked inside concentric zones like – ok, imagine – like rings on a tree trunk four thousand four hundred and four million years old I touch the end, forty lengths, a breath, keep going, a dip A cover version for the Christmas Island pipistrelle push a single zircon crystal through the Super High Resolution Ion Microprobe to find the carbon isotope: it means there may have been surface water, perhaps even life A shanty for the Pinta Island tortoise An earworm for the St. Helena earwig A kind of singing humans as pure verb – mountaintop removal, coral scraping, damming, deep subsurface injection – waste rock dumped in Appalachian streams, Nile Delta starved of sediment, coastal Louisiana losing an acre of land per hour as levees suck the soil, pipelines make the earth subside. Over and over our new cartography. Bald cypress, wax myrtle, cottonwood – an acre – osprey, ibis, egret, beaver, manatee For the Scimitar oryx I’ll cut a spiritual, for the Saudi gazelle a slow jam and a lullaby for the Liverpool pigeon and a torch song for Telefomin Cuscus and a melody for Maui Nukupuu and a yell for – Breathe Today I woke to a glimmer of hope: legislation for roadside verges, that they’ll be mown just twice a year and only after flowers set seed, so wildlife corridors might guide invertebrates across the countryside. A new cartography. Then: what difference will it make? Then: but still: legislation, thought, consultation, work, science. How do we offset the loss of hope? Red clover. Lady’s bedstraw. The wild geese that flew over at breakfast, over the school, into the rain An answer song for the Alaotra Grebe which after twenty years the Atitlan Grebe did answer Easy to put away all thoughts but the rhythm of the water-clock to imagine there’s nothing wrong out there, that the sky in the big pool windows shines down like this safely on every crossing A field holler for the forest ox A yodel for the Yangtze River dolphin The lengths we’d go to. Another lap around the library, all these books and papers about cloud brightening, veil-making, genetically engineering trees to give them more reflective leaves, creating nuclear winter so soot and smoke could form a shroud against the best the sun might throw at us… the phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean are feasting on the iron we’ve fed to them so they in turn will suck our carbon from the air, the swollen algae blooming into galaxies A stereophonic madrigal for the monkey-faced bat A Geisslerlieder for Emma’s Giant Rat Breathe Remember a speech I read – that sea level rise is already locked in – means there’s no going back; we are looking for reprieve; we are not looking for a sea change; we’re looking for reprieve; we are not looking for our children’s children or our children’s children’s children; we are looking for reprieve; we are looking for the space behind our homes; they teeter on the breeze; we are not looking to sell up or out; we’re just looking for reprieve; we’re not looking backwards; we need something to believe; we’ll keep going forward, but we’re looking for reprieve One two three four breathe kick kick Tell me again how we’re doing for time what the wetlands sing as the wetlands drown? The lengths we could go to: marine permaculture, regenerative agriculture, decentralised energy, electric vehicles a field liberated from its fences, its seed let go, a neighbour sharing solar with their neighbour, a network of driverless cars, slow and on time. Think of all the space we’d have to breathe. Why does the language of hope sound less scientific? When did we forget rocks weren’t nouns but verbs? Imagine the fields of wild-roaming cattle Imagine the kelp forests stretching for miles Imagine the cities we might build Imagine the songs we might sing A work song for the West African black rhino A broadside for Borreo’s Cinnamon Teal That bright spring morning at Oxford Circus, Extinction Rebellion’s folkboat, flotsam and jetsam of tents, flags, gazebos, pavement chalk. TELL THE TRUTH three feet high on the bright pink hull, sail wilting as if just only struggled into port. Tents unzipping like any campsite, people bewildered, wanting breakfast. A few police hovering like bumblebees. Then: the quiet. No cars. But more than that – all the people coming from the station, the people going to work, are quiet. Anything might happen Breathe The ricocheting chatter of kids in swimming lessons and velvet yoke of streetlamps through the big pool windows… like that golden winter light on the walnut path, a stonechat like a teasel on a teasel. A year since the wildfire stole three hundred acres of the Flats, our stomping ground, we stealth through oaks towards Alexandra Pond, count wheatear, little owl, the footprints of a just-gone fox. And on the water gadwall, pochard, a lone goosander. For weeks we could smell the sweetness of cooked oak through the kitchen window, hanging in the heatwave-woven air. Today we watch the birds in a flushed chill breeze, walk through brambles brimming over in the gorse A hymn for the Hooded Seedeater A jingle for Garrido’s hutia The final length, a breather at the deep end Remember walking the hill between the two ancient temples of Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim, cicadas clamped to carob trees clattering their ribs in the heart of the island clicking their ribs like lussuria or warning not for us or because of us but as they had done always, before the milky limestone blocks were rolled on cut querns and raised to the sky so the solstice would shine through the limestone eye. Did the people sing then? Or chant? Or breathe in silence until the full day swelled to the crack of cicadas? Amazing how little we know Swimming lengths in the local pool One two breathe one two I sing what I can for Kauai Oo, a repeat-after-me for Kauai Nukupuu ___________ 'Length's' was first published in The Use of English 71 (2) Spring 2020. Many thanks to Malcolm Hebron and the English Association.