I first came across this description by J.B. Priestley in a wonderful book of his called, Man and Time. It is an exploration of time from different points of view; scientific, literary and religious. It is beautifully illustrated in colour. He was fascinated with phenomena such as pre-cognition and dreams and wrote his famous ‘time-plays’ such as Dangerous Corner to dramatise various anomalies and theories. The poem is based on one of Priestley’s own dreams.
I am on top of a high tower, looking down. I see thousands of birds
flying in separate flocks; one flock is a cloud of curlews,
one is a murmeration of starlings, one is a squadron of swans.
Gradually as I watch, the flocks fuse and become a vast aerial river
of birds; a river in the sky, a river of multicoloured feathers and wings,
a pulsating river, now spiralling, now circling, now cascading.
I hear a gentle honking, cooing and twittering as the river draws nearer;
I feel a cool draught of air on my cheeks.
I see generations of birds; watch them break their shells as they are born,
watch them flutter into life, mate, weaken, falter and die. Wings grow
only to crumble into dust, bodies are sleek and then bleed and shrivel.
Thousands upon thousands of flickering bodies flap wings and moult
feathers in heaps until the heaps form multicoloured hillocks of down.
Scrawny heads crack open fragile shells and the naked birds quickly grow
feathers, quickly fly and mate again and again only to bleed, shrivel and die.
I feel sick in my throat. What is the use of all this struggle to exist?
It would have been better if not one of them, if not one of us, had been born.
I stand on the tower; a man alone and in despair.
Now the thousands of birds become one multicoloured mass spread out
like a never-ending flower-bed on a desert sand. Time is running so fast
that the mass of birds is motionless. The desert seems an oasis of all
colours; blues, reds, yellows, purples and greens; the desert is a plain
sown with bird-bone-flesh-and-feathers. And along this plain, flickering
through the bodies themselves, there passes a tiny white flame, trembling,
dancing, then hurrying on, flickering through every particle of coloured
bird-bone-flesh-and-feather. Now it comes to me in a rocket-burst
of ecstasy that this flame is life itself and that nothing else matters;
nothing else could matter because, compared to this flame, everything else
is a shadow.
I am still in the tower and now I see a river of people.
Some are swimming, some are drowning and some are losing
their heads; and arms and legs. I see the water is thick with excrement
and blood. Bits of buildings, decapitated trees, vehicles and boulders
hurtle along with people and body-parts.
Time speeds up and the river flows faster; the bodies, boulders,
trees and buildings merge into a new mysterious form, gigantic,
like a whale, and the river convulses and surges like a tsunami.
Time goes even faster and I see the Earth
as if from the moon. And I hear a voice roaring like a lion:
“Who shall inherit the Earth?”
I am looking down from my moon-tower.
The Earth still looks beautiful; mottled, like a guillemot’s egg.