Basil Bunting

The Well of Lycopolis

cujus potu signa virginitatis eripiuntur

Advis m'est que j'oy regretter

Slinking by the jug-and-bottle 
swingdoor I fell in with 
Mother Venus, ageing, bedraggled, a 
half-quartern of gin under her shawl, 
wishing she was a young girl again: 
'It's cruel hard to be getting old so soon. 
I wonder I dont kill myself and have done with it.
I had them all on a string at one time, 
lawyers, doctors, business-men: 
there wasnt a man alive but would have given 
all he possessed 
for what they wont take now free for nothing. 
I turned them down, 
I must have had no sense, 
for the sake of a shifty young fellow: 
whatever I may have done at other times 
on the sly 
I was in love then and no mistake; 
and him always knocking me about 
and only cared for my money. 
However much he shook me or kicked me I 
loved him just the same. 
If he'd made me take in washing he'd 
only have had to say: 'Give us a kiss' 
and I'd have forgotten my troubles. 
The selfish pig, never up to any good! 
He used to cuddle me. Fat lot of good it's done me! 
What did I get out of it besides a bad conscience? 
But he's been dead longer than thirty years 
and I'm still here, old and skinny. 
When I think about the old days, 
what I was like and what I'm like now, 
it fair drives me crazy to 
look at myself with nothing on. 
What a change! 
Miserable dried up skin and bone.
But none of their Bacchic impertinence, 
medicinal stout nor portwine-cum-beef. 
A dram of anaesthetic, brother. 
I'm a British subject if I am a colonial, 
distilled liquor's clean. 
It's the times have changed. I remember during the War 
kids carrying the clap to school under their pinnies, 
studying Belgian atrocities in the Sunday papers 
or the men pissing in the backstreets; and grown women 
sweating their shifts sticky at the smell of khaki 
every little while. 
Love's an encumberance to them who 
rinse carefully before using, better 
keep yourself to yourself. 
What it is to be in the movement! 
'Follow the instructions on page fortyone' 
unlovely labour of love, 
'or work it off in a day's walk, 
a cold douche and brisk rub down, 
there's nothing like it.' 
Aye, tether me among the maniacs, 
it's nicer to rave than reason.' 
Took her round to Polymnia's, Polymnia 
glowering stedfastly at the lukewarm 
undusted grate grim with cinders 
never properly kindled, the brass head of the 
tongs creaking as she twitched them: 
'Time is, was, has been.' 
A gassy fizzling spun from among the cinders. 
The air, an emulsion of some unnameable oil, 
greased our napes. We rhymed our breath 
to the mumble of coke distilling. 
'What have you come for? Why have you brought the Goddess? You who 
finger the goods you cannot purchase, 
snuffle the skirt you dare not clutch. 
There was never love between us, never less 
than when you reckoned much. A tool 
not worth the negligible price. A fool 
not to be esteemed for barren honesty. 
Leave me alone. A long time ago 
there were men in the world, dances, guitars, ah! 
Tell me, Love's mother, have I wrinkles? grey hair? 
teats, or dugs? calves, or shanks? 
Do I wear unbecoming garments?'
'Blotched belly, slack buttock and breast, 
there's little to strip for now. 
A few years makes a lot of difference. 
Would you have known me? 
Poor old fools, 
gabbing about our young days, 
squatted round a bit of fire 
just lit and flickering out already: 
and we used to be so pretty!’

May my libation of flat beer stood overnight 
sour on your stomach, my devoutly worshipped ladies, 
may you retch cold bile. 
Windy water slurred the glint of Canopus, 
am I answerable? Left, the vane 
screwing perpetually ungainlywards. 
What reply will a 
June hailstorm countenance?
'Let's be cosy, 
sit it out hand in hand. 
Dreaming of you, that's all I do.' 
Eiderdown air, any 
girl or none, it's the same thing, 
coats the tongue the morning after. 
If words were stone, if the sun's lilt 
could be fixed in the stone's convexity. 
Open your eyes, Polymnia, 
at the sleek, slick lads treading gingerly between the bedpots, 
stripped buff-naked all but their hats to raise, 
and nothing rises but the hats; 
smooth, with soft steps, ambiguoque voltu.
Daphnis investigated 
bubless Chloe 
behind a boulder. 
Still, they say, 
in another climate 
virgin with virgin 
coupled taste 
wine without headache 
and the songs are simple. 
We have laid on Lycopolis water. 
The nights are not fresh 
between High Holborn and the Euston Road, 
nor the days bright even in summer 
nor the grass of the squares green.
Neither (aequora pontis) 
on the sea's bulge 
would the 'proud, full sail' 
us, stubborn against the trades, 
stiff, flat canvas; 
our fingers bleed 
under the nail 
when we reef.

Infamous poetry, abject love, 
Aeolus' hand under her frock 
this morning. This afternoon 
Ocean licking her privities. 
Every thrust of the autumn sun 
in the green grin of late-flowering trees. 
I shall never have anything to myself
but stare in the tank, see 
Hell's constellations, 
a dogstar for the Dogstar: 
women's faces 
blank or trivial, 
still or rippled water, 
a fool's image.
At my time of life it is easier not to see, 
much easier to tra-la-la 
a widowed tune in poor circumstances--
tweet, tweet, twaddle, 
tweet, tweet, twat. 
Squalid acquiescence in the cast-offs 
of reputed poetry. Here, Bellerophon, 
is a livery hack, a gelding, 
easy pace, easy to hire, 
all mansuetude and indifference.
Abject poetry, infamous love, 
howling like a damp dog in November. 
Scamped spring, squandered summer, 
grain, husk, stem and stubble 
mildewed; mawkish dough and sour bread. 
Tweet, tweet, twaddle. Endure 
detail by detail the cunnilingual law. 
'Clap a clout on your jowl for 
Jesus sake! Fy for shame! 
After hours, is it? or under age? 
Hack off his pendants! 
Can a moment of madness make up for 
an age of consent?' 
--with their snouts in the trough, 
kecking at gummy guts, 
slobbering offal, gobbling potato parings, 
yellow cabbage leaves, choking on onion skin, 
herring bones, slops of porridge. 
Way-O! Bully boys blow! 
The Gadarene swihine have got us in tow.


Ed anche vo' che tu per certo credi 
che sotto l'acqua ha gente che sospira.

Stuck in the mud they are saying: 'We were sad 
in the air, the sweet air the sun makes merry, 
we were glum of ourselves, without a reason; 
now we are stuck in the mud and therefore sad.' 
That's what they mean, but the words die in their throat; 
they cannot speak out because they are stuck in the mud. 
Stuck, stick, Styx. Styx, eternal, a dwelling. 
But the rivers of Paradise, 
the sweep of the mountains they rise in? 
Drunk or daft hear 
a chuckle of spring water: 
drowsy suddenly wake, 
but the bright peaks have faded. 
Who had love for love 
whose love was strong or fastidious? 
Shadow and shadow noon shrinks, night shelters, 
the college of Muses reconstructs 
in flimsy drizzle of starlight: 
bandy, hunchback, dot-and-carry-one, 
Join the Royal Air Force 
and See the World. The Navy will 
Make a Man of You. Tour India with the Flag. 
One of the ragtime army, 
involuntary volunteer, 
queued up for the pox in Rouen. What a blighty!
Surrendered in March. Or maybe 
ulcers of mustard gas, a rivet in the lung 
from scrappy shrapnel, 
frostbite, trench-fever, shell-shock, 
self-inflicted wound, 
tetanus, malaria, influenza. 
Swapped your spare boots for a packet of gaspers. 
Overstayed leave. 
Debauched the neighbor's little girl 
to save two shillings ...
muttering inaudibly beneath the quagmire, 
irresolute, barren, dependent, this page 
ripped from Love's ledger and Poetry's: 
and besides I want you to know for certain 
there are people under the water. They are sighing. 
The surface bubbles and boils with their sighs. 
Look where you will you see it. 
The surface sparkles and dances with their sighs 
as though Styx were silvered by a wind from Heaven.