Basil Bunting


Poet appointed dare not decline
to walk among the bogus, nothing to authenticate
the mission imposed, despised
by toadies, confidence men, kept boys,
shopped and jailed, cleaned out by whores,
touching acquaintance for food and tobacco.
Secret, solitary, a spy, he gauges
lines of a Flemish horse
hauling beer, the angle, obtuse,
a slut’s blouse draws on her chest,
counts beat against beat, bus conductor
against engine against wheels against
the pedal, Tottenham Court Road, decodes
thunder, scans
porridge bubbling, pipes clanking, feels
Buddha’s basalt cheek
but cannot name the ratio of its curves
to the half-pint
left breast of a girl who bared it in Kleinfeldt’s.
He lies with one to long for another,
sick, self-maimed, self-hating,
obstinate, mating
beauty with squalor to beget lines still-born.

You who can calculate the course
of a biased bowl,
shall I come near the jack?
What twist can counter the force
that holds back
woods I roll?

You who elucidate the disk
hubbed by the sun,
shall I see autumn out
or the fifty years at risk
be lost, doubt
end what’s begun?

Under his right oxter the loom of his sweep
the pilot turns from the wake.
Thole-pins shred where the oar leans,
grommets renewed, tallowed;
halliards frapped to the shrouds.
Crew grunt and gasp. Nothing he sees
they see, but hate and serve. Unscarred ocean,
day’s swerve, swell’s poise, pursuit,
he blends, balances, drawing leagues under the keel
to raise cold cliffs where tides
knot fringes of weed.
No tilled acre, gold scarce,
walrus tusk, whalebone, white bear’s liver.
Scurvy gnaws, steading smell, hearth’s crackle.
Crabs, shingle, seracs on the icefall.
Summer is bergs and fogs, lichen on rocks.
Who cares to remember a name cut in ice
or be remembered?
Wind writes in foam on the sea:

Who sang, sea takes,
brawn brine, bone grit.
Keener the kittiwake.
Fells forget him.
Fathoms dull the dale,
gulfweed voices …

About ship! Sweat in the south. Go bare
because the soil is adorned,
sunset the colour of a boiled louse.
Steep sluice or level,
parts of the sewer ferment faster.
Days jerk, dawdle, fidget
towards the cesspit.
Love is a vapour, we’re soon through it.

Flying fish follow the boat,
delicate wings blue, grace
on flick of a tissue tail,
the water’s surface between
appetite and attainment.
Flexible, unrepetitive line
to sing, not paint; sing, sing,
laying the tune on the air,
nimble and easy as a lizard,
still and sudden as a gecko,
to humiliate love, remember

It tastes good, garlic and salt in it,
with the half-sweet white wine of Orvieto
on scanty grass under great trees
where the ramparts cuddle Lucca.

It sounds right, spoken on the ridge
between marine olives and hillside
blue figs, under the breeze fresh
with pollen of Apennine sage.

It feels soft, weed thick in the cave
and the smooth wet riddance of Antonietta’s
bathing suit, mouth ajar for
submarine Amalfitan kisses.

It looks well on the page, but never
well enough. Something is lost
when wind, sun, sea upbraid
justly an unconvinced deserter.

White marble stained like a urinal
cleft in Apuan Alps,
always trickling, apt to the saw. Ice and wedge
split it or well-measured cordite shots,
while paraffin pistons rap, saws, rip
and clamour is clad in stillness:
clouds echo marble middens, sugar-white,
that cumber the road stones travel
to list the names of the dead.
There is a lot of Italy in churchyards,
sea on the left, the Garfagnana
over the wall, la Cisa flaking
to hillside fiddlers above Parma,
melancholy, swift,
with light bow blanching the dance.
Grease mingles with sweat
on the threshing floor. Frogs, grasshoppers
drape the rice in sound.
Tortoise deep in dust or
muzzled bear capering
punctuate a text whose initial,
lost in Lindisfarne plaited lines,
stands for discarded love.

Win from rock
    flame and ore.
Crucibles pour
    sanded ingots.

Heat and hammer
        draw out a bar.
Wheel and water
    grind an edge.

No worn tool
    whittles stone;
but a reproached
    uneasy mason

shaping evasive
litters his yard
    with flawed fragments.

Loaded with mail of linked lies,
what weapon can the king lift to fight
when chance-met enemies employ sly
sword and shoulder-piercing pike,
pressed into the mire,
trampled and hewn till a knife
—in whose hand?—severs tight
neck cords? Axe rusts. Spine
picked bare by ravens, agile
maggots devour the slack side
and inert brain, never wise.
What witnesses he had life,
ravelled and worn past splice,
yarns falling to staple? Rime
on the bent, the beck ice,
there will be nothing on Stainmore to hide
void, no sable to disguise
what he wore under the lies,
king of Orkney, king of Dublin, twice
king of York, where the tide
stopped till long flight
from who knows what smile,
scowl, disgust or delight
ended in bale on the fellside.

Starfish, poinsettia on a half-tide crag,
a galliard by Byrd.
Anemones spite cullers of ornament
but design the pool
to their grouping. The hermit crab
is no grotesque in such company.

Asian vultures riding on a spiral
column of dust
or swift desert ass startled by the
camels’ dogged saunter
figures sudden flight of the descant
on a madrigal by Monteverdi.

But who will entune a bogged orchard,
its blossom gone,
fruit unformed, where hunger and
damp hush the hive?
A disappointed July full of codling
moth and ragged lettuces?

Yet roe are there, rise to the fence, insolent;
a scared vixen cringes
red against privet stems as a mazurka;
and rat, grey, rummaging
behind the compost heap has daring
to thread, lithe and alert, Schoenberg’s maze.

Riding silk, adrift on noon,
a spider gleams like a berry
less black than cannibal slug
but no less pat under elders
where shadows themselves are a web.
So is summer held to its contract
and the year solvent;but men
driven by storm fret,
reminded of sweltering Crete
and Pasiphae’s pungent sweat,
who heard the god-bull’s feet
scattering sand,
breathed byre stink, yet stood
with expectant hand
to guide his seed to its soil;
nor did flesh flinch
distended by the brute
nor loaded spirit sink
till it had gloried in unlike creation.