Basil Bunting




Briggflatts

                     For Peggy

Son los pasariellos del mal pelo exidos

                                   The spuggies are fledged
I 

Brag, sweet tenor bull, 
descant on Rawthey’s madrigal, 
each pebble its part 
for the fells’ late spring. 
Dance tiptoe, bull, 
black against may. 
Ridiculous and lovely 
chase hurdling shadows 
morning into noon. 
May on the bull’s hide 
and through the dale 
furrows fill with may, 
paving the slowworm’s way. 


A mason times his mallet 
to a lark’s twitter, 
listening while the marble rests, 
lays his rule 
at a letter’s edge, 
fingertips checking, 
till the stone spells a name 
naming none, 
a man abolished. 
Painful lark, labouring to rise! 
The solemn mallet says: 
In the grave’s slot 
he lies. We rot. 


Decay thrusts the blade, 
wheat stands in excrement 
trembling. Rawthey trembles. 
Tongue stumbles, ears err 
for fear of spring. 
Rub the stone with sand, 
wet sandstone rending 
roughness away. Fingers 
ache on the rubbing stone. 
The mason says: Rocks 
happen by chance. 
No one here bolts the door, 
love is so sore. 


Stone smooth as skin, 
cold as the dead they load 
on a low lorry by night. 
The moon sits on the fell 
but it will rain. 
Under sacks on the stone 
two children lie, 
hear the horse stale, 
the mason whistle, 
harness mutter to shaft, 
felloe to axle squeak, 
rut thud the rim, 
crushed grit. 


Stocking to stocking, jersey to jersey, 
head to a hard arm, 
they kiss under the rain, 
bruised by their marble bed. 
In Garsdale, dawn; 
at Hawes, tea from the can. 
Rain stops, sacks 
steam in the sun, they sit up. 
Copper-wire moustache, 
sea-reflecting eyes 
and Baltic plainsong speech 
declare: By such rocks 
men killed Bloodaxe. 


Fierce blood throbs in his tongue, 
lean words. 
Skulls cropped for steel caps 
huddle round Stainmore. 
Their becks ring on limestone, 
whisper to peat. 
The clogged cart pushes the horse downhill. 
In such soft air 
they trudge and sing, 
laying the tune frankly on the air. 
All sounds fall still, 
feilside bleat, 
hide-and-seek peewit. 


Her pulse their pace, 
palm countering palm, 
till a trench is filled, 
stone white as cheese 
jeers at the dale. 
Knotty wood, hard to rive, 
smoulders to ash; 
smell of October apples. 
The road again, 
at a trot. 
Wetter, warmed, they watch 
the mason meditate 
on name and date. 


Rain rinses the road, 
the bull streams and laments. 
Sour rye porridge from the hob 
with cream and black tea, 
meat, crust and crumb. 
Her parents in bed 
the children dry their clothes. 
He has untied the tape 
of her striped flannel drawers 
before the range. Naked 
on the pricked rag mat 
his fingers comb 
thatch of his manhood’s home. 


Gentle generous voices weave 
over bare night 
words to confirm and delight 
till bird dawn. 
Rainwater from the butt 
she fetches and flannel 
to wash him inch by inch, 
kissing the pebbles. 
Shining slowworm part of the marvel. 
The mason stirs: 
Words! 
Pens are too light. 
Take a chisel to write. 


Every birth a crime, 
every sentence life. 
Wiped of mould and mites 
would the ball run true? 
No hope of going back. 
Hounds falter and stray, 
shame deflects the pen. 
Love murdered neither bleeds nor stifles 
but jogs the draftsman’s elbow. 
What can he, changed, tell 
her, changed, perhaps dead? 
Delight dwindles. Blame 
stays the same. 


Brief words are hard to find, 
shapes to carve and discard: 
Bloodaxe, king of York, 
king of Dublin, king of Orkney. 
Take no notice of tears; 
letter the stone to stand 
over love laid aside lest 
insufferable happiness impede 
flight to Stainmore, 
to trace 
lark, mallet, 
becks, flocks 
and axe knocks. 


Dung will not soil the slowworm’s 
mosaic. Breathless lark 
drops to nest in sodden trash; 
Rawthey truculent, dingy. 
Drudge at the mallet, the may is down, 
fog on fells. Guilty of spring 
and spring’s ending 
amputated years ache after 
the bull is beef, love a convenience. 
It is easier to die than to remember. 
Name and date 
split in soft slate 
a few months obliterate.