from basil bunting’s masterpiece, the long poem “briggflatts”—part one

Basil Bunting—much admired by Ezra Pound, with whom he shares so many affinities, as well as W. B. Yeats and Louis Zukofsky—published his masterpiece, the epic poem "Briggflatts," in 1966. Cyril Connolly described it as "the finest long poem to have been published in England since T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets."

 

“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

nothing.

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.”

 

 

 

BRIGGFLATTS

 

An Autobiography

 

By Basil Bunting

 

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,

fellside 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.

 

 

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