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The Bells of Saint Babel’sAllen Curnow
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Vol. 21 No. 12 · 10 June 1999
Poem

The Bells of Saint Babel’s

Allen Curnow

After those months
at sea, we stank

worse than the Ark.
Faeces of all

species, God’s first
creation, cooped

human and brute,
between wind and

water, bound for
this pegged-out plain

in the land called
Shinar, or some-

thing. Give or take
some chiliads, I’ll

have been born there.
Saint Babel’s tower

with spire (sundry
versions of that)

stuck not far short
of a top (Wait

for it!) gilded
to catch first light

or last flame flung
by the torched snows

farthest west.
              Four
shiploads of us.

Under its breath
a warm land breeze,

wind of our coming,
breathed Shit!

Lightered ashore,
our cabin trunks,

rust-freckled steel-
braced outside, inside

compartments kept
things lavendered,

smothered memories
of sweats and smears.

For laters. Boxroom
dry dreams, our child-

hood’s indoors, wet
holiday games ...

2.

We wanted it
above all (except

heaven) to make
the world out there

aware, if there’s
any such world,

as if to cry
Look! Look at me!

Very old story.
Some other time.

Before all this.
Before history ran

out of excuses ...

3.

I, the present
writer, that is,

can see the Rev.
F.G. Brittan,

octogenarian
of stertorous

pulpit delivery,
who also told

the time by the ding
and the tink-tink

simply by a squeeze
of his silver watch:

seated beside
the vicarage fire

‘after Service’:
who, babe-in-arms

(his mother’s) came
ashore that day

where four ships lay
under the steep

hills, beyond which
an unbuilt city was

unpaved wetlands,
too near, too far

from unclimbed alps.
Settlers made shift

improvising
themselves. In shock.

Still do. Still are.
Only the games

they play ...

4.

To relocate the
top of the world,

obviously Everest
has to be moved –

South Latitude
thirty-three West

Longitude one-
eighty-three, where

Kermadec Trench
ten thousand metres

deep floored with ‘fine
volcanic ash,

aeolian dust’
drowns mountains.

New Zealand side
of the Date Line

meaning, those shores,
Raoul Island, any

Kermadec reef
cries to the sun,

Me! Me! This day
dawns first on me,

you won’t find that
in your King James

nor Maori story
of a half-god’s

trap for the sun,
that sun ...
          which one?
Which thousand years?

5.

Next time you look,
he will have stepped

out of the shade
the West Front casts

into a sun-stuffed
ambulatory called

Cathedral Square.
His buttoned black

gaiters encase
his shanks. The Dean

of Saint Babel’s
rig of the day.

One more step, he’s
joined by a friend,

silk hat, frock coat,
silver-knobbed cane.

Their morning walk.
What makes the tower

burst but thunderclappers
newly hung, high

peal deafeningly
detonating,

the Dean’s delight,
Are not those bells

Divine?
      Silk hat,
hand cupped on ear,

shouts back, What’s that?
and Gaiters, Divine!

And he, What? What?
Can’t make it out –

Sorry, Mister Dean,
can’t hear a word

for those DAMNED BELLS.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

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Letters

Vol. 21 No. 16 · 19 August 1999

A friend who writes from Germany evidently likes my poem ‘The Bells of Saint Babel’s’ (LRB, 10 June) but points out the navigational impossibility of ‘West/Longitude one-/eighty-three’. I wouldn’t excuse myself to her, or to any other reader similarly troubled, by arguing that a poem which submerges Mt Everest in the Pacific may be allowed a small liberty in fixing the Kermadec Trench: the truth being that in consulting my excellent, detailed map of the sea floor in this hemisphere, I added three degrees to the 180 instead of subtracting them. Vanity hardly knows whether to hope the variant will be noted, or pass unnoticed, next time I print the poem.

Allen Curnow
Auckland

send letters to

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London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

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