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The Bench

What passed through your mind, old man,
what passed through your mind back then,
staring out beyond the shingle and sea wrack,
the islets and rocks,
to the Olympics on the far shore,
snowy peaks poking through cloud?

I would spot you often on this bench,
smoking your unfiltered Players, gazing into the distance,
reading the grain of the sea,
the currents and wind,
as if parsing the whorls of Eadfrith’s Gospels.
What can a young man – a boy, really –

know of what runs through an old man’s mind?
But I wondered then, and wonder still,
no longer young, sitting here,
gazing as you once gazed at this patch of sea,
ever the same, ever changing,
the gulls and crows busily at work, hovering.

This sky would have been foreign to you,
the light, as well,
but not unpleasing, no, not at all – how could it be? –
swift-moving, full of drama,
weather and clouds rushing east overhead
until caught up in the coastal range,

unburdening themselves of their cargo of rain.
It’s fine light, at its best days like this,
almost pearly, a light mist.
I remember now, after so many years away,
how well it suits the place and suited me then, as now.
I stayed on for years.

But you moved along, taking the long way back,
by ship. You enjoyed the water,
watching it from this vantage or under you at sea.
You were the sort accustomed to moving on.
I spotted that about you straightaway.
You travelled light, the one book,

Njal’s Saga, always in your left coat pocket.
Copper-wire moustache,
sea-reflecting eyes …
You’d long ago been a sailor yourself,
knowing what to take along, what leave behind.
There was more than a bit of the wanderer to you,

the exile, and in your carriage and gait:
no nonsense, erect, never inviting attention
but clearly not of this place.
I watched you carefully that year,
and listened.
It was good to be around a man like that.

One learns, takes on a great deal,
not even half-aware of it, not for many years later.
And not just how words join up,
made to fit properly together like the drystone walls
of a Yorkshire dale, sturdy, serviceable, lasting.
I watched you carefully that year.

That bungalow we’d meet at, those few of us,
rain pouring down outside,
listening to Scarlatti, Dowland, Byrd,
or you reading aloud to us, Wordsworth, Wyatt –
just back there across the road,
torn down, a gruesome condo complex now.

You poured those sounds into our heads.
Who knew what might come of it?
Surely, nothing bad.
I would walk past you many times that year,
sitting here, gazing out at the sea, the rocks.
Who can say what thoughts … ?

Love Chant

You see that big ol’ Kwakiutl in the birdsuit
flapping away, swaying right then left
in the bow of a 50-foot war canoe,
his sidekicks banging the handles of their oars in time:
whack whackwhackwhack whack whack?

Well, honey, that’s about how I feel around you.
Sure, it was all staged, an ethno-spectacular
for Curtis and his actuality film crew;
blow their minds back in New York along the Great White Way,
King Kong before King Kong.

But that’s not the way I like to see it,
and I’ve watched this clip plenty at the museum rainy days like this.
How I like to see it, these boys are getting in the mood,
whipping themselves up for a full-on, all hands, slave raid south,
and that would be in our direction.

Look at all those sun-worshippers out there on Ocean Beach,
matrons, truants, ice cream and cotton-candy vendors,
doing their thing, checking out the kites and cormorants,
listening to Kruk&Kuip call the game over the radio,
slapping on the cocoa butter.

Out of nowhere they’ll come swooping in like pelicans
dive-bombing sardines, gathering up
pink-splotched fatties in Speedos, dogs too,
and tossing them in back of the canoe.
Then, of course, the ceremonial feast:

hormone and nitrate-free wieners,
little tubs of hummus, rice cakes, power bars,
and after that a proper nap, waves gently rocking;
and, first thing on waking, do that dance of theirs they do:
whack whackwhackwack whack whack;

turn that ginormous cedar dugout around
and paddle back the thousand miles or so to Quatsino Sound,
off-load their haul, hose ’em down
and get the lot started on polishing the silver, ironing,
picking lice off the kiddies’ heads, like that.

As for the more unfortunate adult male slaves, well …
Let’s just say next harvest moon when the fright masks come out
and teeth get to gnashin’& a-flashin’ in the longhouse,
warriors gathered round the fire crying whoop-whoop-dee-whoop
Hey now, my little pullet, that, that’s how …

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Letters

Vol. 36 No. 2 · 23 January 2014

The old man in August Kleinzahler’s beautiful poem ‘The Bench’ is the poet Basil Bunting, the location Victoria, British Columbia, during Bunting’s disastrous winter at the University of Victoria in 1971-72 (LRB, 9 January). After a spectacular falling out with Robin Skelton, Bunting was left isolated, lonely and bitter, but Kleinzahler shows him keeping his eye on the horizon. Bunting’s preference was for the big picture but he also had a keen appreciation of the absurd and he would have relished some of the eccentricities in Michael Hofmann’s review of my Life of Bunting in the same issue. I am still trying to work out what an ‘exfoliated, whiskery’ biography might look like, and whether or not I have written one, and whether or not it is a good thing if I have; and I’m sure that Bunting would have found the comparison of the poet to Tintin as bewildering as I do. It’s not for me to quibble with Hofmann’s interpretations but I should correct the impression he may have left that Bunting’s relationship with biography was straightforward, because it wasn’t.

Hofmann writes that mine is the first ‘proper’ biography of Bunting but that I add little to his understanding of its subject beyond that provided by Victoria Forde, Richard Caddel and Carroll Terrell. He doesn’t mention Keith Alldritt’s The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting, which was published in 1998. Forde and Terrell did include biographical chapters in their studies of the poet, and a clue to the strengths and weaknesses of Basil Bunting: A Northern Life by Caddel and Anthony Flowers, which is just 64 pages long and heavily illustrated, is embedded in its subtitle. Alldritt’s was in fact the first ‘proper’ biography but it is so heavily marbled with rumour and speculation that it is almost worthless. It was reading Alldritt’s book (which if anything damaged Bunting’s reputation) that stung me into writing A Strong Song Tows Us.

More important, Hofmann writes that that I pay ‘lip service to Bunting’s personal opposition to biography’ and that I go ‘so far as to borrow the five parts of Briggflatts’ for my narrative structure. That often expressed objection is, however, compromised by Bunting’s full participation in the publication of Jonathan Williams’s Descant on Rawthey’s Madrigal, which told his story up to the mid-1960s, by his biographical introduction to the poems of Joseph Skipsey in 1976, in which he confesses to having sought out Skipsey’s surviving relatives for their memories, and by the fact that the subtitle of Briggflatts itself is ‘An Autobiography’. Bunting was not above using biography in pursuit of what he saw as a good cause. He did this because he recognised that the way to interest people in the work of a neglected poet is to tell his story. My ‘borrowing’ from Briggflatts was intended as a courtesy and recognition of Bunting’s ambiguous relationship with biography. Hofmann doesn’t seem to be too comfortable around ambiguity. He chides me for not telling readers whether Bunting was arrested in Paris in 1923 for biting a policeman’s nose or for kicking him in the pants. Nobody knows, and as the gritty wanderer of ‘The Bench’ would have been the first to insist, it really doesn’t matter.

Richard Burton
Oxford

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