The Spoils was first published in 1951; its three parts present:
(1) the region popularly called the “mid-east”
(3) Bunting’s second world war.
Webwise, annotation is simpler than once upon a time but challenges remain in the variety of transliteration.
Unless otherwise noted, reference the Columbia Encyclopædia (Third Edition).
The title refers to a line from the Qor’an sura viii: “the spoils are for God.”
[Bunting’s note; Complete Poems, Oxford 1994]
The sons of Shem are the legendary founders of the tribes of the Semitic people:
Asshur (Israel); Lud (Lydians); Arpachshad (Chaldea); Aram (roughly Syria).
About 30 years before the poem was written, another English Orientalist who also served in the RAF, T.E. Lawrence, detected a decline in “orthodox Islam” in favour of nationalism; Bunting underscores the “family resemblances” by turning to the origins of a long troubled region.
Bunting: “I always looked upon the Bible as prison reading.”
The second movement of the poem presents a rapid run-through of Persian history; ideally, it will prompt independent research, and perhaps a visit to any museum that can boast a Persian Gallery. The name Khayyam should be familiar to any reader of poetry; that he is described as a “better reckoner” refers to his reformation of the calendar at the request of the Seljuk emperor, Malekshah (or Malik Shah). The decline of the Seljuk rule is presented by three items of “public spirit.” Bunting then leaps to the Iran he knows: Mosavvor (painter), Naystani
(flautist), Taj and Moluk-e-Zarrabi (singers) were his contemporaries (as indicated by the phrase “dawn-cold radio”). “Vafur” refers to all the tools related to opium. (Bunting was often offered opium, vodka and tea while performing his duties with the British Embassy; at least once his host inquired if he (Bunting) preferred boys or girls.)
The third movement includes something of the war as experienced by Bunting, over forty when he entered the RAF: “old in that war. . .” There is something “broken” about this movement, reflecting a world that will not be repaired by war.
“One cribbed in a madhouse” is surely a reference to Ezra Pound, confined to St Elizabeth’s in Washington D.C. since 1948; if the other poets remain obscure, the general sense is clear enough. Bunting once declared that T. S. Eliot would ultimately be judged a “minor poet.” He always held an unshakeable contempt for Auden. Flight Lieutenant Idema, the American who wouldn’t fight for Roosevelt, but donned a British uniform to fight “for Churchill” was described by Bunting as “one of the bravest men I ever met.”
Bunting quotations from A Strong Song Tows Us: a life of Basil Bunting;
Richard Burton, Prospecta Press 2013.
For now, this is the biography of Basil Bunting, though I think it might be improved by a detailed chronology.
At the close of 1918, Basil Bunting was released from prison where he had served six months as a conscientious objector under conditions disturbingly similar those experienced by François Villon nearly 500 years before. Over the next twenty years, Bunting would write some poems, work odd jobs, and travel (he would get as far west as Los Angeles).
In 1930, while staying with Ezra Pound at Rapallo, Bunting came across a French prose translation of the Persian epic, the Shahnameh. The book lacked a cover and a title page, and the concluding chapters were gone, but it was compelling reading, and when Bunting got as far as he could with it, there seemed little else to do but learn Persian so he could find out how it ended. So was Basil Bunting introduced to Persian literature, central to “The Spoils” and root cause to an astonishing chapter of his career.
By 1939, Bunting was back in England, still scrounging for work, and watching preparations for war. He hoped to find a place in the Navy, but failed the medical exam. As war gathered force on the continent, he approached the RAF and, after convincing a doctor to let him memorize the eye chart, entered the air force in spring, 1940.
Aircraftman Second Class Basil Bunting reported for duty in the north of England in September 1940, assigned to the Balloon Command, a strategic line of defence against the Luftwaffe. In December he was assigned to Rosyth, Scotland, and his quarters were aboard a converted millionaire’s yacht, The Golden Hind.
It was a period, as often in war, of wearisome waiting. Bunting’s natural restlessness, coupled with a desire for a promotion (and the accompanying salary hike) filed a form highlighting his linguistic skills and mentioning his knowledge of Persian literature. In the spring of 1942, the order came down: he would be reassigned to Persia, as an interpreter.
Bunting’s journey to the East was no quick flight: a troop ship left Glasgow in May, arriving at South Africa by mid-June. There, the troops rested for a month, before continuing the journey, now aboard a United States vessel, across the Indian Ocean to Karachi. (A Yankee error, perhaps: they were supposed to go to Bombay.) At last, in September, Bunting set foot in Iran, his long imagined Persia.
There were three phases to his long stay in Persia: first, as an interpreter and intelligence operative for the British Army, then a position as part of the British Embassy, and finally as special correspondent for The Times. Bunting was not cut out for the idle duties of a bureaucrat: he became one of the few Westerners who knew something about the region. He gained fluency in local dialects, and his characteristic curiosity, free from any racist snobbery, made him welcomed as an intelligent individual rather than despised as British intelligence operative.
These are the sons of Shem, after
their families, after their tongues,
in their lands, after their nations.
Man’s life so little worth,
do we fear to take or lose it?
No ill companion on a journey, Death
lays his purse on the table and opens the wine.
As I sat at my counting frame to assess the people,
from a farmer a tithe, a merchant a fifth of his gain,
marking the register, listening to their lies,
a bushel of dried apricots, marking the register,
three rolls of Egyptian cloth, astute in their avarice;
with Abdoel squatting before piled pence,
counting and calling the sum,
ringing and weighing coin,
casting one out, four or five of a score,
calling the deficit;
one stood in the door
scorning our occupation,
silent: so in his greaves I saw
in polished bronze
a man like me reckoning pence,
never having tasted bread
where there is ice in his flask,
storks’ stilts cleaving sun-disk,
sun like driven sand.
Camels raise their necks from the ground,
cooks scour kettles, soldiers oil their arms,
snow lights up high over the north,
yellow spreads in the desert, driving blue westward
among banks, surrounding patches of blue,
advancing in enemy land.
Kettles flash, bread is eaten,
scarabs are scurrying rolling dung.
Thirty gorged vultures on an ass’s carcass
jostle, stumble, flop aside, drunk with flesh,
too heavy to fly, wings deep with inner gloss.
Lean watches, then debauch:
after long alert, stupidity:
waking, soar. If here you find me
intrusive and dangerous, seven years was I bonded
for Leah, seven toiled for Rachel:
now in a brothel outside under the wall
have paused to bait on my journey.
Another shall pay the bill if I can evade it.
When Tigris floods snakes swarm in the city,
coral, jade, jet, between jet and jade, yellow,
enamelled toys. Toads
crouch on doorsteps. Jerboas
weary, unwary, may be taught to feed
from a fingertip. Dead camels, dead Kurds,
unmanageable rafts of logs
hinder the ferryman, a pull and a grunt,
a stiff tow upshore against the current.
Naked boys among water-buffaloes,
daughters without smile
treading clothes by the verge,
harsh smouldering dung:
a woman taking bread from her oven
spreads dates, an onion, cheese.
Silence under the high sun. When the ewes go out
along the towpath striped with palm-trunk shadows
a herdsman pipes, a girl shrills
under her load of greens. There is no clamour
in our market, no eagerness for gain;
even whores surly, God frugal,
keeping tale of prayers.
Bound to beasts’ udders, rags no dishonour,
not by much intercourse ennobled,
multitude of books, bought deference:
meagre flesh tingling to a mouthful of water,
apt to no servitude, commerce, or special dexterity,
at night after prayers recite the sacred
enscrolled poems, beating with a leaping measure
like blood in a new wound:
These were the embers . . . Halt, both, lament . . . :
moon-silver on sand-pale gold,
plash against parched Arabia.
What’s to dismay us?
By the dategroves of Babylon
there we sat down and sulked
while they were seeking to hire us
to a repugnant trade.
Are there no plows in Judah, seed or a sickle,
no ewe to the pail, press to the vineyard?
Sickly our Hebrew voices far from the Hebrew hills!
We bear witness against the merchants of Babylon
that they have planted ink and reaped figures.
Against the princes of Babylon, that they have tithed of the best
leaving sterile ram, weakly hogg to the flock.
Fullers, tailors, hairdressers, jewellers, perfumers.
David dancing before the Ark, they toss him pennies.
A farthing a note for songs as of the thrush.
Golden skin scoured in sandblast
a vulture’s wing. ‘Soldier,
O soldier! Hard muscles, nipples like spikes.
Undo the neck-string, let my blue-gown fall.’
Very much like going to bed with a bronze.
The child cradled beside her sister silent and brown.
Thighs in a sunshaft, uncontrollable smile,
she tossed the pence in a brothel under the wall.
My bride is borne behind the pipers,
kettles and featherbed,
on her forehead jet, jade, coral under the veil;
to bring ewes to the pail, bread from the oven.
Breasts scarcely hump her smock,
thighs meagre, eyes
alert without smile
mock the beribboned dancing boys.
Drunk with her flesh when, polished leather,
still as moon she fades into the sand,
spurts a flame in the abandoned embers,
gold on silver. Warmth of absent thighs
dies on the loins: she who has yet no breasts
and no patience to await tomorrow.
Chattering in the vineyard,
breasts swelled, halt and beweep
captives, sickly, closing repugnant thighs.
Who lent her warmth to dying David, let her seed
sleep on the Hebrew hills, wake under Zion.
What’s begotten on a journey but souvenirs?
Life we give and take, pence in a market,
without noting beggar, dealer, changer;
pence we drop in the sawdust with spilt wine.
They filled the eyes of the vaulting
with alabaster panes,
each pencil of arches spouting
from a short pier,
and whitewashed the whole, using
a thread of blue to restore
lines nowhere broken,
for they considered capital
and base irrelevant.
The light is sufficient
to perceive the motions of prayer
and the place cool.
Tiles for domes and aivans
they baked in a corner,
older, where Avicenna may have worshipped.
The south dome, Nezam-ol-Molk’s,
grows without violence from the walls
of a square chamber. Taj-ol-Molk
set a less perfect dome
over a forest of pillars.
Malekshah cut his pride in plaster
which hardens by age, the same
who found Khayyam a better reckoner
than the Author of the Qor’an.
Their passion’s body was bricks and its soul algebra.
too much, too well.
‘Lately a professor in this university’
said Khayyam of a recalcitrant ass,
‘therefore would not enter, dare not face me.’
But their determination to banish fools foundered
ultimately in the installation of absolute idiots.
Fear of being imputed
naïve impeded thought.
Eddies both ways in time:
the builders of La Giralda
some of their patterns in brick.
I wonder what Khayyam thought
of all the construction and organization afoot,
foreigners, resolute Seljuks, not so bloodthirsty
as some benefactors of mankind; recalling
perhaps Abu Ali’s horror of munificent patrons;
books unheard of or lost elsewhere
in the library of Bokhara,
and four hours writing a day
before the duties of prime minister.
For all that, the Seljuks avoided
Roman exaggeration and the leaden mind of Egypt
and withered precariously on the bough
with patience and public spirit.
O public spirit!
Prayers to band cities and brigade men
lest there be more wills than one:
but God is the dividing sword.
A hard pyramid or lasting law
against fear of death and
murder more durable than mortar.
Domination and engineers
to fudge a motive you can lay your hands on
lest a girl choose or refuse waywardly.
From Hajji Mosavvor’s trembling wrist
grace of tree and beast
shines on ivory
in eloquent line.
shade dimples under chenars
breath of Naystani chases and traces
as a pair of gods might dodge and tag between stars.
Taj is to sing, Taj,
when tar and drum
come to their silence, slow,
clear, rich, as though
he had cadence and phrase from Hafez.
Nothing that was is,
draws her voice from a well
deeper than history.
Shir-e Khoda’s note
on a dawn-cold radio
forestalls, outlasts the beat.
Friday, Sobhi’s tales
keeping boys from their meat.
A fowler spreading his net
over the barley, calls,
calls on a rubber reed.
Grain nods in reply.
Poppies blue upon white
wake to the sun’s frown.
Scut of gazelle dances and bounces
out of the afternoon.
Owl and wolf to the night.
On a terrace over a pool
vafur, vodka, tea,
resonant verse spilled
from Onsori, Sa’di,
till the girls’ mutter is lost
in whisper of stream and leaf,
a final nightingale
under a fading sky
azan on their quiet.
They despise police work,
are not masters of filing:
always a task for foreigners
to make them unhappy,
unproductive and rich.
Have you seen a falcon stoop
and absolute, between
wind-ripples over harvest? Dread
of what’s to be, is and has been--
were we not better dead?
His wings churn air
with sun, he rises where
dazzle rebuts our stare,
wonder our fright.
All things only of earth and water,
to sit in the sun’s warmth
breathing clear air.
A fancy took me to dig,
plant, prune, graft;
milk, skim, churn;
flay and tan.
A side of salt beef
for a knife chased and inscribed.
A cask of pressed grapes
for a seine-net.
For peace until harvest
a jig and a hymn.
How shall wheat sprout
through a shingle of Lydian pebbles
that turn the harrow’s points?
Quarry and build, Solomon,
a bank for Lydian pebbles:
tribute of Lydian pebbles
levy and lay aside,
that twist underfoot
and blunt the plowshare,
countless, useless, hampering
pebbles that spawn.
Shot silk and damask white
spray spread from
artesian gush of our past.
Let no one drink unchlorinated
living water but taxed tap, sterile,
or seek his contraband mouthful
in bog, under thicket, by crag, a trickle,
or from embroidered pools
with newts and dytiscus beetles.
One cribbed in a madhouse
set about with diagnoses;
one unvisited; one uninvited;
one visited and invited too much;
one impotent, suffocated by adulation;
one unfed; flares on a foundering barque,
stars spattering still sea under iceblink.
Tinker tapping perched on a slagheap
and the man who can mend a magneto.
Flight-lieutenant Idema, half course run
that started from Grand Rapids, Michigan,
wouldn’t fight for Roosevelt,
‘that bastard Roosevelt’, pale
at Malta’s ruins, enduring
a jeep guarded like a tyrant.
In British uniform and pay
for fun of fighting and pride,
for Churchill on foot alone,
clowning with a cigar, was lost
in best blues and his third plane that day.
Broken booty but usable
along the littoral, frittering into the south.
We marvelled, careful of craters and minefields,
noting a new-painted recognisance
on a fragment of fuselage, sand drifting into dumps,
a tank’s turret twisted skyward,
here and there a lorry unharmed
out of fuel or the crew scattered;
leaguered in lines numbered for enemy units,
gulped beer of their brewing,
mocked them marching unguarded to our rear;
discerned nothing indigenous, never a dwelling,
but on the shore sponges stranded and beyond the reef
unstayed masts staggering in the swell,
till we reached readymade villages clamped on cornland,
empty, Arabs feeding vines to goats;
at last orchards aligned, girls hawked by their mothers
from tent to tent, Tripoli dark
under a cone of tracers.
Old in that war after raising many crosses
rapped on a tomb at Leptis; no one opened.
Blind Bashshar bin Burd saw,
doubted, glanced back,
guessed whence, speculated whither.
Panegyrists, blinder and deaf,
prophets, exegesists, counsellors of patience
lie in wait for blood,
every man with a net.
Condole with me with abundance of secret pleasure.
What we think in private
will be said in public
before the last gallon’s teemed
into an unintelligible sea--
old men who toil in the bilge to open a link,
bruised by the fling of the ship and sodden
sleep at the handpump. Staithes, filthy harbour water,
a drowned Finn, a drowned Chinee;
hard-lying money wrung from protesting paymasters.
Rosyth guns sang. Sang tide through cable
for Glasgow burning:
catfish on the sprool.’
Sun leaped up and passed,
bolted towards green creek
of quiet Chesapeake,
bight of a warp no strong tide strains. Yet
as tea’s drawing, breeze backing and freshening,
make fast Fortune with a slippery hitch?
Tide sang. Guns sang:
pull off fluffed woollens, strip
to buff and beyond.’
In watch below
meditative heard elsewhere
surf shout, pound shores seldom silent
from which heart naked swam
out to the dear unintelligible ocean.
From Largo Law look down,
moon and dry weather, look down
on convoy marshalled, filing between mines.
Cold northern clear sea-gardens
between Lofoten and Spitzbergen,
as good a grave as any, earth or water.
What else do we live for and take part,
we who would share the spoils?
Basil Bunting's Villon (1925) is not a translation nor a dramatic monologue, but a modernist poem tackling a favourite medieval theme: mortality, particularly in the context of the ancient formula: "Life's short, Art's long." A very real and busy criminal career led to Villon's banishment from Paris in 1463; his prison experience, without doubt, greatly shortened his life. But though most of the facts we have about Villon have been gathered from the police blotter of his time, he also had a contemporary reputation as a poet. Bunting served six months in prison at the close of the Great War as a conscientious objector, where he suffered conditions frighteningly similar to those of Villon ("Whereinall we differ not."); his poetic reputation would not be secured until he was in his mid-sixties. Since his death in 1985, Bunting has come to be regarded as one of the major poets of the XX century.