Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mr. Bunting in Paradise

by Alastair Johnston

Bunting's Persia. Translations by Basil Bunting. Edited by Don Share. Flood Editions, 2012.

Ask your distant cousins out there in Middle America what they fear most and they will tell you "Muslims." Ask them to explain the difference between Muslims and, say, Mormons, and they will hesitate, but you, dear enlightened reader of Booktryst, will know the answer, won't you? Within Islam there are sects that are as different as Unitarians and Anglicans or Copts and Catholics.

A Muslim sect that has a broad appeal in the West is Sufism. Sufis are poets and philosophers: Hell, some are even into the odd alcoholic beverage. Nevertheless it may come as a surprise that the best-selling poet in America today, with over a quarter of a million copies in print, is a Persian Sufi poet named Rumi.

The truth is, the Sufis are fun and very easy to love. As Manuchehri says,

   We, men of wine are we, meat are we, music...
   Well, then! Wine we have, meat we have, music...

Bunting's Persia is a delight for a number of reasons. Not least the wonderful Sufi poetry it contains, but also because it is another volume by an under-appreciated poet of the twentieth century, Basil Bunting (1900-85), whose Collected Poems (Fulcrum, 1965, reprinted by Oxford University Press in 1978) is anorexically thin. Bunting didn't write a lot, in fact he took a 15-year break from writing, working as the financial editor of a newspaper until a young poet, Tom Pickard, tracked him down and persuaded him to get back to verse. The result was Briggflatts (1966) which Cyril Connolly (writing in the London Times) hailed as the best poetry book since Eliot's Four Quartets.

Bunting in Rapallo, 1930

Like Eliot, Bunting was under the Modernist influence of Ezra Pound and hung out with him and W.B. Yeats in Rapallo in the 1930s. He had known Shaw and Lawrence in London; in Paris he worked with Ford Madox Ford and got drunk with Hemingway. His first book was published in Milan in 1930, his second in Galveston in 1950.

But what's the Persian link? Bunting found a ratty copy of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh translated into French and decided (with Pound's urging) he needed to read the original, so with the help of a dictionary he taught himself classical Farsi. This came in handy when World War II broke out. Bunting had spent the First World War in jail in England as a Conscientious Objector (he was a Quaker), and decided this time around to enlist in the Royal Air Force. As an interpreter (despite the lack of similarity between classical and modern Persian) he was sent to Isfahan. After the war he became Vice Consul in the British Embassy.

He married a Persian girl and became foreign correspondent for the Times of London. He absorbed the culture through his pores and told anecdotes like the one about three men who went out of the city on Friday night to enjoy themselves in their own ways. When they returned the gates were locked. The drunkard said, "Let's batter down the door!" The man who smoked hashish said, "No, let's crawl through the keyhole," but the man who smoked opium said, "No, let's lie down here 'til daybreak."

He continued (in this interview printed in a little magazine in the 1960s) by telling the story of the time he and a couple of friends — one of them happened to be the Head of the Persian Secret Police, unaware that Bunting was actually a British spy masquerading as a reporter — were smoking opium round the stove in his living-room when the stove went out. Now in Persia the usual way to light a stove is to pour paraffin over it and light the paraffin. But the coals were still hot, and so when paraffin was added the stove exploded. Bits of the stove flew across the room, almost decapitating his friend, and the drapes caught fire. The friends sat there laughing hysterically as the servants rushed in and put the flames out.

This life in Paradise ended when he was expelled by Mossadeq. An angry mob arrived at his house to get him. No one noticed when he snuck out the back way and chanted "Death to Mr Bunting" with them.

Bunting's Collected Poems is a scant 150 pages long so a new book from his hand is a delight to be savored and dipped into like a box of fresh dates.

A couple of the pieces did appear in the Collected (as the wittily named "Overdrafts"), but here they are handsomely presented (the Fulcrum book is particularly ungainly) and, besides, it's important to gather all the fragments of Bunting's Persian together as someone else might gather his Latin translations, if more turn up. Though Bunting's archive is at the  University of Durham, England, these pieces ended up in Texas. While few Americans are qualified to comment on Persian poetry in translation, there is enough understanding of the tradition to know whether these versions are valid. So what is Mr Bunting's message from beyond? Youth is fleeting, life is short, seize the day:

"Many a broken desert has been gay garden," says Rudaki. And, from the same poet,

   What can you know, my blackhaired beauty,
   what I was like in the old days?
   You tickle your lover with your curls
   but never knew the time when he had curls.

The centerpiece is a long work by Ferdowsi called "The Beginning of the Stories," and its sequel "Faridun's Sons," which is really the prelude to an epic (the work Bunting had found on the bookiniste stall that started him on this lifelong adventure), but enough of a taste to engage us. It bears a striking resemblance to King Lear: an old king divides his empire among three sons and the elder two plot against the younger. It's a bloody tale but has a pacifist message:

   Don't injure even an ant,
   it has life, life is sweet.

There is a telegraphic compression where we sense the lesson of Ez keeping Baz on track:

   A long time, Fate keeping her face veiled.
   Faridun grew old, dust drifted over the garden,
   a changed conversation, strength turned weakness by age,
   and the nobles huffed when any business was muffed.

He teases us with several short untitled poems by Manuchehri. See this lovely description of riding in the desert, away from one's loved one:

   Wind froze my blood, the pools frozen
   like silver dishes on a gold tray.

   Before morning night was blacker
   for the white snow wasting away
   and out of the hard ground rose a mud like fishglue.

The notes by Don Share fill us in on the poets, with quotes from Bunting's letters and writings: "You want the directness of some Catullus? Go to Manuchehri. You want the swiftness of Anacreon? Manuchehri.  The elaborate music of Spenser? Go to Manuchehri. ... Satire, direct and overwhelming, Manuchehri all alone — no competitor."

Sa'di pours his heart out in aching love poems, but manages to work in

   Many well-known people have been packed away in cemeteries
   there is no longer any evidence that they ever existed.

Perhaps the best-known of these poets is Hafiz (1315-90) who advises us

    If you
   want eternity do so
   they'll never use past tense of you.
   Drink as Hafiz, you'll gather impetus
   world without end.

Many have interpreted the Sufis' thirst for alcohol as an allegory of mysticism: Bunting doubts this, dismissing Robert Bly and Ralph Waldo Emerson's interpretations. Sometimes a bottle of wine is just that:

   I'm the worse for drink again, it's
   got the better of me.
   A thousand thanks to the red wine
   put colour in my face.
   I'll kiss the hand that gathered the grapes.
   May he never trudge who trod them out!

The collection ends with "The Pious Cat" a children's story by Zakani that was previously published in a limited edition by Bertram Rota (200 copies printed at the Stamperia Valdonega in Verona), in 1986.

Now that he is among the immortals, Bunting can invite us to journey back to the 11th century with him:

   Bid them come and see our noble century
   and read our poetry and despair —



  1. Bloodaxe Books has reprinted Bunting's Collected Poems with a CD of Bunting reading Briggflats.


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