Poetry Chronicle 7: Iain Bamforth
Some writers might slit their wrists rather than have their work commandeered for the Pseud’s Corner of “Private Eye” (some secretly recommend the work of their rivals for that dishonour). I think it a badge of honour; wear the brand proudly (I have better reasons to do myself in: I am forlornly obtuse).
For the cause was a good one: the work of the neglected Scottish poet Iain Bamforth, and the whole episode about the ‘bucket’ below even got itself illustrated as a cartoon in the “Eye”. I acknowledge the “Guardian” again for this piece, and dedicate it to whoever fed it to anti-pseuds at “Private Eye”. With hindsight, it was deserved.
Say it Bucket, Say It!
Poets, as a genus, tend to band into clusters, and these clusters often centre on common ideas and a common locale. But some of the best poetry arises when such clusters splinter into individuated careers, powered still by those ideas and place. So it was in the early 1990s with one such group, The Informationists, a loose assembly of Scots poets whose guides and angels were Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead and Alasdair Gray. The work of these new Scots poets had an internationalist outlook; sheer craft and linguistic initiative lent their poetry considerable panache. Their ambition harmonised with a similar surge of energy in Scottish fiction. Some of the roots shared the same trellis, a symbiosis as it were.
Of that impressive generation, the Scots poet Iain Bamforth has probably been one of the most eclectic and international in practice. He has inhabited several incarnations: as general practitioner, outback doctor, lecturer, journalist and translator. He has published a literary history of medicine, The Body in the Library, and has lived in Strasbourg for nearly a decade striving, but finally not succeeding, to be a good European through the offices of medicine, the Council of Europe providing some of his patient base.
His career is unprofessionally professional, as any fine poet’s should be, with poetry as the resilient denominator, recording and synthesising the world whatever the quotidian incarnation of the time. As such, his poetry has an extensive range of subject and reference, from the Scottish Parliament to the islands of Samoa and Tonga, from the interior life of a beehive to a minutely detailed metaphysical examination of a bucket. A Place in the World is Bamforth’s fourth collection of poems. It is a copious, fastidious, and highly rewarding book containing several years of writing.
‘Bucket’ in fact shows Bamforth heterogeneous perception in extremis. I have debated its manifold effects for at least a week with several entranced readers. It is one of the most painstakingly observed and linguistically taut poems in the book. It needs to be listened to aloud, as well as read in silence:
A bucket stands collecting rain.
Blunt container, it collects
essence of only ocean
above some dun African savannah.
Capsizer of your head
should you try to plumb it.
It irons a puddle; no wider
wetness than its expanding sense:
matter as a meaning
steadily, irreversibly filling
something (say it bucket, say it)
at the bottom of its need.
All night, a lake lies shocked
above a bucket’s tegument. Rain
spites its face. This red morning
foliage brightens the rim,
and hope is such a terrible violence
you, rider, hedge your bets.
Who is talking to whom, and riding where? What is memory and intelligence but a system of stop-start conversations with our own perception? Bamforth’s poetic effects can be as interpenetrating and involuted as a rose’s genetic design. His language works hard with the eye and the ear to the degree that it mirrors patterns of synapse development, in which particular and even disparate stimuli trigger novel and complex neural networks. As a result such work is rich in perceptual acquaintance, making it not only intelligent but also extremely sensual. To read them makes the patterns of our minds richer too – as when we read Hopkins or Wallace Stevens. The fact that these poems are readily accessible and inevitable is a small miracle of composition.
Such range has many charms and challenges – Bamforth is a extremely civil and generous poet – and his polyvalence neither intimidates or displays. He observes his former Strasburgian patients, many from the civil service, with precision and shrewdness:
Some of them like double-agents cultivate
a sense for the nod
and hardly perceptible wink.
Some are amorists of the ice shelves,
adulterers of is and ought.
They climb to slaughter in their dreams.
Others admit it, but not in public.
They know how to cross the threshold
in any of several languages —
those major character actors of our time.
All are sardonic masters of protocol,
the art of making sure syntax
stops the eye seeing what the hand does —
lovers of the people, which can’t love itself.
‘Life of the Civil Servants’
Bamforth writes from a Scots tradition: the bracing, embracing version of it. This is a vagrant Scottish tradition that extends Scots culture outside its borders, where Robert Louis Stevenson walked it. He is a quite the synthesist, drawing poem after poem into an looping arc of argument, the bottom line of which is to probe how Anglophone writing might expand imaginatively towards the cultural and linguistic variety of the European continent in a way that is neither appropriative or colonial.
From his level space, Bamforth surveys the circles of European culture, searching for ethics and civil society within its changing order. This provides some wide-awake writing:
Deserted esplanade swept by Boreas,
cathedral spire with its cardinal’s hat of scaffolding,
tiles ripped off and Latin trees knocked down
that formed a palisade to German forest,
guard to the counterscarps and bastions of Europe,
the solid vegetable peace of post-war.
No place for the ass of Arcady . . .
but it’s coming, with the soft patience of all donkeys,
out of that prayer on the road to paradise
(now a tourist subtract of eternity),
from a Cevennes of deserted whitewashed churches —
Modestine sold for a burton in St Jean-du-Gard —
to the concrete bridge across the Rhine.
Admire it standing beside me steaming in the rain
getting what it expects: its just deserts,
the wrong use of the rope. Lord Hamlet’s quagga,
Fourier’s zebra-minus-stripes, Buridan’s ass —
it’s a writing mule, obedient and still;
upon its uncomplaining back the burden of my thoughts,
a ribambelle of nostrums for the saddlesore.
‘Travels with a Donkey to the Bridge of Europe’
A Place in the World is a ‘total book’ rather than the common and garden portfolio book of poems, in the spirit of say Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III. It is almost impossible to offer a quote from a poem without unfolding a longer example, or risk falsifying the poem entirely by isolating single components. This marks it out among a number of new collections that offer the reader far greater range and scale than they might be used to. It could be part of a new cluster in fact, one that celebrates patience and precision.
It is a symptom of Dr. Bamforth’s generosity that he, too, has waited and has worked this material so long. His translation of Fernando Pessoa’s manifesto poem ‘Isto’ (‘This’) could be a policy declaration for the book’s variety, honesty and concision:
They say I fake or lie
With the written word. Not a bit.
It’s simply that I
Feel with a kind of wit.
Heart doesn’t come into it.
All I put up with or embrace —
Hurts and harms, life’s only end —
Is like a level space
Hiding the space beyond.
Some enchanted place!
And this is why I write
As if I’d taken flight
From suffering and the real,
Serious about what isn’t.
Feel? — Let the reader feel.