Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Gunn's Bewick

Last year I picked up a copy of Thom Gunn's My Sad Captains in a local charity shop. Yesterday I spotted his Jack Straw's Castle in the same shop, and snapped it up (1977 reprint, classic Faber cover, £1.99).
Here, from Jack Straw's Castle, is Thomas Bewick, a poem about the great wood engraver that manages to encapsulate the man himself, his works and the country he depicted in them, all in one elegant package. I've walked in that country – beside the rural Tyne, well upstream of Newcastle – and at times it is like walking through Bewick's engravings. As is Gunn's poem...
I think of a man on foot
going through thick woods,
a buckle on his brimmed hat,
a stick in his hand.

He comes on from the deep
shadow now to the gladed parts
where light speckles the ground
like scoops out of darkness.

Gnarled branches reaching down
their green gifts; weed reaching up
milky flower and damp leaf.

I think of a man fording
a pebbly stream. A rock
is covered in places with
minute crops of moss
– frail stalks of yellow rising
from the green, each
bloom of it distinct, as
he notices. He notices
the bee's many-jointed legs and its     
papery wings veined like leaf,         
or the rise of a frog's back
into double peaks, and this morning
by a stile he noticed ferns
afloat on air.

                     Drinking from
clear stream and resting
on the rock he loses himself
in detail,
               he reverts
to an earlier self, not yet
separate from what it sees,

a selfless self as difficult
to recover and hold as to
capture the exact way
a burly bluetit grips
its branch (leaning forward)
over this rock
                       and in
The History of British Birds.