Scottish Bard Leonard Irving, by Kitty Costello

Ballad for a Scottish Bard

Leonard Irving, 1924-2016
Kitty Costello

Scottish poet and latter-day bard, his words brimming

with ancient Celtic magic, rebellion, song

barren borderland childhood infusing lifelong

bristle and grit for working stiffs, for despised bourgeoisie

preeminent 20th-century spokesman on behalf

of drifters, tinkers, vagabonds, drunkards,

wayfarers, outcasts and the like

born in a wee cottage in Dundrennan Village

dreary southwest coast of Scotland, midst Depression times

"flitting" from place to place for his father to find work-

in Castle Douglas, in far off Banwell Village in Somerset

always the outsider in a new place

craving adventure and escape, joined the Home Guard at 16

the Royal Marines in '41, a sharpshooter surviving

two ships being shot out from under him

four-fifths of the crew lost in the second

off the coast of France

took to drink early, thirsting

for freedom from cold and mournful moors

for grand exploits and warmer climes

joined the Merchant Marines, sailed hither and thither

to farflung shores, seafaring to South America and back

sojourning in the Falklands, lingering as Canary Island beachcomber

nomad, rambler, gallivanter, settled in New York in '52

discovering his passion for wordsmithing

enraptured with James Joyce, Dylan Thomas

befriended by lefty literati who lauded him

as the voice of the genuine proletariat

hitchhiked back and forth across North America

innumerable times, a drifter drifting his way to San Francisco

to its rough and tumble Tenderloin of the 1970s

nurtured his literary fervor and his love of drink

in equal measure, beloved regular at library workshop

at open mics around town-Sacred Grounds, Yakety Yak

Harrington's Bar, Grady's Bar, Keane's 3300 Club

his uncontrolled binges landing him in hospital again and again

he'd return ghostly to the mic, find his footing

a friend, partisan and chronicler of roustabouts, vagrants,

barkeeps, reprobates and fellow wandering minstrels

a champion of the working man everywhere

though his finest knack was perhaps avoiding work

altogether, being once carefully schooled in how

to feign madness to quality for SSI, better known as the dole

living 20-some years in grand SRO style

at the rough-and-tumble Elk Hotel on Eddy Street

said yes to any summons to read, bringing down the house

at Edinburgh Castle on Geary St., at rollicking ceilidhs

his Scottish burr overflowing, entrancing, his rrrolling of rrr's

rrresounding like ancient song, old world music come alive

both blessed and cursed by the magic others heard in his voice

once penning a poem entitled "Vitriolic Curses:

dedicated to all those who said I could read

the telephone directory and it would sound good"

Cherished member of the Institute for Celtic Studies

reveling in old world spirits, myth, enchantment

in Irish rebels and balladeers, at home amongst

Blarney Stone raconteurs, harpers, myth weavers,

poets, scholars and Wiccan priestesses

such as the likes of Randy, his life partner to be

with her West Oakland "farm," her yard full

of chickens, geese, dogs, ducks, cats

and turkeys who had grazing rights in the neighbor's yard

moving in with her and joining AA

though not necessarily in that order

scavenged clothing from giveaway piles

lumber from construction sites under the freeway

dragging home whatever wasn't nailed down

spending countless song- and poem-filled evenings

among friends, around her overflowing table, around the hearth, until

longing for seasons and rain, she packed to move back east

to ancestral Vermont homeland, her farm menagerie

and Wedgewood stove in tow, in cross-country caravan splendor

for 16 years he summered in Vermont, May to October

wintered in San Francisco, November to April

finally moving to Vermont full time in o-eight

spending his days puttering and lounging, though not

a shirker, slacker or slouch, painted the eaves, hung the sheets

wrote poems, mended fences, turned soil, spent long afternoons

nattering with neighborly callers, tended horses and hens

chopped wood, built the winter fires, provided

a ready lap and tender pets for many a fine feline

pilfered hard cider from hidden vats in the basement

whenever he could, reading whenever asked

never missing the yearly winter celebration of Rrrobbie Burrrns

dubbed "the Jack Kerouac of Vermont"

by local journalist for his on-the-road escapades

having crisscrossed the U.S. and Mexico umpteen times

by now, creating a world-class barn museum abounding

with ancient rusted wheels, shovels, hammerheads, saws

plough blades, barrows, hasps, struts, stirrups, pry bars

winches and the like, hundreds of them, gathered

on his treks around their land, and at age 91

still out in the back forty felling trees for firewood

though always refusing to operate large motorized machinery

preferring the limits of 19th century hand-hewn work

no care for publication or posterity, though Randy and friends

had long ago gathered and published his poems and stories

typed over decades on manual typewriter, into multiple books

at Stone Circle Press, recorded his reading voice, saved for good

lucky stiff, literally, dying as he did at age 92

in the wee hours before election day morning, 2016

never having to know what the rest of us were in for

kept every last marble until that final night on earth

when the boarder from the far side of the farmhouse

came in to find him hosting a grand party

with invisible Scottish and Irish word wizards and revolutionaries

come to shepherd him to the other side-

William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Robbie Burns, Michael Collins

Sean O'Casey, Joyce, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Dylan Thomas

the whole grand lot, toasts all around

Leonard proclaiming that all would be well because

the Irish genius for communication would save the world

"Are you a rrrevolutionary, Paula?" he asked her

and she hesitated, not sure what to say

"You say, YES," I later told her on our walk

out to the graveside, "You say YES!"

Buried out in the tiny back-forty cemetery, its chest-high walls

stacked stone by stone by hand as in the old country

just east of the stone circle erected on their land

just west of the stone chamber sighting the solstice rays of sun

the neighbor having retrieved his body

from the hospital morgue, he lay resting there

in the back of the pickup as we pondered

how to get him out of the plastic zip body bag

and into the simple white sheet, the shroud

we used to lower him as gently as we could into the grave

with him still sporting his silly pajama bottom pants

covered with dancing penguin clowns with pointed hats

no doubt acquired from the same ever-abundant free box

where every stitch of his clothing ever came from

We stood in a broad circle reading poems

his "Dirge for an Old Warrior," telling tales, singing songs

sharing shots of 12-year-old Macallan single malt Scotch

remembering this man so frugal he had money left over each month

from his pittance of a government check, who once

gave himself the challenge of going an entire month in San Francisco

without spending a single cent, ate every bite of food

at soup kitchens and traveled only on the shoe-leather express

another friend recounting how when he picked him up

at the Burlington Airport, when he finally moved full-time

from San Francisco to Vermont, Len had stepped off the plane

with only a gym bag full of earthly goods, and when the friend said,

"Let's go get the rest of your stuff at baggage claim,"

Leonard held up the tiny bag and said, "This is it"

on strips of parchment we penned our memories and prayers

dropping them one by one with our flowers into the casketless grave

each friend shoveling a spade of soil atop his earthly remains

while singing Randy's favorite Irish tune, "Isn't it Grand Boys"-

"to be bloody well dead. Let's not have a sniffle

let's have a bloody good cry, and always remember

the longer you live, the sooner you bloody well die"

the Vermont wind and sky carrying our voices away

Kitty Costello
November 7, 2021