Robert Bunzel fights for his clients … and for poetry

Published in 2007 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Joan Oliver Goldsmith on July 16, 2007


“The law is my principal passion,” says Rob Bunzel, managing principal of Bartko Zankel Tarrant Miller. “Poetry is an avocation that I love. I expect to be doing both for a long time.”

Poetry has long been Bunzel’s creative outlet. As an undergraduate, he studied English and American literature and language at Harvard, graduating cum laude. But, he says, “no one has ever sustained a livelihood from writing poetry.” So Bunzel went on to Hastings College of the Law for his J.D.

Bunzel’s law practice focuses on white-collar crime, venture finance, shareholder disputes, environmental and employment law and professional malpractice. He has participated in numerous high-profile cases, including Weeks v. Baker & McKenzie (a nationally televised jury trial, representing the law firm); San Francisco 49ers v. DeBartolo (an ownership dispute, representing the now current team owners); and United States v. Marcos (defending the former head of state of the Philippines).

His poems have appeared in print in such respected publications as Soundings East, Block’s Poetry Journal, Orphic Lute, Oxygen, Illya’s Honey and Poet Magazine. 

“As a poet, he writes like he is: smart, congenial, deft and technically sound,” says Howard Junker, editor of the West Coast literary journal ZYZZYVA (pronounced ZIH-zih-va). 

Bunzel says that he comes from a healthy tradition of lawyer-poets that includes both Wallace Stevens and Archibald MacLeish. Bunzel’s poems have also appeared in the journal The Legal Studies Forum, which publishes poetry and other creative writing by lawyers. 

He sees similarities in the disciplines of law and poetry. Both demand language choices, the ability to pull a reader along and the development of a structure that furthers the argument. But, he says, “the goal of the finished product is profoundly different. Good poetry is not usually persuasive. It’s evocative. It gives the reader a different view of a subject or emotion or place, and leaves them with something better or richer. But it doesn’t do it in a didactic way.” 

Bunzel recently completed a three-year term as president of the board of directors of ZYZZYVA. The journal describes itself as “the last word: west coast writers & artists.” It takes its name from the last word in The American Heritage Dictionary: “zyzzyva … any of various tropical American weevils …” Bunzel proudly states that it is “generally regarded as ‘the Paris Review of the West Coast.’” His involvement with the publication began with a slice of humble pie. He submitted several poems only to have them rejected (a common event in the life of a poet). Then he received further communication from the editor—inviting him to join the board. At first, his poet’s ego “wasn’t flattered.” But his belief in supporting the arts on the West Coast convinced him to change his mind. 

In the Spring 2006 issue, to celebrate its 21st anniversary, the journal made a rare exception in its policy of not publishing works by board members. No exception was made in the quality of work represented. The result was the appearance of Bunzel’s “Saving Panes,” which is reprinted here.  

Saving Panes
by Robert H. Bunzel

A foyer window sag-rots at one corner,
sash sides curled round a single pane
that’s one of twenty in a grille of cedar
muntins white with age. Save the frame
and nineteen other panes of old rolled
glass, rippled in the level light of fall.
Excise the handswidth blighted angle,
cut out only watered wood
to leave integrity at the beam.

A local mill takes time, to make just
inches of stile and rail matched to
moldings made eighty years ago, two
mortised pieces nosing into seam.
Attach a fine blade to the Skil saw,
shave the redwood, tap the
gapless proxies into place. Glaze a
new flat pane, wipe putty smudges
from the glass, and smooth, and paint.
Last, patch the sill and stop, to seal
out western gremlin rains.

Branch and leaf are undistorted
through the store-bought pane,
but in the wabi-sabi wrinkled ones
an iris makes the outside dance.
I pray no waxwing or windload
breaks the center of my rebuilt score,
this true divided light.

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