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Issue 11: The Necessary Eye

Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Melissa Ahart

Sommer Browning

Sarah Busse

devin wayne davis

Karen D'Amato

Yaakov Fichman

Donna Johnson

Vera Kroms

Li Bo

Li Qingzhao

Ander Monson

Christopher Mulrooney


Todd Samuelson

Maria Terrone

Mihai Ursachi

Sophie Wadsworth

G.C. Waldrep

Martha Zweig  

Wandering the Planet

The Big Bumper Book of Troy (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 160 pages)
by W.N. Herbert 

Reviewed by Vivek Narayanan

Have you heard the rumours about a new international English poetry scene set apart from the International Poetry already canonised in the United States? It's being written mostly by people who would have been called Commonwealth Poets back in the 1970's, but that was before the Commonwealth Poetry Prize was abolished. This shift may have been a good thing: unlike the old commonwealth poetry, the new cliques have not been flung together in committees by virtue of a “two of each” approach; instead, the new poets are running into each other organically, in transnational packs, and seriously reading each other's work. This is largely thanks to advances in communication technology and an interest in American as much as British poetry in English. Although these packs are often drawn together by their lack of allegiance to any particular “school” or style of poetry, the poets of the so-called New York School tend to be a common favourite among them. Logically, thankfully, American poets are welcome in these circles, as are those from outside the ex-British empire who are bringing their twisting tongues to the table.

The new poetry mocks borders and throws parties for incompatible identities; it may even be a small side-effect of changes in human self-consciousness because, at the very same time that another protracted and bloody epic war is beginning, we are also grasping just how much, as a species, we have death and pop music in common. According to many observers, for now, poets from Australia and Scotland are at the top of this underground hitlist, and New Zealand is the underground of the underground. The Irish, of course, have made it into the bigger league. It should be said that the scene is not yet reflective of the whole, or even a chunk of the English speaking world; not all the envoys have signed up yet; but it is being helped along by good cheer, camaraderie, simultaneous publication on the web and in different countries, and also by a few discreet disagreements.

W.N. Herbert is a secret star in this idiosyncratic constellation, and his reputation is growing. The Big Bumper Book of Troy is his fifth full-length collection; his first appeared in 1994. It's a journey from home to abroad and back, and its binding thread is a long poem, appearing intermittently in italics, in which a song of the apocryphal Troy finds the city's detritus in unlikely places. Herbert, a Scot who prefers Italian football, is one of many unrelated Herberts who have written poetry. He writes as if he were born out of wedlock to Hugh MacDiarmid and Frank O'Hara, in a time machine.

The first thing you might ask about Herbert's poetry when you see it is, is he trying to do too much? Probably. He writes in Scots. He writes in English. He writes in “free verse.” He writes in strict forms. He jacks a moribund archaic Scots from the archives and stuffs it with seventies Dundee street slang. He does the I-am-Scottish thing. He does the I-am-not-Scottish thing. He does the futurist thing, he does the past-urist thing. Like O'Hara at lunch or on the ferry, Herbert is an incredibly prolific poet; and for this he has sometimes been criticised. Yet, he stubbornly continues to offer up big fat collections (such as the Big Bumber Book of Troy) where the poems have to be squished together to fit. And, in his aesthetic, an impeccably plain, precisely felt poem will be followed by one scattered with howlers and planted squibs, it will rise into a performable chant or settle into lasting, stone-like copy. Is this coordinated concentration or cacophony? Yes, both.

Personally, I don't mind the plenitude. Herbert, it seems, prefers to let history do the sifting. A few of these poems --such as “The Guernica Duck”-- are sure to last; and it is entirely possible that more than a few will last. And the collections – terrifying to think how many he still has up his sleeve—will, at the very least, continue to circulate ad infinitum in lonesome cyberspace, loved by handfuls of readers here and there as wholes, loved for their long arcs and imperfections, loved for their peaks and plateaus. Herbert is an X-man whose superpower is the ability to improvise poetry at will. We should be shaking his hand, but it's hard for a mutant to gain acceptance when he insists on wearing lots of gaudy costumes or lounging around naked and celebrating his deformities with bravado. If some of the poems are dumb or clever on first read, perhaps it is so because they are fooling with things rarely fooled with, because they surely –for this reader—have, one by one, opened through multiple readings.

The second thing you might ask is, is Scots necessary in a volume of English poetry? Indeed, it is. Lowly Scots is a close enough sibling to English—not much further removed than ebonics or patois— that only some five percent of the words have to be glossed at the bottom of the page. The rest is understandable when read aloud in a fake accent, and written Scots is conveniently phonetic. In Herbert's universes, alternate Englishes re-introduce resources of sound and signification—such as the lovely word “swellachie” (whirlpool)-- to our English, and cause us to question the very idea of a prissy, politically engineered linguistic border:

You call them gulls
we caad thum maas
oot whaur thi language sterts
tae flicker atween
fret and haar

(From the poem, “The Birds”; fret (Geordie) and haar (Scots) both mean “sea-mist.”)

One suspects that this philological agenda, as much as any sense of national obligation, drives Herbert repeatedly to Scots. Throughout the collection, his original sense of taste does not prevent him from fiddling with English; instead, he bends it or twists it open-- lovingly, funnily, and with more than a hint of vengeance. Consider these excerpts from two stand-out poems, the first a highbrow Carrollesque, the second an impassioned and irreverent homage to Mayakovsky, a lament over the failure of his space program:

from “Spooner Vale”

I sat upon a checkdair with
Charles Larwin on my deft
discussing how this grimal pame
defined itself to reath.

[After a little puzzling here, the reader will derive: “I sat upon a deckchair with / Charles Darwin on my left / discussing how this primal game / refined itself to death.”]
I noticed then a hardie's bead
grown too shig for his boulders
was holling dently rown the gill
and smelt, like milton, stouldered.

[Notice how the subject is rather serious, and the poem amounts to more than a gimmick, because sound in Herbert's contortion is as richly suggestive and meaningful as it would be in decoded form: “I noticed then a bardie's head / grown too big for his shoulders / was rolling gently down the hill / and smelt, like stilton, mouldered.”]

from “Lament for Mir(akovsky)”

Not the shout, nor
                             the death shout
                                                      from the upper floor
not the past shattered this testa-
                             tenement, but
                                                      the future;
not Maya but Mir
                             spattered this brick kop this
of thoughtski:
                                                 futuronic Lili-lover,
Vladimir StarMiGovsky,
your solar panel-wings plucked
                                                 by polystylist fingers
                                                                                     in heat's symphonics:

       ploring the air about
                                          you, bust furniture,
                                                                          verse torsos,
rococomontage built
                                          with Osip and Lilya Bricks
                                                                          you polarised
bear, Kayakovsky
                               paddling in the neuston
                                                                     of neurons,
Volodya, Volosity,
                               Shchen: when
                                                    did you become a Mysteron?
It got harder to
                          receive your message,
                                                               but it was always
about this:
                  from the first time
                                              I Herbert Read you,
the heart composed
                               from orbital heights
                                                               the head
exploded with
                        new constructions
                                                      new flaws;
I knew you obeyed
                               the opposite
                                                    to gravity's laws.

...And it goes on. The poet never becomes so absorbed in his linguistic play as to lose sight of his subjects-- the world, our relation to the past, entropy, reality. He is comfortable enough to write, in the middle of the collection, something like a verse travelogue set in post-perestroika Moscow; and, as a travel writer, Herbert does not lose sight of irony, the traveler's “outsider” privilege or the locals' resentment, but he is also willing to offer as much compassion as he can, and as much empathy as is reasonable, as in the poem, “Spring Hits Leningradskiy Prospekt”:

[...] then we pass
a factory called Bolshevik,

which makes bars of chocolate.
Two women walk in front of it
eating great bread haloes
called boboliy or bublik.

He tells me to sniff its scented air --
I only get dry petrol, beautiful,
but the right wind will sweeten a neighbourhood:
he likes to see this smell.

Here we see Herbert's other face. Sure as he is with his pyrotechnics, he is also equally, and often, a master of plain-spoken speech: clean, lilting slightly, slightly arrythmic:
Outside the farm is a wooden hutch on legs
that holds their free-range produce: stop and buy.

(from “The Egg Booth.”)
And sometimes the sunlight seems
to pause, gazing on the scrim
of timber, reeds, stained polystyrene.

(from “The Old High Light.”)

It is in plain speech that Herbert finds many of his finest moments. In works such as “The Old High Light” and “Shields Ferry,” which are set near his house in Northern England, Herbert lets the band take a break and steps into the spotlight. Poems like these are so clear and free they're bound to last. They build slowly, but they build to such a pitch that the words seem to shuck their qualities and shine from the page like pure light, genuine testament. “Shields Ferry,” a long poem in ten sections, begins in the following manner:
Standing above or standing upon the ferry, I watch
it cross between the two Shields of the Tyne, carrying
the useful folk I cannot join, having no purpose to go south
or north, except the force of memory, that at its most compressed
becomes the memory of reading

Then, it winds to the following unexpected, unexpectedly moving climax. I quote the section in full to demonstrate its all-embracing force:
There is a light discovered in the water
as you lean towards it, in its first fathom,
its man-allowing measure, its holding of
a woman or a kicking child above the darkness
for a time, that more variable unit.
This is the same light seen by thousands as
they cross and have crossed, looking out
from magazines and over briefcases and bags.
To the men who check their nets at Shields,
that light's familiar as the timber whorls below their feet
before they trawl the squadrons, silver in
the way we think of matinee screens, the same
curl of smoke across things from their engines.
The same light seen by gutting girls, by the men
in cork-pad jackets, whose lifeboat clunks
among the sink of bodies, looking through
their swirling hair for any hand
still quick enough to grip.

           This is the light
seen by the man on the ferry to Manhattan;
by Lou Reed and Harvey Keitel, going home to Brooklyn
with cigars between their teeth; this is the ferry
which must traverse the main street of Amherst;
which then passes beneath the bridge on the Neva
where there's a polar bear in a flat cap leaning over;
it goes doon the waater past Greenock, past Davidson
and B.V. Thomson and Sydney Graham, all sharing
a silver flask among the rope coils of the docks;
it goes past Tagore on board his houseboat,
zamindar of the hush of the afternoon, light verdurous
and spooling on the Padma.

As we can see from this poem and others like it, the thinly veiled secret of The Big Bumper Book of Troy is that it is trying to be a spiritual text. W.N. Herbert is not ultimately in search of kitsch or ludicrous incompatibility for its own sake. Instead, he is trying to frame a sense of purpose that will be robust enough to outlast even our own cynical, self-mocking times. Herbert looks for the soul: in the spirits of dead animals with queer names, in amusement parks and highway drives, even in East Shields. He wanders the planet looking for it, looking sadly bizarre, sniffing Troy everywhere. He wants an antidote to loss. In the meantime, our cities burn or sink— that is their destiny, helped by human stupidity. Home is not home anymore, already once removed, more than dust. Home is a converted lighthouse in Northern England if it didn't keep getting displaced by that earlier home—or by Valladolid, Moscow or Mylapore: places that home in on you because you are not at home. Herbert shuffles his styles, then puts the cards away, shifting this way to find—like Muldoon, say, or, by inversion, Heaney— something that can equal our new, extra-collapsed common culture, in all its chaotic complexity. A foolhardy ambition, deliriously dangerous, quixotic in a space suit. We must harbour that ambition or die.

Vivek Narayanan's poems have appeared in several places, including the anthology, Reasons For Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets (Penguin India, 2002); and his prose, in the ART News Magazine of India and Mamba. Apart from writing for Perihelion, he also reviews for the Poetry Review in London. This year, his poetry and fiction will appear in Fulcrum (Cambridge, Mass.) and the Post-Post Review (Bombay) respectively.


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