The International Literary Quarterly

November 2007

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. The Shave and other poems by W.N. Herbert  

The Shave

How to re-enter the nineteenth century
with its better class of axe murderer,
its limitless supply of tubercular
courtesans, its autonomous moustaches:
pass through the cervix of a too-hot towel
folded and pressed to your flushing face,
the apparatus of the chair cranked back
like a car-seat in a suicidal layby.
Small panics soften as the lathering brush
approaches with its cool aquatic kiss,
a giant otter on the Tyne’s soft bank.
You find there is still more to be relaxed,


vertebra by intercostal cog, your shoes
loll outwards as the blade – an eyebrow of steel,
the moon’s regard – begins, as wielded by
this nun-battered Dublin-Geordie lass who lifts
your jowls gently in the snow-lit morning
and strums upon the fretboard of your throat.
For this is where all opera takes root,
the pulse of your nostalgia for unlived-in
eras, that sin of breathing elsewhere than
this greedy moment’s need to blame, verismo
is only conjured by proximity
to blood. All chatter falls like an old key falls
and cuts the slush, the orchestra of combs
and scissors seems to pause, to concentrate
on this small nearby risping shifting note
as though to cracklings in an infant’s lung.
She is the diva of scrape, the spinta of slice,
her tessitura runs from jugular
to nostril till she smacks you back
into the day you’ll haunt with alcohol
and soap, anachronistic neck,
shaven and shriven and white as a baton.

Northumberland Deer

She’s startled over stubble by our train,
this doe that veers between the ghosts of trees
but, finding only openness and sea,
goes bounding from her instincts’ Pleistocene
towards a gathering of farm machines.
This tamed herd, too inert to sense her, lies
within a yard’s false lee, though one head rises:
door slamming, thinking keys, he hasn’t seen
her yet as we keep passing, must maintain
our epidemic progress – driven by
some mimic fear she stirs in us, we fly
towards the border set down in our brain.
Her flight will meet a stranger in the breeze,
while ours is from ourselves as a disease.

The Sickle

The second day my hand still trembled from
the sickle. We see it now as attribute,
those ageing symbols' symbol, death and work,
and like to overlook the thing itself,
bulb-handled in warm wood, the cursive blade
a darkened, runnelled metal, cheaply made
and left inside the old tin bath with saws,
fence staples, in the dust-black, padlocked shed
among the furniture and frames thrown out
of the old peoples' version of a house,
the cobwebbed halter for their long-dead mule.
We want to make it moon and question mark,
cedilla of skeletal script, a lip,
but it is quite at ease with all this mess,
the afterlife of things and half-life of
their meanings: it's accustomed to the edge
between the real and the irrelevant.
A little oil would help it sing out as
it's lifted from its bed; serrations, rust,
acknowledge its return to use, to light.
And all I did was cut the long dry grass
behind the outhouse where the washing line
plays out its yellow plastic smile. I took
their three foot nodding lengths in hand,
half baby fishing rods and half the shades
of ostrich feathers, and I hacked them once
or twice, and cut their shins and thistles' throats
until our towels could hang in peace.
And all the time the sickle silently
displayed its neatness, crooking in the strays
and never needing more than three light chops
at any head, and though I cut away
from my leg every time it whispered past
'flesh of my edge, bone of my blade,' and cut
until it was too easy to cut close,
and then I paused, and put the thing away.

Visitation Hour

There is another level of the dead
from those who fill dreams with their frightened stench
or those whose gaping presence needs our dread
to drink from like Ulysses' bloody trench.
You know it by its ease, that stirring from
some porous sleep to these, as crossbow-spined,
boletus-palated, you watch them form
and savour your upended time like wine --
although these are the neckless bottles, ripped
old skins, the failures to contain, poor loves;
the failures to begin, who, half-unzipped,
consult with me and cannot find their graves
until the cockerel calls and stamps his mound,
and I write all their damned prescriptions down.

A Myth of Scotland

Even twenty years ago, given the large proportion of the population descended from successive waves of settlers, the teaching of Scottish history and literature was a commonplace in South America and in the southern United States. However, Scottish Studies have fallen into a sudden and appalling state of decay since the final collapse of the Second Republic in 1998, exactly three hundred years after the establishment of New Caledonia in Panama. I therefore intersperse a few comments to contextualise this brief selection of poems.

The astonishing rapid success of the Darien Scheme, which meant settlers had driven the Caledonian Canal through that narrow isthmus of land between the two oceans by 1707, at least gave Scotland mercantile independence, and that it could begin to plot secession from the more material dominion of the English.

from Darien

Sir William laid his wife and bairn
fu meekly in the mould
and twined a lock frae ilkane’s hair
and said, ‘Noo I am auld.’

‘But simmer’s heat at last is past
and we hae breid eneuch,
nor England’s ban nor Spanish hand
sall cast us from this cleuch!’

And aa that Company o Scots
gaithered roond him then
the livin and the deid aneath
the sile o Darien.

Fair fa, fair fa, tae Panama,
the font o oor remeid,
whaur ilka coin o Scottish gowd
wiz paid fur by oor deid.

By 1796, then, and the establishing of the first Scots Republic, the wealth of South American trade had transformed the nation’s capital, and herds of llamas roamed the Highlands. The literary scene, too, was thriving, as a wealthy Edinburgh supported the renewed interest in the Scots ‘language’ as it was reclassified, and the craze for ‘Ploughman Poets’ meant that more successful figures like Robert Burns could retire from physical labour and hold literary court, drawing the nascent English ‘Romantics’ north.

from To a Llama

O humpless camel, eel-neckit sheep,
brocht tae Scotia owre the Deep
fae Darien tae nibble neeps,
maist haughty Llama,
fae Panama tae Perth, ye leap
oor panorama.

Yet when I glance intae yir een
nae insicht in there dae I glean
at aa thae views ye maun hae seen
Peebles tae Peru!
Yir goave is dozent, lunkit, mean,
ye parvenu.

Ye mind me o thae English bardies
wha hunker roond me in thir cardies
nithert, noddin, Ned-come-tardies
that luke sae glum --
De Quincy, Keats -- aa dull Worthwardies
oan laudanum.

Throughout the 19th century, Scottish writing thrived, with Scott’s invention of detective fiction in The Murder of Midlothian, a recreation of the assassination of Bonny Prince Charlie, or ‘BPC’ as he became known. Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Winner satirised the dubious morality of the Scottish entrepreneur, whose wealth was gained not just in Central America and the West Indies, but on the slave plantations of the southern states of the US. When the Dundee poet William MacGonagall visited New York in 1887, Scottish writers were still held in sufficient esteem that he was immediately introduced to Walt Whitman, with whom he formed a long and affectionate friendship.

from The Queen of New Jersey

When I first came to the Town of New York
I bobbed up Broadway most like a cork
and happened upon a lecture by the Good Grey Poet,
Walt Whitman of Camden, and before you could know it
I became his best friend because of my rhymes
which he thought as rough as my hands or the times
and said that my hair was as dark as Poe's raven
and that he liked a Scotchman to be clean-shaven
whereas his beard and hair was as white as Glencoe
and he was going to eat shad in Gloucester, and would I like to go?
And soon we shared his cottage in Camden
and I was as happy as a Rangers fan in Hampden.

By the early twentieth century, Scotland’s ‘empire’ was taking on an increasingly virtual existence, while the advocacy of ‘Scots’ as a separate language was beginning to seem increasingly anachronistic. Small wonder that a new and iconoclastic school of poets arose in response to Scotland’s neutrality during the First World War, advancing realpolitik theories of Union with England, and satirising the traditionalists. The most prominent of these was Christopher Murray Grieve, who invented the comic persona of ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’, most baroque of Scotsmen.

The Gutterjaw

Ae dreich forenoon whaur the spew’s whummelt
Eh heard thon gantin soon
a gutterjaw wi’iz harns kicked oot
address thi mune –
and Eh thoch o the way yir fiss luked torn
when you were born.
Eh didnae keek in thi chanty’s bowl that nicht,
Eh hudnae time,
but Eh hae thocht o thon pissheid’s speak
ever sin syne –
and Eh think ilka nicht as Eh pit ye tae bed
ye’ll grow up a ned.

Grieve’s cynical vision of intra-British politics appeared justified by Churchill’s decision to occupy Scotland during World War Two in order to prevent England being surrounded by questionably ‘neutral’ states. The post-war Restoration left Scotland impoverished and insecure, and the discovery of oil in the 1970s came too late for the country to yet again reinvent itself. The Oil Wars with Norway and Iceland saw the tenacious Darien Spirit cited for the last time by the nation’s first female premier, Margo MacDonald, as the limited naval resources of the nation contested for a share of the new world market.

From War-Songs of the Nation's Favourite, Lena Martell

One well at a time, Sweet Jesus,
That's all our navy defends,
Just give us the strength to pump all the oil on which we depend,
Shetland is gone, Sweet Jesus,
and Orkney may not hold the line,
Help Margo today
to blow up Norway
one fjord at a time.

The Ancient Association of Amphibians

When I was young enough for New Year’s Day
to hold no threat yet of heid-nipped dehydration
a dozen souls would dip into the Tay
and, baptised as the dawn’s most blue-faced babes,
become ambassadors for all translation.
(As black Leb substituted for Black bun,
I recast them as a cult with sunken graves
they visited to harvest their frog-faced young.)
A change of motive tells us how we’ve changed:
this year the pier was hoatching with a host
of learner divers, diverse pirates, chained
to a lemming need to crack the river’s crust.
I watched a Santa swim for Lapland, and thought,
‘One well-positioned whale could swallow the lot.’

The Heel

I'd just come out of Exhibition Park,
remembering that weed I'd tasted once
in the aloni, the old threshing circle in Apokoronas,
considering its straggly sweetness
and staring at a roadsign as

the car caught her by the heel.
The sign was for the street the hospital is on,
and said 'Queen Victor' because someone
had broken the rest off, working the metal
back and forth until it tore.

She'd stepped in her fur-lined floppy boots
into three lanes of morning traffic,
and neither she nor the car had yielded,
so there it was, somehow Amazonian, her heel,
pinched between barely-yielding rubber

and the tarmac. She flopped on the bonnet
and he half got out, not realizing,
and the weight rocked on her
for a further moment as we yelled,
as though it was assessing something.

And when, released, her ankle swelled,
I was telling her to take her boot off
because I'd been a passenger in Dave Kean's dad's car
one time he dropped us at the Grove
and I'd put my foot out before he'd stopped.

He was shouting sorry, offering
to phone or drive, but I'd already gone
back to the circle filled with asphodel,
where once the farmer on his wheel-less chariot,
the volosiros, would be dragged across the wheat.

And I was really thinking of that grip
when the mother dipped her infant in the Styx,
nipping at his heel so as not to
lose him, whoever he might kill, not
to lose him ever to those shadowy fields.

Eschatology of the Fly

Why did you do me downward as I dithered by,
dozy as a dachshund in the warm mid-air?
On the fifth lap of the kitchen, then, you caught me out,
smacked me with the whammy of your flat moon-mace.
You broke my gallant topsail of the sheeniest glass,
shattered every pane upon my mizzen mast,
as well as stoving in my stubbled fur-box ribs,
so that I lay along the painted concrete floor
and panted as I pedalled at the lower nocht
as though it were a bike, and saw the ceiling be
the bottom of the clearest deepest sea all set
for my abrupt departure. Was it exercise
or envy or the chance to try your giant eye
and flex your long slow arm against my circuitry?

Come with me now into the after-tunnels where
gravestones stick like eggs against the worm-built walls
and larva struggle in their sticky shrouds for air.

In winglessness we must crawl in these gutters up
through the seepage of the silage and your honey tears,
sometimes across the tin gut’s floor and sometimes on
the grey intestine’s roof tiles where we’ll tattoo out
dead mariachis in our tap shoes till at last we meet
a porter of those stoppered parts, who sizes you
for seizing or for ease of the innoculant –
and so appears behind you with the needle’s push
into your lolly headpiece like a long sharp hair,
then the nulling of your dream of only being you
begins just like a bleaching of your nasal stems:
wasabi-eucalyptus then the lung-green pin
porcupines the passages behind your eyes
till what you are can’t get away from all you’re not.

And then you’re just some runnel-scurf and well-chewed wax
they roll in grit and grease until you globulate
as jubejubes for their ratty daughters that depend
among the ribcage webs – one eyelash all you’ve left
and all it knows of ways to go is up the shaft,
the bones all scratched with charms in every lingo known,
with canting old confessions, incorrect accounts,
commandments in such characters as brook no doubts
though nobody can read them now their lights are out.

And everywhere the twining worm and rusty ant
and everywhere the bat’s crapped and the white owl flits
until the collarbones patrolled by dragonflies
where mantises catch hold of you like prayerwheels
and pop you in that hive-head of the rolling eyes –
Beelzebub the brilliantined colossal lord
surveys this middle realm through every aperture
that’s opened to him through your artful wantonry
and watches you as closely as the One above.

Did you suppose we didn’t have necropoli –
a species focussed so upon the nethers’ flux?
That nobody could judge you as you broke the bread
I’d crawled across and emptied out my juices on?
A million small communions each compose our world,
and mean we all share constantly the joyous feast
and once we are consumed we share a common dream.

Dead Villages

Because the needle sharpness of the dark,
its million brilliant pores, means that instead
of puffy orange you can see the trail,
that sky-long cloud of the galactic spill;

because that renovated sky is pitched
above your memories of childish night;
you start to think you're travelling in time
back through the laden rooms, the mannered past

towards a coolness somewhere in these hills,
the height of which is only measured by
the constellated legions they eclipse,
where they inhabit though they're not alive

those lightless villages you could drive through
though your lights too would then refuse to find them
outside the empty-glassed cafeneion
or gathered underneath the walnut trees.

Or so you think as you fold up the sheets
you hung out in the midday heat and then
forgot: they could be gathered there beneath
these still undancing points and looking up.