unselected poems

For many poets there comes a point when a Selected Poems seems a logical step. Their style is established, their subject-matter their own, and their greatest hits surely function as a succinct introduction to their career. But, for WN Herbert, the idea that he has had a career, let alone that it was ‘about’ anything, seems unlikely. Instead, he has always enjoyed the opportunity to head off in as many directions as possible. Usually at the same time.

In addition to his main collections, Herbert has been involved in many collaborative side projects, arising from travel, translation, and the challenges of form. This book contains the best of his ‘unselected’ poems, including em the libretto, Little Instruments of Apprehension; the mock-epic, Don Juan’s Pilgrimage; and his award-winning pamphlet, Murder Bear. Unselected Poems is an invitation to consider the less-travelled tracks we might have taken and could yet follow. Let’s go, omnes – pursue that bear!

Cover painting: Paul Summers, herd groyne & jagged sky

Sample Poems


I know that I’m still in there, in
that fading frame. I almost hear
the final pop of synapses,
that old and faithful circuitry.
I know that I still have to die
in there to make the leap to here
complete in these new rituals’ terms:
electro-resurrection to
continued, altered life. And though
the shift was seamless, just a switch
which woke me up forever, I
can’t bring this afterself to think
of that familiar flesh as ‘him’.
And so I sit outside me, watch
my body go: that flicker in
those eyes I’ve never seen like this
is me, now learning how to die –
a thing I’ll never have to do –
and understanding what this more
than mirror feels about it. They say
the tear-ducts come online in time
to mourn. Although I shouldn’t test
me yet I find I’m feeling for
those more elusive traces as
I hold the outside of that hand –
more soft, more creased – that I held with.
I’m feeling for sensations that
I know they can’t yet duplicate.

The walk around the cold night block
that I took with my mother as
my grandfather was dying – how
we talked, though I was ten. I’ve lost
that frisson of familiar shock
to count again how young she was.
And that guitar book that I left
on the park bench, to show my first
girlfriend the girl who gave me it
meant nothing – nothing’s left of my
disgust at sloth disguised as pride.
That woman lying in the grass
of our first garden, windfall fruit
rotting around her, with one more
button undone than necessary.
The student nurse in that shared house
who asked me to make her a dress
from black bin-liners. Something has gone
from those distended seconds when
the doctor’s search for a foetal heart-beat turned
to something dogged. Something, I know,
should touch me knowing, decades on,
the child was more important than 
the marriage. Then, outlasting all
our hate, regret filled up the years
which followed, till that instant when
my wife’s death stopped all rage – that point
once snapped me like a filament.

It’s true: I know when we look out
the window at the same time for
the only time, I do not share
a need to name that colour caught
between the names, the one that coats
the underside of all those clouds.
In five years’ time they’ll synthesize
these finer shades we cannot share.
By then I’ll be resigned to an
eternity without myself:
twin to a temporary soul,
this copy will become a life,
without this relevance of touch,
its memories receding like
a galaxy, no faster than
the power of our telescopes
to catch it up. Until the thing
we thought was worth preserving is
as random a beginning as
the notion of a heaven was –
our limiting infinity
to how we wanted to remain.
We can’t explain the microbe’s need
to reproduce by citing God,
and to survive our deaths is not
to be ourselves. So this feels like
a goodbye that just won’t be gone:
the final breath my last hello.

The Working Self

in memory of Martin Conway

the naked man with briefcase
descending three flights of lighthouse stairs
his neckmuscles held by a hatstand of stress
and a new version of the Inferno blackening his cerebellum
in which the only dead are his poetic texts
and those of all the writers he has ever loved 
wanting to be asleep with all the fervour of the truly middle-aged
       is not
the naked man running into
the midnight sea at Teignmouth
with the surprisingly large-breasted girl
he will not sleep with later in the sand
all the car-load of friends all following The Wedding Present
from gig to gig all stoned and half-undressed and
sleepily silenusian in the cold cupping sand
       is not
the student standing with a white-furred uvula in
the campanile of his newly-smoking throat
before the galvanised façade of Milan Cathedral
on his first morning in Italy, before visiting the Brera, the Uffizi,
focussing on the lens as it falls from his spectacles and smashes
on the delicious pasticceria icing of the paving stones
       is not
the seventeen year old staring at Rossetti’s
loganberry compote of a dream of Dante and the corpse of Beatrice
remembering the final cold corner bust up by the bridge
by the Post Office where he stood for hours knowing
she would never feel the need to come back
not knowing that he would never speak to her again or know
her whereabouts or children or the moment of her death
       is not
the boy visiting a grandfather
he hadn’t seen so long he had almost begun
to think of him as dead and dreamed about it endlessly
after the rapidly-following death
the slow hand touching the bandaged throat, the querulous witty voice
the dark conspiratorial spectacles, always
not dead after all or dead but still with him, talking
       is not
the boy who dreamt that all his classmates sat in darkness in
a circle and the circle was so large it seemed to contain
all the people of the multis at Trottick, all the people in Dundee
perhaps all the people in Scotland and in the centre was a figure, 
cowled like a monk, rotating in the darkness with an index finger
pointing and revolving like a planet in an orrery
and when the figure pointed straight at him
woke up in the dark moon-streaked fourth floor bedroom for the first time
       clearly alone

Portrait of an Informationist

or, The Kind of Found Poetry I Want

He dines only – or so he claims – on food that is pale: 
eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals. 
His interests include: rare sea creatures, impossible machines, 
forgotten local history, and the occult. He looks 
like a startled owl, his hair swept back from 
a glaring forehead, tufts around his ears, and eyes 
wide open behind his pince-nez. He is evidently still drunk. 
‘We didn’t eat every day, but we never missed an aperitif. 
I remember a particular pair of trousers and a pair of shoes 
that used to pass from one Informationist to the other, 
and which we had to mend every morning.'

He plays knucklebones on the island. There is 
a circle of standing skeletons in the middle distance. 
He crushes the bones and puts the powder in an incense burner.
The smoke turns into cherub’s wings, which flutter. 
He collapses. The air turns white. A beautiful woman appears: 
‘It is the Church of Scotland!’ She throws aside her cloak 
and stands there in a gold tunic, looking like Wendy Wood. 
He throws stones at her which turn into furballs. 
There’s a clap of thunder and the statues grind their teeth. 
A volcano rises up in the middle of the island and spits stars.
When he comes to, he has a beard, and his hair has turned white.
She keeps two cats to whom she feeds herring on Fridays 
which she describes as ‘good Catholics’, as well as a goat 
in Rangers shorts, who eats any verse which doesn’t please her.

He comes into some money in 1997, and immediately blows it
on seven identical chestnut-coloured corduroy kilts, 
acquiring the nickname ‘Velvet Donkey’ from his fellow poets. ​
Every day he walks the 55 miles from Drem to Croy, 
setting off in the morning with his umbrella tucked under his arm, 
and staggering back in the small hours. He claims
never to have taken the bus. He carries a hammer 
for protection as he crosses the bandit-ridden stretch 
between Dechmont and Torphichen. 
When talking he will stop, bend one knee a little, 
adjust his pince-nez, and place his fist on his hip. 

'"Facts about Sea Cucumbers" is the first of the suite 
Scotland is Another Country Beneath the Sea,
which begins by explaining what eating a sea cucumber is like.'
It apparently resembles chewing a tenderised eraser.
'Ignorant people call them "hollow thuribles".’ Later, 
he describes the sea cucumber as 'purring like a nightingale 
with toothache'. The ninth part, 'Golf and the Cuttlefish', 
describes a cuttlefish’s comeuppance on the sunken links:
'The cuttlefish's skin is a shocking tweedy green.
He chirrups he will be victorious. His caddie, 
a haddie, follows him, carrying his clubs.
The lobsters are amazed.
The holes are all a-tremble: the cuttlefish is here!
And now he is playing his shot:
His muscular hydrostat flies into pieces!'
His last words are ‘Ah! The coos…’ Then 
he takes off once more with small, deliberate steps.

It seems impossible that he lives in such poverty. 
The man has literally nothing worth a shilling: 
a wretched bed; a table covered with forks and knives 
and walking sticks of various sizes, 
all clattering together in despair; one chair; 
and a half-empty wardrobe in which there are 
a dozen old-fashioned corduroy kilts, 
never worn and almost identical. 
In each corner of the room 
are piles of old newspapers and old hats, softening 
the noises of the cutlery, the clubs, and the sticks.

Note: this poem draws in its entirety on an article by Nick Richardson on Satie. See ‘Velvet Gentleman’ (LRB, 4th June 2015)

The Little Red Robot

for Paul Summers

The Herd Groyne Light at South Shields was, unbeknownst to strangers, a late Victorian automaton made out of cast iron and corrugated steel that had, mid-bellow on its foghorn in the early 1960s, become self-aware.

The Little Red Robot had no arms, so, when it strutted round the docks and former shipyards on its three red legs it had to pretend it had its hands behind its back like a time and motion inspector.

Every now and then it would stride to the end of the pier and look out at the container ships crossing the bar. It supposed these contained spare parts for all the lighthouses of these islands - reflectors and bulbs and panes and frames and self-assembly kits, so that every route might be safely illumined.

It imagined that they contained all the sunken ships ever recovered or yet to be recovered, including those known only by sonar or submarine cameras as wielded by, it supposed, tiny submersible versions of itself, together with their drowned crews, properly readied for burial, and all their cargoes, whether tinned hams, stacked Willow Pattern porcelains, or ancient amphorae of, still, perfectly drinkable wine.

This made it so excited it could not contain itself, and it would squat and lay a red phone box or, sometimes, a scarlet pillar box.

As one of these was almost as outmoded as the other, police helicopters would come and chase it away, and council refuse trucks would set up a perimeter while they cleaned the mess.

Occasionally, however, local people, who knew to look out for such incidents as their ancestors might have kept an eye out for wrecks, would post love letters, or attempt to make calls before the phone boxes could be shut down.

The authorities were legally obliged to honour these attempts at communication. But, to their bewilderment, they found they were mostly addressed to former regimes, fabulous entities, or, simply, the dead.

It wasn’t clear whether this was a marvellous coincidence, or something people felt compelled to enact – or if this was some metamorphosing power of the Little Red Robot itself.

Whichever, whether the letters were addressed to ordinary workers in the former Soviet Union, to Red Skelton or the Scarlet Woman of Revelations, or were recorded messages to dead aunts or ex-lovers, every effort was made to deliver such communications, even if this amounted to an official impersonating the intended addressee and forging their reply.

When this happened, the Little Red Robot felt like its imaginary arms had extended so far as to embrace the entire world!