Book review: Omnesia by WN Herbert

The poetry of W N Herbert can appear anomalous when compared to that of his peers. While the respective oeuvres of, say, Don Paterson, Robin Robertson or Kathleen Jamie have tended towards a pared-down intensity, Herbert has always been a more capacious and profuse poet.

Omnesia (Remix)

Bloodaxe Books, 174pp, £9.95

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Omnesia (Alternative Text)

Bloodaxe Books, 176 pp, £9.95

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By WN Herbert

Cabaret McGonagall, The Laurelude, The Bumper Book Of Troy and Bad Shaman Blues were all big books – in length, but also in the breadth of subjects. Even in terms of the use of traditional verse forms, there is a subtle difference with Herbert: with a poem like “Two Trees”, the opening piece in Paterson’s most recent collection, Rain, the formal rhyme scheme is almost hidden behind subtle enjambments and syntactic run-ons, until the thundering couplet at the end (a technique with its roots in Arnold’s “Dover Beach”). When Herbert rhymes, he makes sure the reader notices it.

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None of these observations is intended as a value judgment – in the Muses’ mansion there are many rooms – and, if we are to make journalistic comments about “the strength of contemporary Scottish poetry”, then surely one key indicator is how differently the poets write from each other. It would be too simplistic to draw Herbert as the joker in the pack, the rambunctious renegade; his work has every bit as much keen specificity and emotional range as the others mentioned. He does, however, seem to draw sustenance from aspects of the Scottish tradition eschewed elsewhere.

The very form of Omnesia is innovative and intimately related to his creative concerns. The “book” comes as two distinct books, dubbed the Alternative Text and the Remix. The covers – a beautifully surreal image of a squid falling or flying over a Borders kind of landscape – are subtly different; the author’s photograph shows him in left half-profile then right half-profile. The eponymous poem opens the Alternative Text and closes the Remix. The collection has a spine of poems in common – a seven part long work called “Pilgrim Street”, but the separate sections divided by that poem comprise completely different works (albeit with a tango of concerns between them) until we reach the final section “Somalilalia”, where the crossovers are more obvious.

Both feature a section entitled “Metanorth”, but with very different contents. The different epigraphs set up weird resonances between the separate books: for example, the first section has Adorno’s “The whole is the false” in the Alternative Text, whereas the remix has Willie Clancy’s “I think you don’t believe half the lies I’m telling you”. In miniature here we have one of the features of Herbert’s poetry which makes it so exciting. The books may be divided, but Herbert sees no division between high and popular culture, between critical theory and comedy.

“Omnesia” itself is explained by Herbert as a conflation of omniscience and amnesia, and his poetry veers between a manic desire to be able to include everything to a perpetual terror about what is being forgotten or overwritten.

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The poem itself is a typically bravura performance of flourishy rhymes and inspired neologisms: “I wibbled here and wobbled there, / forgot the thousandth name of beer; / I filled my head with clashing gears / and tried to live in other years; / I passed on fame, selected fear, / watered your name with ‘Poor Bill’ tears, / Omnesia... / So you lack ambition and pelf don’t tease ya? / still me-memed mugwump prats police ya, / and Brit-farce forces queue to seize ya / for the purloined pearls of Aunt Omnesia”.

The separate sections that make up the doubled Omnesia are records of travel, both geographical and temporal. Herbert moves from Venezuela to Siberia, from Crete to South Shields, from China to Jerusalem, from Helsinki to Albania, converging on Somaliland – an unrecognised sovereign state, that previously existed for five days between the dissolution of the British Somaliland protectorate and the union with the Trust Territory of Somalia. Of course, the fascination with states of ambiguous constitutional status reflects Herbert’s Scottish concerns, and these extend elsewhere (his poem on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, maintained by six often vying denominations, for example). The time-travel is particularly witty in a “A Myth of Scotland” in the Remix, where a successful Darien venture leads to such literary works as “Confessions of a Justified Winner” and an ode “To a Llama”, and where “Hugh MacDiarmid” is a deliberate satire of traditional Scottishness by the iconoclastic C M Grieve.

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In both books, the second section shows Herbert’s daring and wholly enthusiastic use of Scots. The poem “To a Moussaka” is wonderful: “Moussaka, multi-storey prince / of scoff – furst aubergine then mince / then tatties tappit wi a chintz / o béchamel! / ye gift fae Greeks that brings on grins / jist beh yir smell”. Herbert has never been limited by the traditional Scottish canon – a poem like “Bawheid” uses the song Rawhide as its metrical framework.

Certain images occur and reoccur, and are refracted between the two books: the labyrinth and its monstrous prisoner / resident, the Minotaur; the mirror and doppelganger (“Who’d be their mirror’s image? Occasional, / alarming, mute – that’s how we seem to most / of our acquaintance”); hotels – the same but different everywhere – and varieties of insomnia.

There is also a genuine concern with adapting to and adopting forms of literature from without the European norm. Herbert writes: “What drove you to translate the lesser-known / rest of the world – Chinese, Somali, Turkish / Bulgarian and Farsi? Chance alone, / or (this rhyme only works upon the ticklish) / some instinct that you must become UnRilkeish? / Beyond the Eurodome it’s audible / how Byron found a global sort of Unglish / that tells an angel from the ego’s yell, / finds muses up muezzins, orreries / in Mandarin, and in Cyrillic how to sneeze”.

That reference to Byron is crucial. Byron, “half a Scot by birth and bred a whole one”, in his own words, has an askance relationship to the Scottish canon. Like Byron, Herbert is a traveller-poet – Omnesia is a kind of unromantic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The stanza form of the “Pilgrim Street” sections is a nod to the stanza form of both that poem and Don Juan, but conspicuously slightly longer, and there is the same irreverent, “can I get away with this?” attitude to rhyme.

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The double-nature of Omnesia is not yet another rerun of Jekyll and Hyde, Scotland’s National Schizophrenia, The Caledonian Antisyzygy, R D Laing’s The Divided Self and all those other myths of fissure and fuse that bedevil Scottishness. The two books aren’t halves of one whole. The real poem might be stranded in the limbo between them, ever out of reach (in some ways this aligns Herbert more with a poet like John Burnside). There is no “definitive” or “original” version. That seems to me to be an attitude and ideology worth taking forward into the 21st-century Scotland.