parallel blll

I’ve been caught up in the act of returning for more than a month now — first from Jerusalem and then from Rome. Both places loom large for most of the psyches that orbit the Mediterranean, and I found them totally engrossing, excitingly easy to be in but very difficult to leave. In imaginative terms, this has not quite been accomplished, which is one of the things poetry is there to engage with. No doubt I’ll get round to talking about this in greater detail, as Morrissey says, ‘in the future when all’s well’.

(One of the many positive side effects of the Rome trip was finally getting into his Ringleader of the Tormentors album, having previously found it lush but simplified, old tropes-by-numbers, it now took on an emotional depth, a sense of genuine release I hadn’t grasped — not that Rome or anywhere can completely resolve that particular ineptitude. A lot of that success was due to its brilliantly blackly deadpan humour: something Moz- (and MES-) detractors always ignore.) 

One of the many positive results of the Poet to Poet project has been the setting up of a group on MySpace where we can exchange translations, photos, opinions, though in the usual way of these things, the forum thus set up is not much frequented by its members. But putting together a MySpace profile turned into an interesting displacement activity for me. I began it in flippant mode, thinking ‘I have two so-called websites already, I don’t need this one.’

My profile was a means to the end of joining the group. But of course that which we begin inattentively becomes as much if not more revealing than that which we attempt to present as ‘ourselves’. This agrees with my previous self(obsessed)diagnosis as xenochronic. Could I be a xenochrondiac?

By jumbling together found material from my notebooks, bad films from my old mobile, and a partial log of CDs bought or books read, I was unintentionally creating the heteronym ‘Blll’ as he finally became, a lumbering mud-covered creature who is probably more looked at than this or my previous ‘main’ website. I’ve expressed impatience elsewhere on this blog with the use of heteronyms in poetry, but I’m aware that my shy retiring/pathologically antisocial personality means I am continually presenting people with versions of myself I hope they will find sufficiently nondescript not to bother with.

Moreover, my quest for invisibility means that not only do past versions of my ‘working self’ appear embarrassingly distinct from each other, but even in the present the collision of friends and acquaintances whom I’ve assigned to different sets (invariably according to bizarre classifications that do not bear scrutiny) can lead to even more disconnected than normal behaviour.

If the diachronic changes can be related to different actors playing the same role (sort of a regenerating Time Peasant), then the synchronic ones are summed up by Bob Calvert’s wierd line from Silver Machine: ‘sideways through time.’ How do you travel sideways through time? Is it when you’re haunted by an option being acted out in a parallel universe? Whether visiting or being visited by your parallel self, it seems to induce a very particular variety of motion sickness. Why am I so in search of social neutrality, especially when my success at being a total nonentity is now a source of insensate rage?

They who should love me
Walk right through me
I am a ghost
And as far as I know I haven’t even died

(I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now, La Moz)

I was looking at some old photos and reading through a journal from about 20 years ago. (I’ve employed a kind person to sort the roomsful of chaotic heaps of papers, pictures, postcards, photos, cassette tapes, stamps, floppy disks, accounts, letters, posters and unrememberabilia of all sorts I’ve been gathering like a caddis fly for the last 25 years. She may have thought this would be aesthetically engaging — I can only hope I’m throwing enough money at her to keep her in place through the terrible disillusionment.)

This filled me with jealousy for the image of my younger self, half my current 46 years and possibly half my weight, luxuriantly coiffeured in a pre-Jesus and Mary Chain stylee, sitting in the overgrown back garden of a house in Oxford with a gathering of fellow poets to say goodbye to Rabindra Ray, who was heading back to India. Keith Jebb was looking like a preRaphaelite Lemmy; Rabindra was unspeakably cool as ever in his sandals and side-parting with an omnipresent cheap Italian cigarette; Martyn Crucefix looked exactly the same as he does now. (Robert Crawford has the same knack — were they secretly much older then, or have they conquered time itself?)

We were all gathered round a symbolic aubergine, though I don’t now recall what it was symbolic of (they were indulging me). I know how maritally unhappy I was at the time, but at least I had the illusion that things could change magically for the best of all possible futures. Which was almost what happened, though of course things never just stop conveniently there, at the horizon of what you can imagine of growing old.

The nasty contrast was reading the journal, just three years later when much was more seriously amiss, but still, I remembered myself as a very meditated, Tai Chi-and-Shintaido-esque person. Yes, there were moments of great vividity if not insight, but the most immediate impression was the overweening arrogance with which I wrote about other people, even people I was clearly very fond of. I saw them with a certain ruthless clarity, but it was an ungenerous vision I was clearly keeping from them. I think this, as much as fear, has dictated my behaviour.

The understanding that I mustn’t reveal such stuff has given away to the struggle to temper clarity with compassion, and the subsequent vigorous rubbing of my nose in my own considerable failings, anxieties and inefficiencies, has done much to level things out. But still the presentation of a suitable persona persists.

This is what I like about Blll. (His name, incidentally, comes from the barely-controlled urge to misspell my signature on emails when impossibly busy, a kind of gibbering homage to riot grrlitude, a pusillanimous allusion.) He represents the redrafting of that heteronymic impulse as a cartoon. I don’t think of cartoons as merely two dimensional, more as creatures that the best artists depict as somehow being aware of their own createdness, revelling in their inherent absurdity.

That gives a particular effect to the experience of watching or reading them: you enter the fable rather than the fiction. Fiction can seem devoted to the illusion: that these characters are real, that how they behave, think or emote relates directly to how we do, that we ourselves have a reality that can be reflected in this way.

The fabular ignores all this in favour of experiencing the imagination as directly as possible. It’s an inherently pleasurable mode, partly because it constantly teeters on the edge of nightmare. It’s basically comic in the same way that fiction aims to be profoundly tragic. And if I’ve had one helpful hint since coming back as to what I’m about as a writer, it’s that. Whatever I’m doing (and I did think I might have more of a clue about it by now — in fact that was the task I set myself during these last six months), it’s about the comic and this sense of the fabular.

It makes a great deal of sense of my poetry and my ragged failures of prose and drama to think of them as they were recently very generously described by Stuart Kelly: ‘kitsch fantasia’. The full ramifications of that phrase is what I’m about (and what I’m about to do), and I have Blll (and Stuart) to thank for pointing this out.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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