Sparrow-Mumbling in June

With thanks and acknowledgement to A.F.Harrold for uncovering the phrase ‘Sparrow-mumbling’ defined by the OED as ‘the action of holding a cock-sparrow’s wing in the mouth, and attempting to draw in the head by movement of the lips’, this initiates a new category for this blog.

I’ve very occasionally posted poems on here, and almost always because they were very occasional pieces, and their appearance was not intended to be considered as an act of serious self-publication – something I have reservations about in many cases. Usually the occasion was something somebody said on Facebook or Twitter, and the response was very much in the spirit of my engagement with these social networking sites: a letting off of hopefully (but not always) not very partisan steam amid busy work schedules.

It occurred to me when I lost one of these pieces in the compendious ongoing failed archive that is Facebook (something on some bird that was a parody of something by perhaps Spender that I thought I’d posted on Simon Thirsk‘s wall), that I cared more for these jeu de sprats than I’d admitted to myself, and wanted something between losing them and not exactly publishing them – and perhaps gathering them on this blog is the solution.

I’ll try gathering them on a monthly basis and posting the ones that, however barely, pass muster (which reminds me of a couplet I meant to jot down on ‘The Correct Use of Mustard’:

It don’t mean a thing
till your sinuses ping.)

That parenthesis should warn you about just how trivial this monthly posting is likely to get, so feel free to look away now.

(from a thread started by Jim Sheard)

Where the bee fucks, there fucks Larry
he copulates in cash-and-carries;
to an owlish charivari
shags chaffinches if they should tarry
in flight from Cardiff home to Barry;
while foresters take their hard-earned ease
he’s interfering with their trees.


Dead Mole

(after a photo by Pamela Robertson-Pearce)

Sprawling in an indent on a drystane dyke,
cast there by the moleman, mowdie-murderer,
as though it were a turf, the mitt a walker lost:
the mole, stone-dead but like it’s crawling still
through air, claws freckled with dirt, its soot frame
a stockinged foot pulled from the long shoe of earth,
its chest a wee barrel of muscle, a loutish no-neck,
mouth a perfect A of teeth and whiskery chin,
snout made blunt by thrusting into dark
and the inert turned homely, wormless, dry;
it lies as though sodden with the fact of soil,
deafened by the bass note of the grave, drowned
by blueness, thrown spaldered and absurd
as if downed drunk with singing of our end.


(A Bad Shamanic Medicine Chant for Julia Bird)

A hex on emails from the boss
a hex on deadlines and the loss
of minutes from your actual life
cause some bloke treats you like a wife
from 1960s madman land
a hex on ‘Still Can’t Understand’
although you’ve told them umpteen times
a hex on admin’s cursory crimes
like Mister ‘My Priority
Trumps The Ones I Cannot See’
and Ms ‘I’ve Sent You This Report
Far Too Late For Sane Retort’
a hex on inbox, outbox, draft
cast down deleted item’s shaft.


(a found poem with Informationist love song inserts)

A booby, for a small premium, had his hands tied
behind him, and the wing of a cock sparrow put
into his mouth: with this hold,
and without any assistance other than the motion of his lips,
he had to get the sparrow’s head into his mouth.

To ask you to say ‘I love you’
is like the staging post
between eating a distant angel’s wing
and darning a threadbare ghost.

The bird defended itself surprisingly, frequently
pecking the mumbler till his lips were covered with blood,
and he was obliged to desist:
to prevent him from escaping, the sparrow was fastened by
a string to a button of the booby’s coat.

To get you to say ‘I love you’
is like the halfway house
between uninventing the mask of a scold
and chewing a porcelain mouse.

As George Chapman wrote in his Andromeda Liberata,
it was ‘most pleasing to sit in a corner
and spend your teeth to the stumps
in mumbling an old sparrow till
your lips bleed and your eyes water’.

To hear how you say ‘I love you’
is like the last chance saloon –
beyond the thoughts of a spatchcocked quail
as it listens to a lark’s tongue croon.

There are (lots) of others, usually short but still more terrible parodies. And I must admit to not looking back over the whole of June – but I feel you will thank me for that.


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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