Jelly Bo Lee Jubilee

This selection of sparrow-mumblings is posted to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Edward Lear’s birth, and indeed commences with a small hommage/omelette/oubliette. This has been a busy couple of months of ‘proper’ composition, the results of which shall soon appear elsewhere – mostly in rapidly-flowing gutters and the nightmares of dogs. But the more I write ‘proper’ the more I am tempted to and require to undercut my own process.

Herein are: a Tennyson parody prompted by a retired colleague, John Batchelor, remarking to me what a difficult rhyme scheme ‘The Lady of Shallot’ has – and someone of Jane Harris’s acquaintance. A fond tribute to the Royal National Hotel in Bloomsbury. A celtic note arising from a conversation with Brian Holton on the train back from Galway’s marvellous Cuirt Festival. A squirrel collage. A Druskininkai drinking song.

And, fittingly, we finish with a nod to another master of nonsense, an example of what Lewis Carroll called ‘Word-Links’ or ‘Doublets’, whereby one word, here ‘Milhouse’ (the bespectacled loser pal of Bart Simpson), is linked by subtle increments to another, here ‘Miliband’ (the panda-eyed victorious leader of the Labour Par-tay).

Jelly Bo Lee Jubilee

The Pobble, the Dong and the Scroobius Pip
agreed on reflection they’d not build a ship
from holes they’d collected by paring a cheese
and fish scales selected by sieving the breeze.

Instead they consulted that nice Mr Lear
who sold them cold froth from the brim of his beer
and told them how best to crochet it for sails –
‘And remember to hang pea-green bunting on whales!’

The Jumblies, meanwhile, attempted to vote
on whether an anvil would make a good boat
but spoiled all their ballots – they dipped them in soup,
electing instead to mottle a hoop.

They requested a wheel-rim from clever old Lear
who fashioned one smartly from smilings and fears
and sold it for sixpence – the coin made him croon:
‘I announce it as runcible as the new moon!’

The Owl and the Pussycat, far out at sea,
kept house on an iceberg, but couldn’t agree
through freshly-carved casements the water looked weird –
but how to confirm it was made from a beard?

They sent an enquiry to wise Mr Lear
who carved on the antlers of migrating deer
each luminous letter of thoughtful reply:
‘If you can’t tell it’s hair, and you’re there, how should I?’

*

The Lady of Allsop

A beauteous MILF entitled ‘Alys’
attempted to construct a palace
of modern style: she drained the chalice
of weekend mags – but she was callous,
that lady of Allsop,
for in her grounds she kept a rabbit
when guests came round she’d fondly grab it,
but otherwise, gadzooks, dagnabbit!
cried the Lady of Allsop.

Her garden sown with snowy peas
was where, a hassock for her knees,
inscribed ‘Keep calm, take one of these’,
she grew shallots and took her ease,
the lady of Allsop.
And here and there a pink flamingo
in plastic tribute to the neb of Ringo –
because, add kitsch to whimsy: bingo!
You’ve the Lady of Allsop.

Her house where rustic style holds sway,
where nicks are nackered till they pray
for flame to free them from the fey;
her lawn prepared for loon croquet –
poor Lady of Allsop!
She’s a rabbit in an iron mask
in a recycled whisky cask,
but which is more distressed, we ask
the Lady of Allsop?

Her neighbours sent a hungry goat
to spit upon her plaited oats
and eat her undyed ecru coat,
so sadly she got on a boat,
the Lady of Allsop.
The vessel rocked from side to side
as she, unwitnessed, cried – or tried –
and bore her out upon the tide,
the Lady of Allsop.

Her hairdo drenched and drained and drab,
her dress much doilied by a crab,
her gloveless form upon the slab
had been returned by a diligent dab
poor Lady of Allsop!
The coroner removed his hat,
Sir Lancelot of Jeu de Sprat,
‘She drowned in style, I’ll grant her that,
the Lady of Allsop.’

*

Breakfast Poem

The beige cafeteria of the Royal National as an Utopia of clattering
where many nations must struggle with bad sax muzak
stewed burnt grounds coffee, balsamic tea
and the ‘Englishness’ or ‘Continentality’ of breakfast fats
as though philosophic positions they must resolve
before being permitted to board the tourbus.

Bad Hair-Day Woman struggles to reinstate the indoor hat.
Goose formations of teenagers land in unison.
Cheapo wannabe individuals fight for the window seats.
A wild optimism of sunglasses amid the prunes and muesli.
Supposedly invisible servitors from the mirror lands
pass among us with kindly disdain.

The carpeted zone laps with overlapping spirals,
the metre-wide dark tiles enclose a service quadrangle.
The icecream van in the triptych’s right panel states
‘Multi Uncle To Flavour’. Does playing
an expressive instrumental version of ‘The Sound of Silence’
count as irony? Put nothing past those who, impassive, wait.

Everyone is too recently showered; no-one has rinsed out
the dream, nor brushed their peripheral vision.
Patriarchs thumb phrase books and memorise maps
below the tabletops. Greying couples perfect
their mirrored crumplings of a host of serviettes.
Emergency travel Tabasco makes a guest appearance.

We thin out at ten to ‘Cry Me A River’,
to foyer wifi watery as the scrambled eggs,
to where the taxis like the rain more than us.
Meanwhile passersby disturb the reflections along
the knife blades, making it only clearer that we were
one estranged soviet, one morning family.

*

The Cave of Gold

‘Eadarainn a’ chruit, a’ chruit, a’ chruit…’
(Uamh an Oir)

The blackbird’s silenced by the glass
as our train pulls out of Athenry.

While we discuss a broken phrase
in Gaelic’s oldest song, I see

its open beak’s the cave of gold,
its throat the harp between.

*

The President of Wounds

‘Squirrels rarely commit crimes.’
(Sandi Toksvig)

Veteran rocker Mark E. Smith is facing investigations
over claims he killed squirrels with a hedge-trimmer.
The gruff 51-year-old said, ‘I’d happily set about
an endangered red squirrel with a set of professional clippers.’
He added, ‘Squirrels mean nothing to me.
I killed a couple last weekend actually.
They were eating my garden fence.’
The maverick frontman went on to add
he wouldn’t have a problem running over seagulls for fun.

In the Laughing Blackbird, Ratatosk drinks of the Doom Ale

In a moment of acute humiliation for
the Russian Academy of Sciences
the English language version of its website translated
Institut Belka (Institute of Protein Research)
as the Squirrel Institute (Institut Belki)
while the mathematician Yury Osipov,
who appeared to be covered in toothmarks,
was introduced as the President of Wounds.

In the Carrion Kerryoot, Ratatosk purchases the Brennivín

In other news, Russia’s health ministry has released
a new weapon against alcoholism: a video
of a drunken squirrel hallucinating.
In Russian slang delirium tremens is known as
‘belochka’ or ‘a little squirrel’.
The bedraggled, red-eyed rodent chases spiders
up the wall, composes a spontaneous onyeginskaya strofa*
and offers to kill his neighbour’s wife
‘because she is the devil.’

In White Night Park, Ratatosk dances in the pee-stink bandstand

* As real as Hollywood’s Ninotchka,
this stanza is an empty hoard
of bottles drunk by a red belochka –
stare all you want, they’ll still stay blurred.
A six foot squirrel, stark and raving
that none can see but those, half-shaven,
half-drunk, who wake in hotel rooms,
in snowdrifts, metros, Lenin’s tomb.
It tells you fables from an era
when men pissed vodka, wives shat eggs
and flies had four delicious legs.
It whispers, ‘You’re the true chimera,
a beast that thinks he knows he thinks?
No wonder wanderers turn to drink!’

*

Last Night in Druskininkai

Only very drunk people were with me by this point,
but I wasn’t one of them. I was filled with serenity,
as though the universe was vibrating, but I
was still. I reached for my camera but it felt like
it was miles away, as though there was a lake
in my pocket and a forest in my fingers.
I reached down through the freezing water.

It’s very rare you can capture on film
a wooden church shuddering so that
its little bell-shaped teeth tintinnabulate,
but here it was, whispering. We drew nearer.
Although it was whispering in Lithuanian,
we seemed to understand: ‘Eat a dictionary every day:
keep Professor Rat away.’ We paused to consider.

‘I knew this guy in the AI department at MIT
who ground up encyclopedias for rats to eat.’
That’s what we needed: the Interrat!
The World Wide Warren! You’re never more
than three yards from a runagate bibliophile:
just pick up your rodent polymath and speak
into the correct end as though into a fur telephone.

Enlivened, we began to search the bushes. If only
the dictionaries had made the rats bright.

*

The Shirty Nine Steps

Milhouse
Milholmes (& Gardens)
Milhound (of the Baskermilles)
Millpoundland (of the Villionaires)
Millpond (cf ‘Still’)
MilliPod (cf ‘Style’)
Millipede (cf ‘Millipedant’)
Milli(Venerable)Bede
Mil(liBendy)House
Milliband

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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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