Sparrow-mumbling in April: Week 1

Without a second thought and with very little evidence of a first one either, when Carrie Etter asked me to take part in NaPoWriMo, I agreed. I think I liked the sound of it, the sort of SovSound feel. I’d no idea how I was supposed to take part, and no preconceptions about what I should write, plus there was a lot of other work I was supposed to be getting on with in the same time. It felt good.

Then Malika Booker asked if I would join a Facebook group for the same purpose, and perhaps prompt its members with their writing. Since this is my Easter break, and, despite agreeing to give a few workshops, a break from teaching, and since this sounded vaguely like teaching (though in fact I’d no real idea what prompting involved either), I passed on the latter but still joined the group.

Since then, I been writing a poem or two per day, in the interstices as ever of my usual duties. I began on Day 1 by following Malika’s prompt to write about being tricked (it was April Fool’s Day, and in a sense the whole thing felt like me tricking myself.) After that the poems have pretty much suggested themselves. I occasionally read a prompt out of sync, and some of them influence things, but more subliminally than I’d intended.

*

I have a recurring frustration, fed by the joy I get from riffing on puns, rhymes, Spoonerisms, Mondegreens, fantasias on imagery, parodies, pastiche, sketches, collages, cartoons, photo captions – and indeed the few times I have sufficient space to let go on a story idea or a long poem – that if I ever gave myself over to my writing in the sense of giving up my usual duties, I would move into a more productive period and narratively cohesive body of writing. In other words I’d write fiction, but not particularly realist fiction.

There’s a fair possibility I would actually just go nuts while vanishing in a flash of self-referentiality, but, still, NaPoWriMo has turned out to be, for me, about entering that freedom (and/or going nuts, etc). That means, ironically, I’ve had to set myself some rules. So far, for instance, I’ve resisted picking up ongoing projects, in order to let the poems develop one from the other.

I’ve also tried to write without a goal, something I realise I have most of the time – that is I always have a sense of the shapes I’m writing toward in the sense of the next project or the next book. Even when the writing turns out not to work, or not to be up to scratch, or really to have been written to get me somewhere rather than for its own sake, I’m always writing towards that target, even when I’m using the writing to understand or reshape that target.

So far, just being able to set that aside has been a pleasure in exactly the same way as letting off steam, and playing with language and images on Twitter and Facebook. As well as the delight in play and self-expression, it’s a way of interrogating the role you play as a writer or as a teacher or as an administrator: how much of it is enables you or anyone you work with to develop creatively or to do their job in a fulfilling manner? How much is posture and carapace, what MacDiarmid called ‘the cursed conceit o’ bein’ richt’?

*

April Kraken

April Kraken

– And where did you find the little green man?
He said he fell out of a crocus.

– Do you have a pea for a brain?
We were all fooled by April’s rumour

that the darkness was bubbling like treacle
down a well. That the sun would rise

and fry on the star macadam
as if a kraken could turn white as an egg.

Then a snowflake doily settled on his face.
– And when did you see him last?

He was sticking out his thumb,
trying to hail a passing hare.

*

Breakfast Kraken

Winded, the little green man extracted himself
from a fortuitous left training shoe

left by the thundering juggernaut corpuscles
of the kraken’s vascular system.

What was it in training for now, he wondered,
brushing engorged charcoal particulates

from his celadon frontage? And since when
was a jeremiad about no mustard

a throwing-out offence? He had felt
its tentacles ascend through the bubbling well

in the waitress’s blonde-haired foot,
known ‘we have no sachets’ meant

Ms Jobswart couldn’t be bothered to open a jar,
just as he’d understood adding nude imagery

to his rendition of ‘hot sausage and mustard’
was the result of stooping to early gin.

What is this world, Mustardseed, where the baked bean
lies down with the scrambled egg?

And, since I am the wee man,
what is the name of the wee man?

*

Other Absences

Jangled echoes of the unseen icecream van
in the cold sunlight of a childless afternoon
summon other absences to its moveable feast:

the name of the tune it reiterates on a loop of tones,
anxious as bells to remind us of time’s appetite;
those lists that taunt us with how we are undone;

the red scent of the fox, its frank sullen ripeness;
the drawn curtain of a house only I know is empty;
that past from which we have been hollowed out

like moulds in which imperfect profiles could be poured;
the way the leaning arms of light refuse to hold
our presence or our need to weigh the present.

*

Stupor Cundie*

The little green man removed his greenbottle shades,
his multiscreen Manzanera goggles
that translate ‘Primavera’ into 96 guitar solos,

and saw micro-tentacles corkscrew the earth
to remove its bung on bounty:
one wrung a wren dry of song, while another

licked the strip of sunlight off a leafless tree,
degilding its futhork calligraphy.
Ripping the side mirror off a leek-hued Hillman,

he retreated across the Medusa meadow.
Deploying it as a shaky Claude glass he saw
mantis-headed mobile masts stalk the Metro lines;

horses converse in their smoking jackets; and out to sea
off Cullercoats, two yachts like the ears
of a giant submerged paper cat: the Kraken!

‘Please accept this stoop of blood,’ said the voice
in the mirror, ‘imported from drowsy
Venetian mosquitos: it contains Vivaldi.’

The little green man awoke, face printed with drain.
‘We are all of us in the gutter,
but some are staring through the bars.’

Sliding down a coal-chute, he felt the gloom
all over, and slowly discerned
a blackboard chalked with two colossal eyes.

Spitting on what he hoped were still his fingers
he rubbed them both asleep.

*A pun perhaps only a Dundonian could love:
a cundie is a drain (from the French conduit),
Stupor Mundi was the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.

*

What you'd see in the mirror if this were true.

What you’d see in the mirror if this were true.

Scratched in the Quicksilvering

Liverish worm that slithers on the surface
of your eyeball’s icy moon.
Fist-clenched humunculus, drenched
and crouching in your blindspot.
Carnevale cutthroat stepping as you turn
perfectly behind your head.
Dusk-clad figure in the corner
head lowered like a priest.

Configurations of coats and chairs
conjure me from drowsiness.
Doors that won’t stay shut in bathrooms
as you tilt your head back.
Never there to turn to, but living in
that other house of slivers;
its rooms you have no mirrors in
so do they mirror yours?

Ruby with which these words are scratched
stolen indoor magpie-style
from a Byzantine dowry – daughter sold off
to the latest barbarian.
I borrowed it from her psalter while
a plague usurped that dynasty.
Hold a Marouvas to the looking glass
and I’ll pretend to drop it in.

*

Anti-Vampires

The mirror had two brass grips with thumb rests:
it was only when he took it off the wall and pressed
that he realised it changed the view over his shoulder.

It flew out of the bedroom and down the hall.
The wallpaper was unfamiliar, shabbier, as though
greasy coats had squeezed down it for years.

Suddenly he was looking into a living room
at a family he half recognised, each of whom
had a jar of liquid balanced on their heads:

a grandmother with a grey bob sat on the sofa;
her jar looked as though it had held gherkins
and the label read ‘Jimmy Stewart’ like an autograph.

The mother was looking right at him, expressionless
and fifty, bearing an opaque tupperware tumbler
with no label, and a beetroot tear beginning.

A grown-up son completed the settee triptych
with a straight pint glass, beer mat on top
and a label which said ‘Mammoth – defrosted’.

The father sat in an armchair with a mustard jar:
on zoom he read ‘Jiminy liquidised cricket’.
He was grinning. He was the only one grinning.

Standing nearest to the door was the daughter,
in fifth position and extending a squash glass
with purple flowers on the side. It said ‘Drink This’.

*

Kraken Yarnish

The little green man bumped into an old sea louse
who told him how it sailed the Atlantic on a salmon;
they had escaped the flabby nets off Stornoway
only to fall into the fond arms of Corryvreckan:
 
‘Black as the circles of Hell set on a spin cycle
so it was, and as we whirled in the mile-wide helix
we could see the damned in the far galleries,
rowing the barrels of their eternal convictions,
 
pausing to applaud the great green stench
of breath bellowed up from the black beneath,
such roaring and raining that the cries of the doomed
flew in one ear and sent a bullet of iced water
 
out the other. Every now and now (we had no time
for then) ten ancient tentacles would shoot
like beanstalks from the abyss, with the thorns
from centuries of sick roses all latching on
 
to weekend Ahabs and dragging them below.
‘Dinna look doon!’ sighed the sea-trout
hooked through its silver flank, so I looked down
and saw the one raw eye stare back…’   

*

Aunty Vampire

None of us kids liked to visit Aunty Vampire,
since it was always someone’s turn
to ‘Let your Aunty bite you.’ Never the neck,
which was thought bad manners;

but she would sit chatting to Mother
while gnawing someone’s arm
as though devouring cake or, drinking,
as if she were playing the flute.

Fortunately, there were seven of us,
so by the time your turn came round again,
you were usually quite well.
Still, we were a pale bunch,

even in the summer, when we would take
Aunty Vampire to the beach
with her bombazine bathing suit
and black crepe windbreaker.

She always brought a tin of fresh Scabcake,
and insisted we bury her completely
beneath a coffin-shaped mound of sand.
Come sunset she would rise again –

swinging upright like a train signal
before treating us all to squid and chips
and a pint of beetroot cordial.
If anyone ever cut themselves,

they were sent to Aunty Vampire
to lick the wound better. Her tongue
was rough and pointed, and cold as a stone,
but her saliva left no scar.

All was well until the night I awoke
from a nightmare of eating glass
from a tumbler filled with fresh-mown hay,
and heard the chink of milk bottles

on our step. Why would a milk float deliver
in the cul-de-sac at this hour?
Was it the time of the night-milk,
that is the coldest milk of all?

I peered down the streetlamp’s well of light
and there was Aunty Vampire in her
nightdress, delivering black bottles
to all the dream-dark houses –

It was then I knew we had to trap her
in the mirror in the hall…

*

Pubic Lice Orchestra

‘…it was then I jumped ship into the pubic hair
of the lady organist of the Vampyroteuthis,
sister-ship to the Nautilus, which only surfaces
every hundred years. She was a bearded lady

(she was in disguise), and in her various hairs
were two rival symphony orchestras of fleas.
I played face tuba in the Nether Philharmonic
(I went to the Lice-eum, I’ll have you know).’

– What did you play? asked the little green man.
‘Haydn, mostly, because we were in hiding –
‘The Insect’ from his Prague symphonies;
Shostakovich’s ‘Bedbug’; Satie’s ‘Krill’.

We would swop arrangements and short tales
in The Acrobatic Fly, a nightclub we’d set up
in the baked bean tin jammed under the galley –
that’s how I knew all the women on the old Vamp

were bearded – and that all the crew were women
(they joined for the sailorsuits, and stayed
for the moustaches) – all except for Captain Aculard,
and no-one saw him outside a shaving mirror,

though they would often feel his ear, pressed to
their bellies through the Atlantean gansey,
checking that all was well with the ship’s plumbing,
and listening to the music of the fleas…’

*

Song of the Vampire Squid

Vampyroteuthis, wrinkled pear,
come floating down the ocean’s blackest stair
as soft as rust, your lust for prey
extends like spiralled phone cords as you splay,
tentacles mantled in taut skin,
absorbing what there is of oxygen.
Your bulbous, blue, unpupilled eye
seeks out no partner, since to mate’s to die,
instead, your lily mocks this sunless sky.

‘Listen,’ your ear-like flippers keep
signalling, ‘to the children of the deep:
what sweeping sonar odes they send;
harpoons of hunger! Let the night extend
forever, life will pierce it, though
the light cannot – I’m old enough to know:
last of my order, first to flee
to utter otherness; to sense, not see
leviathans of loneliness see me.’

Then, startled by some current’s broom,
your skirt inverted round you like a womb,
and phosphorescence filled the drink
with dazzle-script – your opposite of ink.
Two photophores, as though your eyes
flared and then, feigning distance, shrank in size.
By sleight of tentacle, the squid
made absence out of presence, and so hid
as vampires do, beneath the mirror’s lid.

*

Kraken Pilgrim

The little green man was not averse to termites –
a bowl of stir-fried alates in a blue milk sauce
was preferrable to his usual diet of grass

or glass or frozen grass (it was all the same
to his steel jaw, his mint porcelain interior),
on all fours by the side of the motorway.

Back in Lemuria he’d often passed as
another dimorphic soldier, guarding the innards
of their airy citadels while eating their children.

One time he’d played grasshopper cello
in the court of the White Queen: Vivaldi’s
‘Il Giardino del Polpo’; and at some point,

thanks to tophallaxis, he’d ingested Cthulhu,
or to give the old dread flying squid-faced
lucid-dreaming undead deity its proper title,

Cthulhu macrofasciculumque. Ftaghn.
Deprived of cellulose to digest, the god
had fallen to dreaming of its old seafloor pad,

R’lyeh, and soon converted the microflora.
So now he was forced into pilgrimage,
driven by borborygma, accompanied by

the ghost of Schubert on syphylitic stylophone,
his gut-brain waking him with the wind
of change, the chant arising from his own gullet:

Ph’nglui mghr’nafh Cthulhu
R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

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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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