Portrait of an Informationist, (or, The Kind of Found Poetry I Want)

(About 11 months ago, I did one of those Facebook ‘challenge’ chains – post a poem each day for five days; challenge five others to do the same – which are just an excuse to share new work. Most of the pieces subsequently reappeared or will reappear elsewhere, but I noted it was the anniversary of Satie’s birth last week, and remembered I had posted this piece. Coincidentally, we’d just done a seminar on found poetry that same week where Helen Tookey spoke about her adaptation of text from Virginia Woolf’s diary, published in Missel-Child, so this seems oddly appropriate. 

The subtitle echoes MacDiarmid’s late poem, The Kind of Poetry I Want, which continues to have a problematic relationship with the texts he collated and collaged to construct it, in proportions which continue to challenge our ideas of what authorship is or should be. I therefore give a link at the end to my source text, the brilliance of which led to this attempt at a variation on its themes. The subject of this portrait, then, is a construct in the sense that W. S. Graham spoke of the ‘implement’, or my informationist peer Peter McCarey uses the term ‘contraption‘.)

He dines only – or so he claims – on ‘food that is white:
eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals’.
His interests include: rare sea creatures, impossible machines,
forgotten local history, and the occult. He looks
like a startled owl, his hair swept back from
a glaring forehead, tufts around his ears, and eyes
wide open behind his pince-nez. He is evidently still drunk.
‘We didn’t eat every day, but we never missed an aperitif.
I remember a particular pair of trousers and a pair of shoes
that used to pass from one Informationist to the other,
which we had to mend every morning.’

He plays knuckle-bones on the island. There is
a circle of standing skeletons in the middle distance.
He crushes the bones, and puts the powder in an incense burner.
The smoke turns into cherub’s wings, which flutter.
He collapses. The air turns white. A beautiful woman appears:
‘It is the Church of Scotland.’ She throws aside her cloak
and stands there in a gold tunic, looking like Wendy Wood.
He throws stones at her which turn into furballs.
There’s a clap of thunder and the statues grind their teeth.
A volcano rises up in the middle of the island and spits stars.
When he comes to, he has a beard and his hair has turned white.
She keeps two cats to whom she feeds herring on Fridays –
she describes these as ‘good Catholics’ – as well as a goat
in Rangers shorts, which eats any poetry that does not please her.

He comes into some money in 1997, and immediately blows it
on seven identical chestnut-coloured corduroy kilts,
acquiring the nickname ‘Velvet Gentleman’ from his fellow poets.
Every day he walks the 55 miles from Drem to Croy,
setting off in the morning with his umbrella tucked under his arm,
and staggering back in the small hours. He claims
never to have taken the bus. He carries a hammer
for protection as he crosses the bandit-ridden stretch
between Dechmont and Torphichen.
When talking he will stop, bend one knee a little,
adjust his pince-nez, and place his fist on his hip.

‘”Facts about Sea Cucumbers” is the first of the suite
Scotland is Another Country Beneath the Sea,
which begins by explaining what eating a sea cucumber is like…’
– It apparently resembles chewing a tenderised eraser –
‘Ignorant people call them “hollow thuribles”.’ Later,
he describes the sea cucumber as ‘purring like a nightingale
with toothache’. The ninth part, ‘Golf and the Cuttlefish’,
describes a cuttlefish’s comeuppance on the sunken links:
‘The cuttlefish’s skin is a shocking tweedy green.
He chirrups he will be victorious.
His caddie, a haddie, follows him, carrying his clubs.
The lobsters are amazed.
The holes are all a-tremble: the cuttlefish is here!
And now he is playing his shot:
His muscular hydrostat flies into pieces!’
His last words are ‘Ah! The cows…’ Then
he takes off once more with small, deliberate steps.

It seems impossible that he lives in such poverty.
The man has literally nothing worth a shilling:
a wretched bed; a table covered with forks and knives,
golf clubs, and walking sticks of various sizes,
all clattering together in despair; one chair;
and a half-empty wardrobe in which there are
a dozen old-fashioned corduroy kilts,
never worn and almost identical.
In each corner of the room
are piles of old newspapers and old hats, softening
the noises of the cutlery, the clubs and the sticks.

Note: this poem draws in its entirety on an article by Nick Richardson on Satie.

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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