Monday, 1 July 2013

A view of Omnesia

Omnesia (remix) and Omnesia (alternative text) by W N Herbert.
Bloodaxe, £9.99 per volume.

Even as Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle, WN Herbert, known universally to poets as Bill Herbert, has been slightly out of the sourthern English picture until recently. "So far north" and given to writing in Scots (well represented in this book), and to provocative verbal play in his well known and generously written blogs, he hasnt been particularly noticed as a major writer in a larger field. I am glad to see this changing.
This pair of books is a publishing milestone. It's amazing how the severe recession, which is slowing and stopping publication of so many ordinary books, can bring out something completely unexpected, almost untoward and with capacity to take us forward. This is the second such book (if you can call it one book) that has really excited me this year.

Omnesia is two apparently very simlar books, with identical prefaces and acknowledgements, identical back blurbs, of equal length, and both dedicated to the memory of the great Somalian poet Gaarrye. It is an at first daunting galaxy, unless you are simply going to read the poems, without worrying about the arrangement. If you do just read the poems, you'll find the unusual phenomenon of a writer really writing, pushing his boundaries eveyrwhere. But you'll soon be hankering to follow the structure of these half-identical books.
The books may be opened by various keys, the best I think being the Pilgrim Street sequence that runs identically thorugh both books, concluding the various but corresponding sections. Pilgrim Street, as Tynesiders know, is an important street leading down to Newcastle Staion, from which pilgrimages around the world, and around the poetry world, have been made. This powerful seqeunce starts in a Spenserian/Keatsian/Byronic traditional romantic metre, which with its rhyme is maintained throughout.  By the final poem however, the ancient Greek rhythms, decasyllables and hendecasyllables are winning through. Being variants of sylable patterns or dance steps they can merge into English formal metres, and just in case you were in doubt, the subsequent and last poem in alternative text makes a mention of Pindar.
Herbert can flit in and out of formalism from a great height. (It seems to me that is what the flying fish on the cover is doing.) Famously at home with the Scots "habbie", he can do anything with rhyme and meter, those oft neglected tools of the poet's art.
But what to say? Aha! Greece (strongly) and and the many places of Herbert's poetic globetrotting provide inspiration and surprises. Cheifly perhaps Somalia, where he collaborated with and translated for the famous Gaarrye, has added to the depth of his written work. I cannot think of another poet who has made so much real poetic capital out of state suported international shenanigans, and this is possibly the reason such an unprecedentedly substantial pair of volumes has appeared: almost 350 pages of new uncollected poetry, much written in the flush of what the poet has learnt from his travels. Look! It works! the establishment will say.
Political explanations aside, it is great to see work of this power being published properly. Poetry is full of disestablishment fire. Here for once is some establishment fire, greatly needed if we are to get non specialist readers on our side.

The structure of the books, quite apart form the structure of individual poems, has taken poetry book making to a new level. This is not wordsmithing so much as textsmithing, and could revolutionise the concept of a book of poems if other poets acknowledge this feat and respond to it.
The two books are self- and inter-referent and you will find parallel (occasionally, in the last section, the same) poems in the equivalent position in the other book, give or take a page or two of slip to add to the challenge. This presentaion has the jeu d'esprit of Nabokov's Pale Fire, or B S Johnson's loose leaf novels, or Durrell's Alexandria Quartet perhaps, before that idea was so over-copied. These are techniques of fiction not often applied to poetry, where we are accustomed to the sequence, the long poem, and the collection (never a favourite concept of mine). Here we have a composition, and a refined one at that.
Without going into detail over the individual poems and sections (people will register for PhD's to do that), there you have it. All the same, we won't leave the subject without noting the thrust of the Pilgim Street sequence, from
   "My voice immersed
   itself in others' work like lakes"
"this travelogue of an unravelling voice
which can't go home again."
It's not diificult in the nitty-gritty, but it's important, though often hidden/forgotten. And there's so much fun in the overflowing packages of the sections. There's room for a MacGonigall skit on "the Silver Bridie" (V&A Dundee if you didn't know), room for travels in Somaliland deserts with armed guards; all of it too real and divergent to start nipping with "cricitcism."  Further I will not go.
Bibliographically the books are parallel, and you can only tell if there is a first one by the ISBN. If you want to buy just one, I suppose you'll have to choose between the epigraphs to the sections. Remix has Richard Burton, Heidegger, Gwyneth Lewis (To make the poem work in English, I had to change everything, the plot, characters and outcome, in order to give a sense of the original), Glen Gould (Something really does happen to people who go into the north) and others, while alternative text includes Borges, Lowry, Bruno Schulz,  Rumi, and Gaarrye himself.

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