Issue 9: W. N. Herbert

The Glass Cathedral

So there was I in Hamar when the sun would never set

upon the glass cathedral, drinking a six-pack

of Ringnes and thinking how we hold

the wound intestines in our diaphragm's embrace

as though we were a soft clock. And there we were

down by the longest lake, Mjorsa, into which

the sun refused to skinny dip all night,

down among the rising green of fields, so green

it seemed all Norway was a giant's golf course,

the mown hay gathered in white plastic bales

like moon-droppings, jotun-gutties, swollen bones.

And there was the small cathedral, cloched in glass –

or rather a ruin, pent in its pyramidic wedge

because thin air would eat its stones,

its attempt at a unlapsed apse.

And everything we saw on that unending day

and therefore see now seemed set along

that half-gone nave – the feast of twenty three

ranged from young to old along a white-napped table

lapped with waves of gravalax and midnight berries;

a little eskimo of ice-cream or its plastic sign

the sun pretended it would sink behind;

the drunk man puking in an undark doorway;

the parents patrolling in their luminescent shirts

as though there couldn’t be enough light shed

on what we do like children, eagerly alive.

So this was visible night, Glæsisvellir, darkness unfallen,

St Lucy’s opposite, bare as the mountain, all eyes’ white –

it seemed as though so much time crowded into

the plug of now, it made a clear gel through which

no further tick could ever force a tock,

each synapse lapsed before its leap, each wristwatch

stopped in aspic, each death-watch in amber,

in the fallow forever hour in which we joked

of eidetic North, Jokkmokk, that furthest town

where half the year is dark, half light,

where we would take up residence inside

a colossal day, break our fast in January,

lunch throughout June, as though sat on a carousel

astraddle Mercury’s griddle-girdle, turning from

the uttering void to vocal glare, as though we rode upon

great painted wooden snails or slow nomadic whales.

And all that nightless sleep I dreamt we were

worshippers in the glass cathedral, bowing to

a shaft of golden sand – no God but God

still took us in a speculative hand and shook

the temple till the granite turned to glass,

shook to see where all our psalms would fall.

      Notes: Jotun-gutties (neol.): giant golf balls; Glæsisvellir: glittering plains, site of Odainsaker, ‘Deathless Acre’.


The Lake in Druskininkai

I fitted in a palm

and there was still room

so that I wouldn’t fall out

I braced myself with my feet

sharp as buckwheat

(Daiva Čepauskaitė)


The straight road and its forest’s flanks

recede into a saltire; the fourth triangle, sky,

lightens toward the vanishing point.

Totem poles in pairs

stand carved half-Christian and half-not

with virgins, suns, unsaintly souls – the old wood greys

where it isn’t painted; a damp-eared fox

lollops across the lanes.

Two-tone bark on the tall fir trunks

is umber dark below and russet raw above

the heads of the oaks caught turning orange;

birches pass in batches;

The deer upon the roadsigns rears

and seems to hike beside us on his hind legs like

the shaman startled in the Lascaux caves –

he is a stag with palms.


All the little languages must huddle by the lake

I told myself at 3am, misleading a reluctant troupe

with tales of how dissident poets would recite

from a floating platform while flaming pedalos

bore them to and from the shore's applause.

The trees tried upstaging diurnal statuary –

that pantheon along its paths and the colossus

of Gandolfini in his dressing gown, columnar legs

piercing and supporting a pizza parlour –

with streetlights’ nerve-endings, cradled in their branches.

At this hour that ragged electric halo could barely

slink between the drizzle, so only a seep of city

illumined the mist-worms, lugubrious upon

the lake’s brim, which reimagined my reflection

as Grendel looking up, unable to name his twin.

I was the afterwards he knew to be a myth.

Murderousness slept like toads in the mud

beneath him, at the entrance to the other world.

While he gripped the lake in a blank amplexus,

we lost each other’s voices in the dark.


It’s very rare that you encounter

in the hour before dawn or rationality 

a blue wooden church shuddering so that

its bell-shaped teeth tintinnabulate,

but here it was, confessing. We drew near:

What must it matter or to you

that things, undemonstrative or

undemonised, may happen

to be translated for a while

into a form of speaking

we cannot take as scripture?

Without the great man’s death

the opposition of forest to a lake

is only tonally an elegy.

Where there is no winter of warm coitus

discovering a lovelessness of voice

will never stir Erato’s readership.

Without the tanks upon the boulevards

that poetry sales and troop levels fall together

altogether lacks an epic sting.

What is the matter with the matter

of Europe that a balance sheet should fit it

better than bedclothes or a shroud?


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.

Ghost Lemons

(after a still life by Nils Schillmark)

thin as pith

without zest

pressed to the front of the picture

pale as mis-

shapen eggs

ready to crack with the craquelure

the plate

so friable a

raised voice or pale wooden blind

would shatter

its terrible hush

its glazed and shallow peace of mind

the knife

could not cut

even the shadow of this apparition

so it lies

like the doubt

that would trouble some chalk equation

two lemons


from any memory of curd,



long ago pickled and jarred


Lament for Elena Shvarts

‘I haven’t been here for seven hundred years

but nothing has changed.’

         (Anna Akhmatova)

Elena of the ocean floor of oblast after frozen oblast,

Omsk receding in the troika’s rearview mirror,

Tomsk shrugged off like furs from a restless leg of defrosting river,

snowscooters scuttling like white shrimp between

the red cigarette tips of factories like black smokers

in the trenches that scar the abyssal plain.

Your remains remain for me two books in English

and two glances: a shrug across the Baltika and cherniy hleb picnic

at Tsarskoye Selo - Pushkin Town, Akhmatova’s childish home -

at your refusal to emerge from the shadows on the palace balcony

and read; and my guilty shy uncomprehending face’s reply

at the bar in the Galway Cúirt, that I couldn’t talk to you.

Elena, pressed between two covers of urinary ice like amber

and dragged like a Kirghiz princess in search of more

permanent frost – NovoPetersburg, NovonovoMoskva,

NovonovonovoKonstantinople, retreating with the mammoth

toward the Bering Strait, seeking out the Pole’s vicegerent,

the Ivory Horn, the frozen Hellespont that Byron skated over.

In the court where Mandelshtam survived, borne against

the current of Vtoraya Rechka, a bubble up Kamchatka’s vein,

where Gumilev dodged the bullet, where Irina thrived,

where Shostakovich’s seven operas stand in for hills

beneath the purple of the Aurora Imperialis,

Konstantine upon his throne flanked by walruses.

Within the Kremel of Wrangel you shall be wrapped

in the tobacco fur of timber wolves; vodka glasses fashioned from

the thumbs of megatheria sent as tribute from the Inca

shall be placed within your pen-indented fingers –

‘hands, matches, an ashtray,’ as Akhmatova said;

bears with bloody haloes shall sing your benedictions.

Lyric nun who knew how faithless we are to ourselves,

who discovered the hunger of the full and the fullness of the hungry;

markswoman who sank Peter like a bronze berg, a horseman into

the marsh of the heart, who terrified the Commissar of misprints,

Tutivillis himself; who heard what the rat whispered into

the nautilid’s ear – at your funeral even the birds are drunk;

the grasses, like billions of quills, tuck their nibs in

the intolerant steppe and become punctuation: the sough

of commas lamenting their dead words passes here

and there as though the golden herds could learn regret,

as though a woman, pacing in a narrow room,

decided she would never sleep again.

W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, and currently teaches Creative Writing at Newcastle University. He has published seven poetry collections, numerous pamphlets and collaborations,and edited several anthologies, mostly with Bloodaxe, most recently Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry, co-edited with Yang Lian, and co-translated with Brian Holton. His next collection, Omnesia, is published in two parallel volumes in Spring 2013.