Bill Herbert has produced two astonishingly inventive collections
Bill Herbert begins his new book Omnesia by apologising to readers, booksellers and reviewers alike for producing two texts with the same title, similar covers and containing some of the same poems.
Yet Omnesia (Remix) and Omnesia (Alternative Text) are two different books. They are both published by Bloodaxe and both cost £9.95 but they are also two parts of the same book.
Each mirrors, interrogates and subverts the other. Each adds to and subtracts from the other. While one book contains poems satirising English ideas about Herbert's native Scotland, the other contains poems satirising Scotland's idea of itself.
These books are two sides of the same dodgy coin, non-identical twins. It's Blake's heaven and hell, a game of two halves, an over-ambitious concept double album.
Or, as Herbert explains, the effect should be "like the dance between ideas we encounter in the ancient mode of strophe and antistrophe ... the epode arises from this, not as a matter of logical synthesis, but as news from nowhere."
The two volumes comprise 350 pages of astonishingly inventive poetry, entertaining, funny and clever. It is a wonderfully bonkers project, combining erudite seriousness and intellectual clowning, playful wit and painful slapstick. The title is itself a kind of joke, combining "omniscience" and "amnesia," the simultaneous acts of knowing and forgetting that writing involves.
Omnesia is essentially a travel book, about some of the many places which Herbert has visited as a poet and a translator, including Greece, China, Venezuela, Albania, Siberia, the US, Bulgaria, Palestine, Finland and Somaliland: "Between the divas and the dogmatics, I -/Or someone sounding just like me - must go/To Sofia or Jerusalem, and try/Translating tunes which Dante didn't know;/To Tomsk, Kashgar, Hargeisa, as the flow/decides..."
But this is not reportage. Omnesia is an extraordinary "travelogue of the unravelling voice/which can't go home again." Herbert's models here are Borges, Byron and Basho rather than Paul Theroux or Michael Palin.
For him the writer is entitled to "tell not show," an idea which "the orthodox can't bring themselves to say/nor radicals allow themselves to know."
Herbert is less interested in telling us what the world looks like, than in what it means. Or rather what it sometimes means. As one of the book's epigraphs points out, the "story that is told in hell will sound different from the same story as they tell it in heaven."
He delights in what is lost in translation but also by what is discovered through metamorphosis. He quotes the Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis on how "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."
These are the circular stories of a non-linear traveller - true, false and exaggerated, imagined and mis-remembered, high-brow explorations and low-brow exploits on the Silk Road and the Low Road, those highways that meet on "Pilgrim Street": "There's no route/that leads to anywhere but here; no shame,/no game: the Silk Road and the Low Road are the same."
Herbert is an adventurer through the Looking-glass, an unreliable traveller in "Mirrorland." He stays in "insomniac hotels" like the "Hotel Labyrinthos" from which there is no escape, and where "tomorrow is the opposite of home."
"I went wrong somewhere, lost/my bearings, drive and hair - and didn't care." He is the traveller who cannot "tell the ocean from the boat."
Remix ends with the title poem, a prayer to Omnesia "Our Lady of Congealed Despair." Alternative Text begins with this poem and ends on the shores of the River Lethe. It could be the River Jordan, except that "although/there is milk and honey, there is no other side./This is the change that is, forever,/as good as a rest. This is the river." Or is it the River Styx?
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