W. N. Herbert, Omnesia: Alternative Text, 176 pp, £9.95 paperback; W. N. Herbert, Omnesia: Remix, 176 pp, £9.95 paperback, Bloodaxe Books.

I was attracted by the idea of Omnesia, “a book in two volumes and neither”. As Herbert says in his introduction, the two “Hopefully … make one sense read in isolation, and a further read together.” Reading them, I admired Herbert’s intelligence, imaginative energy, originality and range but was disappointed in the end. The fundamental idea would have emerged more clearly if both books had been leaner. And again and again I felt that poems read like brilliant drafts rather than finished work. “The Lamb”, present in both volumes, can show what I mean.

It describes the slaughter of a lamb for a feast in Somaliland and starts:

I hadn’t been aware, although I’d watch
as his friends made that flicking gesture
at their throats, of the steady approach
of the liver for our final feast, borne
within the black-headed sheep
like a Sheban queen within her litter,

There’s so much nearly there: the ground shifting under Herbert’s feet as he realises what’s about to happen; the inevitability with which the ritual unfolds; the bizarreness of the experience, suggested by that extraordinary final metaphor; above all, the way the reifying of the sheep suggests the men’s lack of empathy with it as a living being. The problem is the syntax. The sentence proceeds in a series of random jerks, its impetus broken by line endings that neither work with nor constructively counterpoint the natural flow. For me, this robs the poem of life. It even destroys what should have been a killer ending, when “the liver, like a newborn lamb, was lifted / and we gathered for the feast.” Presumably this is meant to communicate a sense of moral and emotional disorientation by bringing the positive associations of feasting and hospitality, and perhaps the religious associations of the Pascal lamb, into collision with the idea that “we” are gathering like scavengers, like the flies described as “gathered” a few lines earlier. I see that, but the ideas are presented with such syntactical inertness that I don’t feel their growth as I should do in a poem.

With thanks to Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this piece, which I wrote for The North 51.


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