Essential Mourning: David Hackbridge-Johnson on W.N. Herbert’s ‘The Wreck of the Fathership’

W.N. [Bill] Herbert is a highly versatile poet who writes both in English and Scots. Born in Dundee, he established his reputation with two English/Scots collections from Bloodaxe, Forked Tongue (1994) and Cabaret McGonagall (1996). These were followed by The Laurelude (1998), The Big Bumper Book of Troy (2002), Bad Shaman Blues (2006), Omnesia (2013) and The Wreck of the Fathership (2020). He has also published a critical study, To Circumjack MacDiarmid (OUP, 1992) drawn from his PhD research. His practical guide Writing Poetry was published by Routledge in 2010. He co-edited Strong Words: modern poets on modern poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 2000) with Matthew Hollis, and Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 2012) with Yang Lian. Bill Herbert is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University and lives in a lighthouse overlooking the River Tyne at North Shields. He was Dundee’s inaugural Makar from 2013 to 2018.

Twice shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, his collections have also been shortlisted for the Forward Prize, McVities Prize, Saltire Awards and Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award. Four are Poetry Book Society Recommendations. In 2014 he was awarded a Cholmondeley Prize for his poetry, and an honorary doctorate from Dundee University. In 2015 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


WN_Herbert 2

Author photo: Isobel Taylor


You can hear the poet  reading some of his work at the Scottish Poetry Library


The Wreck of the Fathership by  W.N. Herbert. £12.99. Bloodaxe Books.
ISBN 978 1 78037 5243


There could be a tendency, when assaying a new book by W. N. Herbert, to check for familiar touchstones – among raw materials look for familiar ores – lobsters, and the Azzuri, for example. Herbert’s once active and multifarious blogs gave a clue to his fascination with large marine crustaceans and the beautiful game at its most beautiful: ‘Who needs opera when hairy men will throw tantrums weekly? And play gracious football into the bargain.’[1] As Herbert probes towards his sixties with his highly specialised pincers, one is tempted to ennoble his work with’ poetic periods’. ‘Pre- La Gazzetta’ and ‘Post-La Gazzetta’ would seem as good a demarcation to make as any – witness his lament at the demise of Channel Four’s much-loved Serie A highlights show that headed his 2006 Bloodaxe collection, Bad Shaman Blues: ‘Goodbye to Battistuta and Gattuso; / Maldini, Nedved – hear my blues – ’[2] The briefest rubbing of the pages of Herbert’s new book, The Wreck of the Fathership, does throw up a lobster from Lewis Carroll: ‘Is this north of you yet? the lobster enquires, / slinging a shotgun over one shoulder / as it exits the quadrille in the Assembly Creels, / and heads for the ghost of a carpark.’[3] But the Azzuri with their ‘elegant Renaissance hairstyles’ are absent – unless ‘The Golden Calves’ are scoring own goals against their Italian selves in one of the last poems in the book.[4] Beyond these introductory and cursory musings however, it can be said at once that this extensive collection is laden with a rich cargo, some of it familiar from earlier work by Herbert, some of it wrung from grief – the poet’s father died as the book was forming. There has always been every reason to reckon that, beyond the exhilaration of sheer craft, there is depth and complexity to W. N. Herbert’s poetry.

In The Wreck of the Fathership, Herbert continues to astonish at the level of pure invention and in generosity of subject matter. The sounds of words and their possible rhythmic juxtaposition have always been essential to his work. Language itself is a melody that leads Herbert to lyric, tragic and flyting modes. There is the by now familiar mixture of poems in English and Scots – as if a vigorous dialogue between the two is ever-present in the mind of the poet; as he himself wrote ‘the truth about Scotland, perhaps, can only be situated between the dominant and supressed parts of language, the region of the forked tongue.’[5] The supressed must out – as can be found in ‘Blackness Caganer’: ‘Billy Monachie – Eh tell nae leh / shat his pants as thi Queen drove beh.’[6] – a poem that marries scatology and republicanism in glorious bawdy. But Herbert’s use of Scots has always been most various – even his first Bloodaxe collection, Forked Tongues, contains the linguistic riot of ‘Ode to the Dictionary’, the bitingly-funny ‘Ode to Tesco’s’ and exquisite lyrics as if mined from the rock of early MacDiarmid, like ‘Bluebottle Bella’: ‘Thi ainguls waulk upon / Heaven’s flair wi sookie-feet, / wi galaxies fur een / as oan thi Earth they leet.’[7] That is a beautiful quatrain – but it is worth pointing out that Bella gets swatted by a copy of the Evening Telegraph in the last stanza! In the new book Herbert still makes perfectly faceted things like this from ‘Verbotentotentanz’: ‘It’s braa when ye’re deid / fur aabdy sais / thi lehs that they shid / huv said tae yir fiss.’[8] – and yet with its title the reader might get echoes of Franz Liszt and Paul Celan; these resonances alert the reader to the fact that all is not as it seems in a Herbert poem – there is often something lying beneath the immediate surface. Here is where depths lurk, as in this from ‘23rd Doldrum’: ‘Eftir, eftir, owre lang eftir / thi stanes an thi banes / o thi shipmaisters’ bairns, / sea symbols in saft grey-broon sandstane’[9] – at which this writer is tempted to down critical tools and just bathe in the poignancy of these lines – albeit with its musical echo of MacDiarmid’s ‘Wheesht, wheesht, my foolish hert’. But this moving elegy set in a sailor’s graveyard also brings to mind a poem such as Paul Valéry’s ‘Le Cimetière marin’ and the presence of the sea as a cradle of grief – ‘endlessly rocking’ one might say, as it did near Whitman’s Paumanok, Long Island. ‘23rd Doldrum’ is from a long series called ‘Dundee Doldrums’ spread over many of Herbert’s books dating all the way back to 1991.

Mention of which brings us to Dundee, the poet’s birthplace and the place he has carried with him throughout many travels, both geographically and poetically. Poetically Herbert has been many times abroad; he has translated throughout his life, from languages as various as Chinese, Spanish, Somalian and Bulgarian – but he often takes bits of Scotland with him on his journeys. In Forked Tongues, Herbert engaged in a kind of geographical leaping – ‘The Horse of the Years’[10] is case in point, beginning in Kirkton, Dumfries and Galloway, but hinting at Corfu (or Kerkira as it is called) in the Greek Islands. Similarly in ‘The Cortina of the Isles’[11], Herbert contrasts Penelope on Ithaca waiting for Odysseus’ return, with Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod on Skye with ‘her never-to-be-brandished banner’ – it is as if scenic shifts are achieved not by the superhuman leaps of Sorley MacLean but by means of a mundane Ford saloon. If Herbert’s recent travelling has led to more discretely located poems in The Wreck of the Fathership, they are none the worse for that; in ‘The Tortoise’[12], a poem set in Somaliland, and perhaps acting as a coda to the large sections of Somaliland-based poems in both volumes of Omnesia, his 2013 collection,[13] it is as if D. H. Lawrence’s randy reptile has reached a comically tottering old age as it attempts to mount a concrete verge. Another poem, ‘Ganesh is Reading’[14], is heady with a combination of touristic tat and the scent of sandalwood. Despite these excursions, it is Dundee past and present that dominate the book.

An aside: as a young jazz drummer I had a brief and none too pleasant trip to Dundee. I was on a tour of Scottish universities as a member of the John Burgess Quartet. Our gig was well-received but due to some mishap the hotel that had been booked for us simply didn’t exist. We spent the night in the transit van, John and the guitarist bolt upright in the driver’s cab, and myself and the bass player in the back with all the equipment; I used my tom-tom case as a pillow while the rain tattooed paradiddles on the roof all night. In the morning sheets of rain had turned the whole world grey. We dribbled out of the city in a slow, shivering blues. I only interpolate this personal anecdote to allow me to say that a return trip to Dundee is now needed, if only to exorcise that glum episode in the van. W. N. Herbert has sold me Dundee’s washed and salted colours, its vibrant figures of the past: poets James Wedderburn and William McGonagall, radical freethinkers Fanny Wright and George Mealmaker, its swans, herons and yes, its flies. His previous books have been heavily populated by these and other figures and The Wreck of the Fathership is no exception. True aloneness is rare, so that when it comes, in ‘The Road Bridge’[15], it is of a desolation that presages the main theme of the book, grief: ‘You have always been this far away / from your life, this perfectly alone.’

We are alerted to grief in the quotation that heads The Wreck of the Fathership from Denise Riley: ‘The souls of the dead are the spirit of language: / you hear them alight inside that spoken thought.’ This quotation comes from Riley’s 2016 volume, Say Something Back, a book in which mourning and loss are central. W. N. Herbert has a twinned thought in ‘A Midsummer Light’s Nighthouse’ from his earlier collection Bad Shaman Blues: ‘It is by how we translate silence that / the dead become retongued – ’[16] This reanimation of lost voices puts the mere nostalgia of I-remember-when-style poems firmly in their place – there is not to be any of that kind of thing in Herbert. In The Wreck of the Fathership, when we first learn of the poet’s father’s death in section IV of ‘Beach Terrace[17]’ it is a mistake: ‘Through some error when I wake up / my father is still dead.’ Later in section VIII of the same poem, I was most moved by: ‘we’re fooled by innocence into despair, / and thus our lost can never be let go.’ That is so right and at the same time an eschewing of easier routes to grief via conventional tears. The tricks of dreams and waking memory fool us forever.

I mentioned my Dundee baptism in the rain – and if Herbert’s book is anything to go by the place is inundated with water. There is constant seepage into the poems – water is everywhere, and is also a medium in which feelings of loss are suspended. The River Tay is the river ‘waashin aa the waves away’ in ‘Rain Habbies’[18]; the river upon which lightning strikes as a ‘calligraphy of passing’ in ‘Tay Lightning’[19]; the river that runs into the harbour where swans ‘plane the waves,/ Their black, thoughtless eyes, their wings’ absolute stillness’ in ‘The Swans at Broughty Ferry Reach’.[20]

It was from Broughty Ferry that RNLB Mona set out in the early hours of December 8th, 1959 to assist the distressed North Carr Lightship. The lifeboat capsized on Buddon Sands, near Carnoustie, with all eight hands drowned. This is the tragic fulcrum through which Herbert passes both a communal sense of loss and his own feelings for the loss of his father. The eponymous section of The Wreck of the Fathership recalls the disaster through a mixture of very personal poems, poems called ‘Hopkinsian’ (the Gerard Manley Hopkins of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’), and extracts from contemporaneous accounts from the time of the Mona disaster. In versing these extracts Herbert gives us an objective poetry redolent of John Seed’s similar use of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor or Charles Reznikoff’s use of American court records. The interleaved personal poems are focused on very intimate moments towards and beyond death. When the poet’s father dies he wants a photograph of his hand: ‘But it had already taken on the gravity / of the depths’[21]. In this personal way Herbert not only brings to sorrowful fruition the many images of staring into water that occur throughout the book, but also makes his own kind of reportage of a hand ‘glimpsed in the wreck of a sunken vessel’.

In a short piece such as this it is impossible to do justice to a book so rich in invention and feeling. I have not touched at all on the antics of Czar Trumpo the ‘Gibberer-in-Chief’, or the riotous language of ‘Bad Maker McGonagalliana’ – here are sets of poems that have a deadly-serious humour about them – the Trumpo poems recall another superb work of Scots-Americana, T. S. Law’s The Anti-Polaris Guitar. And that McGonagall appears once more is no surprise to readers of Herbert’s 1996 collection, also from Bloodaxe, Cabaret McGonagall. These voices once retongued cannot be silenced, or, as my maths teacher M.A. Stamp used to say, ‘it’s the same, only more so’. I am also thinking that ‘Mother Goo’[22] is what you get if Hermann Melville goes on a road-trip with Ed Dorn.

In this book of watery graves and submerged memories I retain most particularly this meditation upon staring into a river: ‘The buildings in the river’s reflection of the town / are not the same as the buildings in the town: / its mirror remembers the demolished and the dead, / whose faces pass while you gaze into the waves.’[23]

I have left this stunning image until last. I trust that many readers will come to The Wreck of the Fathership, where they might find the profundity and even the solace this work of essential mourning offers.

[1] (last accessed 21.x.2020)
[2] ‘Farewell to La Gazzetta’, Bad Shaman Blues, p. 10.
[3]‘Tyne Valley Section’, The Wreck of the Fathership (hereafter ‘Wreck’), p.176.
[4] Wreck, p. 215.
[5] Forked Tongue, Bloodaxe, 1994, back cover.
[6] Wreck, p. 24.
[7] Forked Tongue, p. 49.
[8] Wreck, p. 138.
[9] Wreck, p. 115.
[10] Forked Tongue, p. 34.
[11] Forked Tongue, p.20.
[12] Wreck, p. 59.
[13] Omnesia (Alternative Text), and, Omnesia (Remix), Bloodaxe, 2013.
[14] Wreck, p. 63.
[15] Wreck, p. 31.
[16] Bad Shaman Blues, p.24
[17] Wreck, p. 36.
[18] Wreck, p. 44.
[19] Wreck, p.34.
[20] Wreck, p. 50.
[21] Wreck, p. 107.
[22] Wreck, p. 76.
[23] Wreck, p.36.

David Hackbridge Johnson has written 3 operas, 15 symphonies, 10 string quartets and many other works. His music can be heard on the Toccata Classics label (3 volumes to date). His poetry and writing has been published by PN Review, The Guardian, The Fortnightly Review, The High Window the Poetry Salzburg Review.

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