Bill Herbert

Bill Herbert


W.N. Herbert (born Dundee, 1961) is author of eight books of poetry and five pamphlets, most recently Omnesia and Murder Bear, both 2013. He is editor of Strong Words, an anthology of poetic manifestos, and collections of translations from Bulgarian, Chinese, and Somali. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His books have received four Poetry Book Society Recommendations, and he has been shortlisted twice for the T.S. Eliot Prize, as well as for the Forward Prize. In 2014 he received a Cholmondeley Award.The Dream of the Airport


The car hire company bestows upon you the great gift

of abandoning you to the airport overnight. Returned

to the eternal striplights of your early travels,

you wrap your head in the checkered pakama, place

the green Ethiopian Airways eyemask on your face,

and insert the orange earplugs which can’t quite block

the music of The Continuity out – that shuffling of the less

lucky travellers, banging of trays as their diminished

possessions are scanned, ping and pronouncement

of the missing’s names by the same old siren. How many

decades have you been passed through here without

ever leaving home? Try escaping into your recurrent dream:

the one about an airport. Then it’s four. Abandon sleep

to walk directly through the dream of the airport:

its labyrinth as one bright uncomplicating hall.

Your Minotaur passes, long horns carved with lists,

memoranda, minutiae of the dates he fears. His horns

score both walls at once, his hooves click and chip

this marble. Here’s your chance to miss tomorrow

in its role as The Next Episode, to lose the need

for such times to pass, that dumb urgency. Go out

into the night’s cool breezes: be glad the bus

which will return you to your place in the action

has not yet arrived. Look up: there are still no birds,

no stars have been allocated to you. You forget, but

this is the hour at which your father died. The night

is like a charcoal horse pacing in its ash paddock –

it chafes itself away as it walks. Walk back into

the long departure hall and pass among the pissed-off

officials, the ecstatic sleepers. We are already within

Asclepius’s temple: look, at the opposite end

she’s still asleep, the woman you must travel with.

The furniture of your luggage surrounds her like a room

with no walls. She is sleeping in public: we are all

sleeping in public, together, sleeping in public together

forever. Go to her and rewind yourself in the shawl

and pray, your head to her head. The lights keep burning.

Go to her and dream about the airport in the night.




Lion in Sidecar


(For Pedro and Richard)


It’s a black and white wall of death,

breathless with blur: you can almost hear

the fleet trundle of the motorcycle wheels

on the cheap plywood planks –

it’s a barrel of roar.


The lion is really getting into it

at ninety degrees to vertical:

leaning into the rush of air,

eyes slitted, mane flaring like

the Sun in a speeded-up, unhinging orrery,

like Jean Marais in the underworld’s gale.


Begoggled Heurtebise bears him bravely, always

upward, though the lion knows

in these realms up is always

down. Does the lion know

where he is going? Does the lion know


where we are going? Our animal stares straight ahead

as the cycle ascends to the watchers along the brim.




Byron’s Mask


for the Venetian Carnevale

looked very like the face and hair

of Byron, as though he had

a Lord Byron’s head-shaped onion

for a head, and could simply pull

skin after skin off, each revealing

a slightly smaller Lord Byron’s head

until the final tiny head, still

with Byron’s features perfectly picked out

like a Patryushka Giovanni Don-doll

and, when this last shallot of Lordy Gordon

was shed, as though he would walk around

with no head at all. In fact

it was in this manner that he wrote all his best poems.


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