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Blog Review 23 – Helen Mort Reviews W.N. Herbert’s ‘Omnesia’

Omnesia is remarkable for being not one book but two – a ‘remix’ and an ‘alternative text’ – and W.N. Herbert prefaces both with an apology to the reader for requiring them to deal with two mirror texts. The content of each book is different, though there are some shared titles, refrains and echoes. The intention, Herbert suggests, is to reflect a culture full of “mash ups remixes and directors’ cuts”, creating a poetry book flexible in its basic structure. But how to read it? Should you take in one book first, then the other? Alternate poems from each? Approach the two collections entirely at random? It’s a daunting enterprise

With a shaping concept like this, the danger is that structure overrides content – it’s inevitable that a book of two mirror parts will make a show of its own form. I decided to approach Omnesia with a view to questioning whether the poems succeed in their own right, regardless of the framing device behind them. The answer, overwhelmingly, is that they do.

The Remix and Alternative Text are divided into sections, and I started out alternating sections from each book. But I soon forgot to do so because individual poems gave me so much pause to savour them. Early in the Alternative Text, ‘Dream Ironing’ contains a haunting description of clothes having a memory no smoothing can erase (“obstinate cotton returns every time / to the folds the body taught it, not the iron”). Many of the poems have this same quality of haunted recollection. A piece called ‘Ghost Lemons’ (Alternative Text) almost seems a motif for the two divided, united collections. Describing a still life, the narrator remarks upon how

…The knife
could not cut
even the shadow of this apparition
so it lies like the doubt
that would trouble some chalk equation

Reading the two versions of Omnesia, it became clear that rather than form dominating content, the subject of the poems often reflects and reinforces the unusual structure Herbert is using. In ‘Listening to Bejing Zoo at Night’, the narrator wryly observes “I’m nostalgic for something I never experienced” – a part-effect of the remix culture Herbert is entering through Omnesia. Elsewhere, a poem like ‘Whale Road’ (from Remix) disorientates, questioning what we know of familiar places. It begins by insisting that we imagine “a whale in the street, bruising and blubbering / painstakingly towards the firth”, then continues:

It’s a street in Edinburgh: you can choose your own –
perhaps in Gorgie, elbow-lessly shoving aside tenements,
or too far down the Lothian Road for hope of cold salt water –
but no, it’s the road leading out to the Forth Bridge,

the one that in your vague memory map passes the Zoo,
that bar you think of as Cameron Brig though you know it isn’t….

The places evoked in Omnesia seem deliberately both vague and specific, the way you come to places in dreams. At times, the two texts seem to gently rebuke us for our willingness to hyper-associate, to seek meaning everywhere – they encourage us to look for links between them that may or may not exist, may or may not be important. There are obvious echoes in poems like ‘Helsinki Syndrome’ and ‘Pilgrim Street’ which share titles in both books, yet reading the poems with that at the forefront of the mind feels reductive. There’s a pleasantly dreamy quality to the way a piece like ‘The Black Hotel’ (from Alternative Text) seems partnered with ‘Hotel Bessonnitsa’ (from Remix)and how both connect to ‘The Insomniacs Almanac’ a few pages later – a brilliant evocation of sleeplessness and the detachment it creates:

We feel like a moustache of midnight cloud
that has somehow slid from the tyrant’s lip
and spent months flying here and there….

Crucially, the best poems in the two Omnesia texts are powerful enough to make the reader forget the framing device entirely. Elegaic pieces like ‘Sonnet’ (in Alternative Text) and ‘Black Dog’ (in Remix) stand out. In the former, the narrator comes to terms with how we try to remember someone and how it changes our way of seeing the world:

…you feel like recognition, like the skull
of a buried horse, how it distends our own
into a resonance we can’t quite hear,
a strumming of the nerves upon the bone,
distilling collisions within the word. Now you
are dead, I read my own small anxieties
as premonitory….

The two versions of Omnesia are full of these resonances and premonitions – W.N. Herbert comes close to re-creating what it’s like to experience déjà vu. Both books merit reading again and again, in whatever order you choose.

Helen Mort
Helen Mort’s first full collection, Division Street, will be published by Chatto & Windus in September 2013.

omnesia remix

omnesia alt text

Omnesia by W.N. Herbert is published by Bloodaxe, 2013. The Remix and the Alternative Text are both £9.95.

(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. The review is interesting, though, particularly for me, it fails to evoke much interest in the book. I was just wondering are we, in the postmodern age, still in the dichotomy of form and content or we have moved beyond where the one is inseparable from the other? The other issue that bothers me is how does the contemporary poet, mostly playing with personal images and symbols, connect with the audience? If s/he fails, his/her poetry is a song in the wilderness, perhaps.

  2. @ Pradeep: re. connecting with the audience: The poet’s hope is to connect through the collective consciousness [cultural or even planetary]. This pervades also the dream-world. A knowledge of psychology must surely help the art here. Incidentally, Robert Graves dismissed the surrealists for ‘having no secret’, presumably he was thinking they were just doing their own thing. But the successful surrealists surely connected: The image of a melted clock crawling with ants means a lot to me.

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