The Glass Cathedral

So there was I in Hamar when the sun would never set
upon the glass cathedral, drinking a six-pack
of Ringnes and thinking how we hold
the wound intestines in our diaphragm's embrace
as though we were a soft clock. And there we were
down by the longest lake, Mjorsa, into which
the sun refused to skinny dip all night,
down among the rising green of fields, so green
it seemed all Norway was a giant's golf course,
the mown hay gathered in white plastic bales
like moon-droppings, jotun-gutties, swollen bones.
And there was the small cathedral, cloched in glass –
or rather a ruin, pent in its pyramidic wedge
because thin air would eat its stones,
its attempt at a unlapsed apse.

And everything we saw on that unending day
and therefore see now seemed set along
that half-gone nave – the feast of twenty three
ranged from young to old along a white-napped table
lapped with waves of gravalax and midnight berries;
a little eskimo of ice-cream or its plastic sign
the sun pretended it would sink behind;
the drunk man puking in an undark doorway;
the parents patrolling in their luminescent shirts
as though there couldn’t be enough light shed
on what we do like children, eagerly alive.

So this was visible night, Glæsisvellir, darkness unfallen,
St Lucy’s opposite, bare as the mountain, all eyes’ white –
it seemed as though so much time crowded into
the plug of now, it made a clear gel through which
no further tick could ever force a tock,
each synapse lapsed before its leap, each wristwatch
stopped in aspic, each death-watch in amber,
in the fallow forever hour in which we joked
of eidetic North, Jokkmokk, that furthest town
where half the year is dark, half light,
where we would take up residence inside
a colossal day, break our fast in January,
lunch throughout June, as though sat on a carousel
astraddle Mercury’s griddle-girdle, turning from
the uttering void to vocal glare, as though we rode upon
great painted wooden snails or slow nomadic whales.

And all that nightless sleep I dreamt we were
worshippers in the glass cathedral, bowing to
a shaft of golden sand – no God but God
still took us in a speculative hand and shook
the temple till the granite turned to glass,
shook to see where all our psalms would fall.

      Notes: Jotun-gutties (neol.): giant golf balls; Glæsisvellir: glittering plains, site of Odainsaker, ‘Deathless Acre’.


The Lake in Druskininkai

I fitted in a palm

and there was still room

so that I wouldn’t fall out

I braced myself with my feet

sharp as buckwheat
(Daiva Čepauskaitė)

The straight road and its forest’s flanks
recede into a saltire; the fourth triangle, sky,
lightens toward the vanishing point.
Totem poles in pairs

stand carved half-Christian and half-not
with virgins, suns, unsaintly souls – the old wood greys
where it isn’t painted; a damp-eared fox
lollops across the lanes.

Two-tone bark on the tall fir trunks
is umber dark below and russet raw above
the heads of the oaks caught turning orange;
birches pass in batches;

The deer upon the roadsigns rears
and seems to hike beside us on his hind legs like
the shaman startled in the Lascaux caves –
he is a stag with palms.

All the little languages must huddle by the lake
I told myself at 3am, misleading a reluctant troupe
with tales of how dissident poets would recite
from a floating platform while flaming pedalos
bore them to and from the shore's applause.

The trees tried upstaging diurnal statuary –
that pantheon along its paths and the colossus
of Gandolfini in his dressing gown, columnar legs
piercing and supporting a pizza parlour –
with streetlights’ nerve-endings, cradled in their branches.

At this hour that ragged electric halo could barely
slink between the drizzle, so only a seep of city
illumined the mist-worms, lugubrious upon
the lake’s brim, which reimagined my reflection
as Grendel looking up, unable to name his twin.

I was the afterwards he knew to be a myth.
Murderousness slept like toads in the mud
beneath him, at the entrance to the other world.
While he gripped the lake in a blank amplexus,
we lost each other’s voices in the dark.

It’s very rare that you encounter
in the hour before dawn or rationality 

a blue wooden church shuddering so that

its bell-shaped teeth tintinnabulate,

but here it was, confessing. We drew near:

What must it matter or to you
that things, undemonstrative or
undemonised, may happen

to be translated for a while
into a form of speaking
we cannot take as scripture?

Without the great man’s death
the opposition of forest to a lake
is only tonally an elegy.

Where there is no winter of warm coitus
discovering a lovelessness of voice
will never stir Erato’s readership.

Without the tanks upon the boulevards
that poetry sales and troop levels fall together
altogether lacks an epic sting.

What is the matter with the matter
of Europe that a balance sheet should fit it
better than bedclothes or a shroud?

Only very drunk people were with me by this point,

but I wasn’t one of them. I was filled with serenity,

as though the universe was vibrating, but I

was still. I reached for my camera but it felt like

it was miles away, as though there was a lake

in my pocket and a forest in my fingers.

I reached down through the freezing water.


Ghost Lemons
(after a still life by Nils Schillmark)

thin as pith
without zest
pressed to the front of the picture
pale as mis-
shapen eggs
ready to crack with the craquelure

the plate
so friable a
raised voice or pale wooden blind
would shatter
its terrible hush
its glazed and shallow peace of mind

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

two lemons
from any memory of curd,

long ago pickled and jarred


Lament for Elena Shvarts

‘I haven’t been here for seven hundred years
but nothing has changed.’
         (Anna Akhmatova)

Elena of the ocean floor of oblast after frozen oblast,
Omsk receding in the troika’s rearview mirror,
Tomsk shrugged off like furs from a restless leg of defrosting river,
snowscooters scuttling like white shrimp between
the red cigarette tips of factories like black smokers
in the trenches that scar the abyssal plain.

Your remains remain for me two books in English
and two glances: a shrug across the Baltika and cherniy hleb picnic
at Tsarskoye Selo - Pushkin Town, Akhmatova’s childish home -
at your refusal to emerge from the shadows on the palace balcony
and read; and my guilty shy uncomprehending face’s reply
at the bar in the Galway Cúirt, that I couldn’t talk to you.

Elena, pressed between two covers of urinary ice like amber
and dragged like a Kirghiz princess in search of more
permanent frost – NovoPetersburg, NovonovoMoskva,
NovonovonovoKonstantinople, retreating with the mammoth
toward the Bering Strait, seeking out the Pole’s vicegerent,
the Ivory Horn, the frozen Hellespont that Byron skated over.

In the court where Mandelshtam survived, borne against
the current of Vtoraya Rechka, a bubble up Kamchatka’s vein,
where Gumilev dodged the bullet, where Irina thrived,
where Shostakovich’s seven operas stand in for hills
beneath the purple of the Aurora Imperialis,
Konstantine upon his throne flanked by walruses.

Within the Kremel of Wrangel you shall be wrapped
in the tobacco fur of timber wolves; vodka glasses fashioned from
the thumbs of megatheria sent as tribute from the Inca
shall be placed within your pen-indented fingers –
‘hands, matches, an ashtray,’ as Akhmatova said;
bears with bloody haloes shall sing your benedictions.

Lyric nun who knew how faithless we are to ourselves,
who discovered the hunger of the full and the fullness of the hungry;
markswoman who sank Peter like a bronze berg, a horseman into
the marsh of the heart, who terrified the Commissar of misprints,
Tutivillis himself; who heard what the rat whispered into
the nautilid’s ear – at your funeral even the birds are drunk;

the grasses, like billions of quills, tuck their nibs in
the intolerant steppe and become punctuation: the sough
of commas lamenting their dead words passes here
and there as though the golden herds could learn regret,
as though a woman, pacing in a narrow room,
decided she would never sleep again.





[W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, and currently teaches Creative Writing at Newcastle University. He has published seven poetry collections, numerous pamphlets and collaborations,and edited several anthologies, mostly with Bloodaxe, most recently Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry, co-edited with Yang Lian, and co-translated with Brian Holton. His next collection, Omnesia, is published in two parallel volumes in Spring 2013]

Copyright © 2012 by W.N. Herbert, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.