This is Part One of a special retrospective on the Informationists, an experimental poetry group including Robert Crawford, W.N. Herbert, David Kinloch, Peter McCarey, Alan Riach and Richard Price. Part One contains introductions and retrospectives from Richard Price and Alan Riach. Also included is a new introductory preface by Dorothy Lehane, written especially for the planned Italian translation of the group anthology ‘Contraflow on the SuperHighway’ (see the Diafora website here). Five poems from the anthology are also included in Part One.
W. N. Herbert
Too late: by the time you have read this far
your right hand is metaphorically waving to you from
the ceiling saying, “Farewell: now
you understand what it is to be car-cleughit
as the little hand of Scotland feels,
moving slowly from hour to hour of its history
while the big hand of England birls
through moment after thrilling moment!”
And indeed all the mirror-glass frontage of your mind
has just blown away, placing icy fragments
in the heart of Kays the length and breadth
of the Home Counties, turning them into
MacKays, and you are looking North
for the first time, noticing two women
being drowned by dragoons in Wigtown Bay
on May 11, 1685, for refusing to take the Oath
of Abjuration. You are unsure what they
are meant to be abjuring. You notice
for the first time the continuous public protest
throughout Scotland from October 3, 1706
to January 16, 1707, during the final debate
on the Treaty of Union; and the conspicuous
movements of English troops at that time
to the Borders. You always had the impression
there was a referendum, or it was good for trade,
but this is hanging by a flap
of metaphysical tissue. “Help ma boab!
I’m bein lectured to oan Anglo-Scottish relations!”
you think, then, “Crivvens! I’m thinkin
in Scots!” This is because the letterbomb
has blown away your Great Vowel Change,
and the noisome gap it leaves in your palate
is emitting all these ridiculous Scottish noises:
hirdum-dirdum, keitch, catch-match, femmel, tory worm.
No longer will you alight at Waverley for
the Festival thinking, “Do they talk like that
when I’m not there?” Or raise a weary eye from
the first line of a ‘Lallans’ poem saying
“I simply cannot understand this stuff; it’s like…”
(without actually being) “…a foreign language.”
“Goad help us!” you exclaim, realising
the disintegration into pseudo-dental fragments
of your cultural sneer means you are actually
shedding a tear over such terrible clichés as
the systematic butchery of Highlanders in
the wake of Culloden, and the huddled clans
shuffling aboard ships during the Clearances
which you are now aware continued into
this century. “Whit can this mean?” you enquire,
as volume after volume of contemporary Irish poetry
spontaneously combusts on your shelves,
perhaps in sympathy, and behind them you notice,
for the first time, volume after volume
of contemporary Scottish poetry.
“Yet this is anely aestheticism, eftir aa.
There is no real independence, there is anely
the idea o a bomb, typical o that abstrack naishun.
Thir hurts are aa centuries back,
and lang since covert by the guilty bandage
o complicity in colonialism; therefore
ma hurts are equally illusory, ma wounds…”
At this point the loss of blood to your argument
causes you to fall, the first victim of
the Scottish Informationist Front, and their note
crumples in your fingers: “Free yourself first.”
Car-cleughit – left-handed; birl – spin; hirdum-dirdum – confusion, noisy mirth; keiltch – to jog with the elbow, or heave a burden further up one’s back; catch-match – a match of great advantage to one side; femmel – to selct the best, discarding the remainder as refuse; tory-worm – a slug (“tory” is a term of contempt and dislike, applied to a disreputable, deceitful or tyrannical person).
(or To the Reader)
“Chaque jour vers l’enfer nous descondons d’un pas” – Baudelaire, ‘Au lecteur’
Perhaps the end began
On a sun-deck in the Caribbean:
Liming with you in Barbadan
Shade I watched you slip
Asleep, your sense tousled by the constant
Wash of sea and surf and listened
To my silence with you begin.
How will I say it,
Sing it, so that even sun-tanned
Loungers will sit up
At a tale of mamapoules,
One well, the other ill,
With a virus, shapely and complex
As the reef that built this island?
No simple elegy wipes the smirk
Or stare from faces when they twig.
Only our guide, Adolphus Job,
Laughs with us, jabbed
Against the prejudice that shipped
His forbears here. In our red hair
He finds a wisp of white
Perjonnies whose Scottish
Misdemeanour earned Atlantic
Breakers. Not for them the Caribbean
Side of sugar clubs, green
Pitches of fast-bowling snorklers,
Simply “Windward parishes” of shifting
Sand they christened “Scotland”.
Now as then we seek a tongue
To mark this difference
And listen to Job’s patient
Chatter with the driver
Of our tourist bus: a dialect
Whose English grammar’s strung
With the surf of unfamiliar
Words: some, forgotten Scots,
Some African, most a bevelled
English slurred by sun
And contempt for tyranny.
He “visits us de Plantation House”,
Points out “de doctor-booby hummin
At de cotton-tree”, “chats
Down” the ticket girls
In a slang that’s semi-
Rural mixed in with urban
Patois. It tugs at our
Ears like a sea that’s toured
Beach traders’ conches.
Anemone of laid-back
Syllables, part time, part
space, its words are tiny
Genes of sound encoding
Colours, difference, a music
Out of step with ‘progress’
And so aborted, exiled,
Enslaved with the folk that spoke them.
Now the master race on holiday
Can’t understand its own tongue
Talking back to it:
Black vowels, convicted consonants,
Queer as the politeness of their hosts.
My friend is ‘going home’ to die:
He steers a red-leg charter
Slowly through the reefs of dialect
And dives against advice,
Keeps on his rings whose glint
Attracts the barracuda
A young wreck at sixty feet
Swims through his goggles:
A fishing boat aged twenty-one
Blown-up for dollars
And underwater cameras.
He’ll surface any moment
Now with a swish of airport
Doors: too fast and the bends
Will jinx his tongue,
His English shattered
Like his body by refracted
Sunlight in the water.
Liming – idle chit-chat; mamapoules – gay men; pergonnies – Scots convicts; doctor-booby – humming bird; red-leg – of Scottish origin
Chemin de la riole
A particle ploughs silver bromide emulsion
silver precipitate, negative light.
A tunnel of green, or a grey triforium
day in day out. Day in day out
the shoots and spiricles drift,
cloud chamber curlicues construed
in pre-war physics labs, all teak
and brass and streaky skylight.
If grass is traces,
what of? A Douglas fir
rockets from underground.
An oak goes up like a landmine. Beeches
gush in spluttering oil. Slow down.
The woody lungs breathe in
blossom, breathe out, and fall.
A giant redwood treacle telescope slows
the photons down to verbs of motion,
to fulmars that waft off the sun.
Delve darkness, stiffwing, dipping light,
scream off the planet gannetries
and crash in thickets of photosynthesis.
Night, now, the solar wind’s recoiled
in dark reactions of antigreen.
Owlets swoop through the wood, neutrinos
slant through ghaists and houlets, rain,
the ground, an army command post, on
to Horizon Depth, where one might
zap a nucleus, unobserved
by gulper eels, whose faint fluorescence
burns the feral circuitry
of sensors built to track and parse
(The hackles rise: there’s something out there)
inferences ages with
late Mandelstam and Stony Limits.
Lilac mixes scent into the night
air, that rises off warm droplets
hung on grains of sand from Africa.
Trojan A (Aeneas) hits city C
(Carthage) annihilates Phoenician D
(Dido), decaying into Roman A
and smoke of sandalwood. Exit.
A sandstorm rises and is towed
offshore by the north wind, crossing the Alps
by night, like Hannibal’s airforce (the jumbos)
jamming moonlight off the glaciers,
battering Roman lands with all its force,
which is very gentle. Tomorrow –
sand on windscreen wipers,
sand in the magnolia. On the fur of bumble bees,
in carwash rollers. Ampersand in honey.
Silicates in the sweet
buzz of carbonous life.
The Atlas cedar planted by Dido
interprets heaven to the City of God.
Oil reserves are banked in Punic silicon chips.
Where was I? Getting wet, pleased with myself
for not dissolving yet.
For time’s the jamjar, gravity’s the lid
and water’s the universal solvent.
I am an old man
out in the storm
with no umbrella.
Is this in the Confucian sense
where old is wise, umbrella-less
is tough enough to go through chaos
these analects are all of me
An informationist’s kitchen
The refrigerator is a two-way mirror:
the light is on and a pat of butter
is grumbling. Open the door
and words wouldn’t melt in its mouth.
The fridge’s magnets are a manatee,
a dolphin smuggling an anchor,
the letters of ALDUS MANUTIUS
reconfigured as NUT SALAD,
U, U, and ISM.
In the breadbin there’s a soda loaf
shaped like money. Stacked like DATs
there are flapjacks made with millennial dates
(Iona honey and the oats from Johnson’s dictionary).
The hob has a fractal element for instant boiling,
Pictish spirals for neaps-and-tattying.
Just a saltire for a sullen simmer.
Turn on the washing and the cat comes in
to watch the telly. Tonight it’s a documentary:
Delicates is pornography. Whites, Heavy Soiled,
is the news.
The behaviour of 8 out of 10 Informationists’ cats
suggests a preference for Woollens. These are the soaps.
Turn to the taps and turn them on:
do you remember every sink you’ve washed dishes in?
How home is in the time the basin takes to fill,
the shape of the aluminium, the tender throat of the overflow.
Wash crocks here and know those kitchens again,
remember your mother singing “Love is a many-splendoured thing”
as Dad showed the drippers a cloth.
Later, you can read your future in the scraps and froth
that vision’s Corryvreckan will leave you,
but you will not leave this kitchen when you know it.
Los Angeles: Stop
over, London to
the others, tourists,
on the path
beside the road,
on the edge
of the sheer
down to the
beach below, my
father sd he
noticed, saw a
wee mouse or a
vole or something
furry come up
out of the grass
on the lip of
the cliff, & thought
to himself, look! when a bolt fell out of the blue, a hawk,
gone with it, so swiftly hardly
anyone had seen it and they
all were walking on, as it
happened, above the beach where the
surf breaks up
in big white rollers onto a strip
of strand where a beachhouse now marks the spot
of a Kennedy/Marilyn tryst.