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Viva Caledonia: Poetry by W. N. Herbert
'Extended moment' (extract)
Peter de Moncey-Conegliano

'Brief Encounter'  2007 Calum Colvin
'Brief Encounter' by Calum Colvin


from A Mukamm for Emran Salahi

'The Iranian poet Emran Salahi died of a heart attack shortly after a trip to China last Autumn. I only met him on the trip to Beijing and Xinjiang Province, but I liked him as soon as I met him, and as I got to know him, I liked him more and more. He was kind, gentle and generous, and I never doubted I was in the presence of a highly talented and creative man, however modest he unfailingly was. We could only speak a few words to each other, in English or through his Farsi translator, but we seemed to connect very simply and directly as poets and as human beings. It was a real delight to listen to the music of his poetry, even when I could not understand the sense. Myself, Emran and the Chinese poet Yang Lian had a marvellous time talking, walking through the night market in Kashgar, visiting the sights of Atush and Shache, sharing meals and endless cups of tea. He was a pleasure to be with, to share a brief time with, and I was shocked and deeply saddened to hear of his untimely death. I had begun to think this might be the beginning of a real friendship, and was looking forward to meeting him again, and even working on translations of each other's work. That is now not to be.'




How unlike memory you are, a shape
that folds both friend and fortnight into a phrase –
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 small anxieties
as premonitory, though they were all for me –
new notebooks, taking nothing I could lose
in plane wrecks I’d count down escapes from till
a return I’d not confirm a meeting past.
It seems you are the filament, dear ghost,
unwound across that deeper gap than sleep.


Hotel Insomnia


Only the best insomniac hotels have these
black marble halls in which all
the lifts can only descend,
rooms like the pans in a watercolour palette,
washed to a different depth of night
by some suicidal eight year old.

Heated floor tiles release another’s aftershave,
the safe can’t recall your code but is portable,
the slippers are skinned from the fluffiest fish;
hangers receive faint echoes from spatulas in
the five sleepless subterranean kitchens,
or from the motorcyclist revving around the inside
of the sluggishly revolving rooftop restaurant.

Your body lies like a plastic kit
in the cardboard bed, sectioned and attached
to a tubular frame of days.
Your viscera have been replaced by a steel
and concrete Vampyroteuthis infernalis
which has wrapped itself around
your blind cetacean skeleton
and these are both upended as

the earth upends itself, rolling into a dent in space
possibly caused by the devil’s elbow,
rattling and settling with that bone vibrato note
till you become the façade of Hotel Insomnia herself,
a black dragon doorframe, dusty as wood ear mushroom
with a black chanterelle for a trumpet;

till you become Sleeplessness herself,
a creature like a hillside with chambers in
its liver-smooth flesh, maintained by brilliant parasites.
It dines on rocks, finds statuary delectable.
There are galleries in its expansive gut:
you can watch their limbs and faces be digested
on Hotel Channel 9.

Your lungs are libraries,
the books are spiracles, fungal –
they stink like truffles.


Summer Palace


It’s not a gauntlet before the gate
but an expandable bracelet of watch sellers cornering
you with all their fake faces set
as though to this quasi-nineteenth century morning,

where a guide in full powerless servant costume
yawns in the roundel entrance at all tours,
and another in surgical mask takes a broom
to the defensive mythical creatures.

A woman drops sliced beef from her sandwich
onto her boot, picks it up without breaking stride,
and eats, much as the lake has been eaten by the smutch
of smog and haze, and is gradually regurgitated

as we pass through the Long Corridor’s continuous
swirling current of cameras
filling Facing-the-Seagull Boat
and Fish-and-Algae Pavilions with false sunlight.

I see the last gecko of the season crawl
along a painted beam beneath Longevity Hill
upon which, like Lamia, Madame White Snake
must kill her husband with the shock

of her true nature
revealed by a pan-gnostic prat. Here
she’s a pretty head on serpent coils
like an energy saving bulb or spring-heeled Jill

who has to travel as we will soon
to the Kunlun mountains for the mushroom,
Ganoderma lucidum, which resurrects Xu Xian –
a thing we never saw or knew we’d want.

We contemplate instead the stone
cold Boat of Purity and Ease
its marble engine lacking grease
to take us anywhere outside a poem.

And this is where we float to on that joke
the Empress played upon her admirals,
their funds blown in the fiction of its smoke,
there’s something trapped in those unturning paddles that’s running still.


I end up sitting on the little outcrop you reach
across a causeway by the Wenchang Tower
looking at man-made Nanhu Island and the hill.

A woman nibbles uncooked corn from a cold cob
and feeds the fish. Her shopping bag has decided
to say ‘Good days’ as though it knows.

The fishes’ sides have two dark strips flanking
a white stripe – they make me think of
a fluid comb, a fir branch, and something else.

The fish can only think in Mandarin.
They know that every image has another
contained within it that we cannot access

as though our symbols were somehow asleep.
A butterfly just flew past, low over the lake,
heading for what the layout tells me must be North.


The Dowager of Don’t


So here he comes, the whiny one, as stately as a gloat,
  advancing like an icecube on the skids,
he’s thrown out all the metres that don’t float his poems’ boat
  like you’d throw out all the pans but keep the lids.
     He’s a twit, he’s a git, and I don’t like him a bit,
         he’s the empress of the emptiness within;
     he’s a tit, he’s a nit, he’s a clapped-out piece of shit,
         the epitome of wittiness gone dim.

His photo’s like a trophy wife, far younger than he looks,
  and as soulful as a hull of null can glow;
his reputation’s permutations aren’t dependent on mere books
  but the knowledge that he knows the folks to know.
     He’s a twat, he’s a rat, and he’s older than the hat
        that Polonius employed to keep him dry
     he’s the plait upon a gnat, he’s the skin from off the cat,
        he’s the sprat the other fish refuse to fry.

Pray hold your peace or hold your penis while your empress holds his nose
  for the whiff of different viewpoints makes him ill
and he’s detected there’s objectors to his holy lecturer’s pose
  whom he’d marmelise if only mooks could kill,
     but he’s a whiz with the scissors and he’s snippy at the biz
        of excising the exciting trace of taste,
     he throws a tizz worse than Liz, he’s what righteous wrongness is,
        and his cranium’s a Poundless space of waste.


Listening to Beijing Zoo at Night


It releases many types of snore into the night air.
Similarly I have escaped from a four day conference
and am insomniac for beer, dragging
an unfortunately polite journalist down Xizhiwenmai Dajie.
My ear is pressed to the ornate gate, I am resisting
the temptation to break in and buy the polar bears
a bottled beer, inseminate flamingos and bet on the zebras
with Sichuan Golden Monkeys.

When we finally left the hotel’s vast compound
the pollution had smelt of cold fireworks;
Mang Ke yelled ‘Shotland!’ as he passed with Duo Duo –
two silver Beatles with still dark brows.

We race past the Moscow Café where,
as small riposte to the Cultural Revolution,
a year’s wages could be blown on cake
if you could get back from the country. In the square
four lines of Mohican-feathered locals do a fan-dance
to ward off the third ugliest building in Beijing,
its three nubby towers resembling
the character for ‘mountain’, shan
bad feng shui not only since there used to be a lake here
but because we haven’t seen a bar all block.

Wenyi hails a taxi back to the zoo and the Seasail
where you buy a six pack and you watch
Fifties movies, soundless, in which the strong-jawed male
of our species almost kisses
the maybe daughter of the perhaps benevolent general.
Their skin and eyes and long winter coats
are burnished by the monochrome
to horn and hoof and bone.

Wenyi writes down the characters for ‘44 Tenants’
and, even better, ‘The Spring of a Small Town.’ Yet again
I’m nostalgic for something I’ve never experienced.
It’s what we didn’t do, as I explain to my now wary
new best friend – that’s what we long for most.
Two days ago, he tells me, a drunk attempted to hug
the panda Gu Gu, and was bitten on both legs.

All that night a succession of silent animals
poke their heads through my hotel room mirror
and contemplate me benignly – yak, giraffe, gazelle.
They all look as though they’ve been stuffed
some years before. Ah well, I tell myself,
I fought the panda and the panda won.


Xinjiang Exchange Rates


One could get an ampoule of penicillin
only by exchanging it for a horse,
a battery flashlight for a lamb,
a metre of cloth for three catties of wheat,
and a small box of matches
for a kilogramme of wool.

Now, if one has the right connections with
the Party and the Army, one can get
half a dozen international poets, arrogant as goats,
for an internal plane fare.




Poplars line the highway while it’s flat.
Emran and I swop the names of birds:
parastu for sparrow, kabutash for dove,
he thinks that magpie may be chelchelay.

The mud-brick walls have a melted look
as though they’re made of dirty loaves.
Written on the back of the green taxi
in one small town: Babyface.

The old man in black on a black pony on
the highway empty except for him and us;
the second old man with a large scythe over
his shoulder in the sudden midst of a busy stretch.

A woman in a white headscarf whacks
the shoulder of her donkey as her cart approaches
the main road and as we pass
I see it wince. We begin to climb.

When the bus stops so we
can take photos, pee and puke,
I find a rounded green rock
half-buried by the roadside, football-big,

like a jade egg that would give birth
to the Seven Colour Mountains.
A man perches on a huge boulder
overlooking his sheep –

above the sheets of silver schist
and the bands of orange rising through reds
and the further snowlines that exhale
in slow slewing showers, the ink strokes

for seven falling-rising tones or eagles
overlook his sheep.
In the middle of this vastness
a bicycle leans upon on its little leg.

We park beside a shallow moss-edged pond
that wavelessly reflects the widest valley,
and as the pseudo-jade sellers sprint towards us
I think, ‘as above, so above.’ We begin to breathe

within a ring of unclimbed peaks,
as near their summits as their roots.
This eggwhite continent removes the top of its head
as though there was a passage through its thoughts.

Finally we reach the highest lake, the largest yurt,
the politest camel, the longest speech,
the most breathless dance, the paradise
with nowhere else to go to but down.


The Glacier


Scrambling among the hobo pebbles, pilgrim quartz,
we were speechless on the glacier’s black back,
surfing its slowest wave, listening to its Xhosa click,
its rhotic grind, its kilometre throat’s distracted rattle.

We’d diceboxed off the Karakoram highway up
a broadening valley between the Uigur villages,
their pease pudding walls, their carved palace doors,
corncobs drying on their roofs like giant pollen.

The only oak in Xinjiang spread over twin pillars
of a little mosque, the hills behind like opened crab lungs,
their dead men’s fingers giving way to a vast flat wall
children lay down to see a poplar sit on top of.

The one mine entrance was a cathedral gouge
in a cliff-face so tall it made it seem a mousehole.
Then finally, parked by the concrete yurts painted
with scenes out of the cartoon past and walking

through the churr of magpies towards the first firs,
the first Swiss-eyed glimpse of gull-shouldered peaks,
breathless in the highland air as though we’d smoked
ourselves down to a quarter of our proper size;

there was a flight of steps up to a blind crest
you had to rest before, during, and at the climbing of –
and then it was before you, the blackberry tongue,
the exhausted shit lolly, the lava-stained granita.

It had something to tell us that we could only learn
by climbing on its dead whale belly and holding out
our mobile phones to record its auriculate melts.
There was a voice down in its rootlessness that knew

the root to all our travelling, the small dripping home
of our incomprehension. All our friends yelled at us,
and while their echoes put the eagles off their glide,
the glacier quietly carried on carrying us away.


The Autonomous Prefecture


Between the Down and Up Horse Drinks I believe
I am fine, advancing down a new (glass) gauntlet
of smiling maidens, strumming gents, shot
after shining shot sopped up by slivered beef.

My notes on the recital of Manas include
lively sketches of my brother and sister bards
and though their hospitality requires us to be pissed or rude
it helps to choke the boiled horse down. I’m quite the card

for several soup-bowl toasts between the sheep skull
and the inch long loops of grassy entrail,
and even in the hot lens of the square
Shu Cai, Emran and myself are relatively upright for

the cheapie camera I later open in error
in the desert, so these ephemera
are increasingly coronaed in apocalyptic orange
as we saddle up for goat polo on the homeless stormy range.

But when they stop the bus and make us damage
a final tureen
I take six of the seven steps that Thor, green
with the breath of the Midgard Serpent, managed

and wake up in the Black Hotel,
my grave goods neatly arranged
around me. I take a shoeless walk down its strange
corridor to see if anyone is awake in Hell.

As Eliot sweetly put it, ‘Our Iranian poet
had to be carried out
and the Scotsman was waving
his hands without saying anything.’

And in that blankness we were indeed autonomous,
shaken from the concept of our bodies,
gone in the gallop of nerve against bone that roams
down this burning wire which still threads the days.


Breakfast with the Generals


Better than watching the brave postmodern poets
bully some regionalists because
they’d only read Gorki and hadn’t heard of Hikmet,
(never the mind the verse forms they were thus
preserving), was breakfast beneath the giant Mao
poem in Seal script, calligraphy of emperors,
our patron’s wealth getting us onto
a restricted base despite
the security risk of our blatant hangovers.

Gun barrel boys, gloves on, replaced fermented
milk with weak tea as I poured honey on
deep-fried dough like churros in Madrid,
blinking very slowly, bowels clenched.
My palate’s roof kept sticking
and the generals kept joking
about a literary ignorance that went unchallenged
miles from the equally un-
mentionable border with Kyrgyzstan.


Hangover Tuesday


On Hangover Tuesday everyone assembles in the square
wearing the correct colour of baseball cap –
taupe for kidney pains, canary for jaundiced, rue-blue for heid nipping –
to celebrate the twentieth year of bad hangovers.
This doesn’t include the seven years of blackouts,
who have to stand at the back in the gutters.
We advance towards our old school desks, politely reciting
‘the mountains strum the sky’s cloud strings
until the river runs with music’s blood.’
Our heads are giant red jellyfish balloons afloat
at the regulation height of seven metres, as we are in fact
at the bottom of a completely dry ocean.
Our necks are yellow banners which state ‘This person has fallen
off his horse and cannot eat intestines.’
At regular intervals we run eagerly up to the high podium
fronted by clammy middle-aged palm trees and poinsettia
all growing from pots which contain our livers and genitalia
(their roots grip us with the correct emasculating gesture,
white as the tubercules of virginal mares).
We make speeches extolling the virtues of cities
we have never visited, which nevertheless we woke up in
this morning. These are translated into the official language
of Hangover Tuesday by a tiny female speaker
planted in our right nipple. It tweaks when she speaks.
Then we direct our bottoms at the heavens and emit
a sparkling firework show and a single butterfly.
Shining ribbons whorl as they descend,
each weighed down by a braincell.
Our names are printed on red labels transliterated
into ancient characters as ‘Kicks the dead dog,’
‘Tussles with the former goat’, and ‘Eats lung-cheese.’
We then seize our three stringed banjo which we bought
while temporarily dead, and recite three thousand lines
of an epic about the passionate love of a donkey
for its reluctant owner. You must recite all three thousand
in a single breath without puking. It has a galloping rhythm
and a distinctive rhyme scheme we can’t quite catch.




Our path is lined by giant topiary teapots
and a green man playing his leaf komoza
in front of or possibly for his horse.
These go on for miles but no-one seems
to notice. Red willow, camel thorn bush,
jiji grass, purple-topped tamarisk;
grey cranes in the shallows of the artificial lake,
the Kunlun range like a high cloud line.

Emran gave out sohan, a pistachio
and cardamom biscuit; Abdul broke up
and handed out frying pan-large naan. When we stopped
to pee on the rim of the desert I heard a cricket
in the cornfield. Kubin said it was called ‘zhi liao’
which means ‘she knows she will soon die’.

The orange-jacketed road-worker lies down
ignoring the rare batriarchans and their brethren,
the hump-backed nearer mountains.
At one point the two parallel ranges
are briefly, simultaneously interrupted,
agreeing to dip towards or bow before
a small thing which may be their king,
his white jade throne, or just another peak.

In the middle of the desert a hoarding for
‘The Pacific Advertising Company.’
Sand swirled up a column like a ghost car
doing endless handbrake turns.
Little conical sandheaps dotted the gravel,
miniature pyramid cities in profile
or the abandoned humps of escaping camels.



(Variation on a theme by Matthew Sweeney)

The ghost which doesn’t know its way but must get home
stumbles in the Gobi through the day
and searches through the passes in the dark.
It gathers pebbles into maps to guess at its passage
across the great steppe in winter.
It immerses itself in lakes to feel
what the birch roots feel, it sits
in the bodies of sheep and goats
whose blood can’t halt the chill.
It travels from mosquito to mosquito in
the fat summer air,
it wraps itself up in fallen trees’ bark
like the text in a rotten book.
It only knows North and consequently
may be travelling in the wrong direction for months.
Sometimes it thinks it recognises
a configuration of poplars
and a great dread descends.
It lies with the maggots and the excrement beneath
a row of toilet stalls in Knife City.
It remembers faces seen with no thought for
the last time. Memories are diminished
and must be counted out like beads:
the ratchet in the old woman’s throat,
the smell of cheap newsprint in
a now nameless airport,
the hand nervously gathering a curtain,
the baby’s black button blink.


Night Market


These fish have crossed the Gobi to be here –
belly-up, eyes still eager – and so have we;
so press among the Uigur breaking fast
on long kebabs dry-spiced with smatterings
of paprika and push towards the pile
of pomegranates like a mud-brick wall
translated into juice carbuncles, ask
the man to turn his crushing wheel for glasses
that look like lamb’s blood, taste of rust-edged roses.
The market glows with coal-flares, TVs show
Imams and kung fu, skull-caps pass for skulls
clapped on the tops of turning heads like wheel hubs
as we disturb naan sellers, chicken choppers,
with our un-native faces’ late-night shopping.
Myself and Yang Lian, both alien,
are equally remote from West Xinjiang
while Emran’s instantly relaxing – here
as in Tehran, the Muslim night adheres
to gentler pulses we recover strolling
beneath dry balconies they will soon fell
in favour of the corporate eclipse
of concrete that surrounds this slow collapse
of strollers and their hopes to a midnight bulb,
the one teashop left open in the globe
where Abdul knows to rouse the owner from
his double hajj-earned slumbers. Empty room,
low-roofed, where we can be loquacious on
long-tabled platforms, thin cream cushions;
beneath the dusty beams and over tea –
black, hot – as endless as we’d like to be
ourselves, but we must break this moment up
like bread, not knowing as we drain our cups
how soon this quartet of our well-warmed breaths
will be abbreviated by a death.


Xinjiang Inventory


A small possibly Byzantine possibly Aramaic
possibly silver coin in the high platform town;
a small possibly sheepsfat jade hand, female,
holding a ball perhaps of chi energy,
perhaps a testicle, round the corner
from Idkar Mosque;
a pendant of possibly powdered then set translucent stone
with what looks like blood settling
as if in the bottom of a glass of ouzo;
a Kirghiz white diddy hat possibly
containing a hangover, and a horsewhip
the handle of which is fashioned from
a cloven hoof, for whipping the poor old tired horse
of my body, which has to carry such intemperance around;
one faded fried egg stone which rode upon
the black glacier like
a small fish on a whale’s tongue;
another greying one which lay upon its back
in the desert and has become
a great astronomer;
a tambour, long and slightly battered
like the dream of half an elongated pear,
very plain and with its tuning and
entire technique a mystery;
a length of Uigur silk that’s zebra streaked
on one side and a faded purple on the other
as though an old savannah pony hid inside herself
the last emperor of Byzantium.

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last update: June 25, 2007