Prose Poems: Bill Herbert

Illo for Bill Herbert's poems.

The Violin

I was once lucky enough to happen upon a master carpenter sawing a Stradivarius in half. It was in a barn in a little Cotswold village: I was going up to university the following week, but was staying in a rented room nearby for a few days. The barn was on the way to the pub, and its door was half-open – just enough for this exquisite tone to emerge. It was as though the wood was singing, releasing from its thin throat something stored up over the centuries – as though it had been listening all those years.

I peered in and could see row after row of people sitting on bales of hay up in the loft like pigeons, the men in black tie and the women in long formal dresses, their hair elaborately made up, but with the occasional piece of straw sticking out at a jagged angle like bolts of cartoon electricity.

The carpenter himself was in his work clothes, a leather smock over old-fashioned looking gaiters, sleeves rolled up. He had a placid, calculating look on his face, which shone a little in the light of several lanterns, held by boys in ushers’ uniforms. It was the look of a man concentrating on a task he had performed many times before, giving it just enough of his attention not to lose himself in the work.

Strong steady strokes sliced efficiently through the violin, so that it didn’t splinter. The strings had been removed, making his task easier, but also giving the violin a curious nude aspect, as though it had been stripped for execution. I wondered if the mild look on the carpenter’s face showed the restraint of the hangman, who performs his role but must keep himself apart from it. At the time, of course, I didn’t know it was a Stradivarius, but something in the audience’s hushed attention made me realise this was a transgressive act.

The cry of the wood was absurdly poignant, as though a farm animal was singing an aria at the point of its slaughter. And yet there was something ordinary about it too, as though this act affirmed the violin’s materiality, or brought other, ‘lesser’ pieces of wood into its realm. As I thought this, I realised that was where the mastery of the carpenter lay, in the same regard he brought to every piece of wood, whatever its provenance or indeed lack of pedigree. It was this, I understood, that made him greater than Stradivarius, and qualified him for this act.

A final note sounded, and he let the two halves of the violin fall into the instrument’s own sawdust. A sheet had been spread out beneath his workbench, and he now lifted the bench off it, and folded the sheet neatly around the bisected violin like a little shroud. I could see the audience were deeply moved, and, gradually, hesitantly, they began, quietly at first, and then with a lack of restraint that startled the carpenter, to applaud.

Agent Octopus

Agent Octopus began twirling as he fell from the net. Before he’d landed on the processing slab, he’d seized the hand with the cleaver in it with one tentacle, arresting its murderous downwards sweep almost before the fisherman had thought to begin. With the end of another tentacle rolled into his best fist at a fist, he punched fisherman so sharply on the nose that his upper jaw retracted one inch from his lower, and his grip on the cleaver loosened. A third tentacle caught it as it fell, a fourth steadied the staggering man by gripping his shoulder, and a fifth caught the fisherman’s head as it was smitten from his shoulders, tossing it neatly and with its eyes still blinking into the bucket filled with hundreds of soft cephalopod heads. Scrambling onto the swaying shoulders and clamping the arterial gush with his beak, Agent Octopus assumed telepathic control of the former fisherman’s torso and limbs. Blinking coldly as he dropped the cleaver into a dead right hand, he advanced on the rest of the terrified crew.

Into the Wood

The camera’s viewpoint rose, as though bored with the horse-headed men, veered right, and headed for the dark wood sitting on a massive outcrop which quickly filled the frame. The audience blinked as, within seconds, it had plunged into the darkness of the copse on the lower slope, then relaxed as it began expertly to weave between the trunks toward the sunset that everyone remembered lay beyond the outcrop.

Then it hit the first tree and there was a shuddering explosion of orange wood chips as it ate its way through the trunk almost before they could register what was happening. The volume of the soundtrack seemed to increase as it began to thrash through branches and voraciously gnaw through the hearts of ancient oaks.

There were occasional unpredictable flashes of blinding sunlight through the leaves, and everyone blinked involuntarily each time, setting their teeth against the realisation that whatever the camera was supposed to represent could easily avoid all these trunks, but simply didn’t care to. There was also the dawning suspicion that it was prepared to take longer than what should be the remaining duration of the film to traverse what was, after all, only a background to the main action.
Bill Herbert is mostly published by Bloodaxe Books. Recent work includes Omnesia and Murder Bear (both 2013). He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and is also the Dundee Makar, or City Laureate. In 2015 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Submit a comment