Being appointed Dundee Makar (or City Laureate) implied that Bill Herbert might settle into middle age. He rented a ﬂat overlooking Broughty Ferry harbour to write about his home town in both its native tongues. Then within six months his much-loved father died, and that civic idyll was thrown into crisis. Personal and political roles collided as referenda for Scottish independence and EU membership, then the US elections, signalled that the post-war liberal value system was very much in crisis.
This is his Dundonian Book of the Dead, in which he explores both his own grief and the encroachment of a new intolerance. His town’s deﬁning modern disaster – the loss in 1959 of the lifeboat Mona with all hands – becomes a symbol for a world turned upside down.
But while patriarchy ﬂounders in a storm of its own undoing, his absurd alter ego, William McGonagall, brings his unique tragedian’s eye to bear on both the city’s and our society’s efforts to right itself. The comic and the tragic become catastrophe’s ﬂotsam and jetsam, and the image of the overturned boat is reﬂected in the very structure of this book, with a keel-hauling of Dundee Doldrums for its climax – poems which resist any stasis of the imagination.
The crew of this latter-day Ship of Fools include Captain Beefheart, the cannibal clan of the Denﬁends, and a lion, while the passenger list features the surrealist Leonora Carrington, various Jesuses, and the ghastly Imperator Trumpo. Its voyages to alternative futures and pasts echo those of Herbert’s merchantman father, while, in a manner that matches Bill Senior’s later trade of precision engineer, it ﬁts together a dynamic range of forms with an intense focus on the metamorphic and redemptive energies of language.
‘WN Herbert’s new book, The Wreck of the Fathership, is a series of studies in public disaster and private grief. Written while working as Dundee’s first Makar (official laureate) from 2013-18, the book cleverly and movingly folds together several overlapping narratives – the illness and death of the poet’s father, the referenda on Scottish independence and the EU, the election of Trump and Johnson, the sinking of the Mona lifeboat in 1959 and the long, slow shipwreck of the post-war consensus. It’s a hugely entertaining and inventive collection…’ - Andy Croft, Morning Star
‘In The Wreck of the Fathership, Herbert continues to astonish at the level of pure invention and in generosity of subject matter... In a short piece such as this it is impossible to do justice to a book so rich in invention and feeling... I trust that many readers will come to The Wreck of the Fathership, where they might find the profundity and even the solace this work of essential mourning offers.’ – David Hackbridge-Johnson, The High Window
'This wouldn’t be a Bill Herbert collection if it didn’t have lashings of satire and surreal, skewering humour...This is a poet who is keenly alive to the power, nuance and sound of language as a mutating, multivalent thing.' - Dzifa Benson, Magma [on The Wreck of the Fathership]
‘This collection has its roots firmly in Dundee, but calls upon themes, techniques and artists the world over, and overflows with hidden meanings and metaphysics. Herbert’s Fathership is an outpouring of emotion, especially of grief that threatens to drown the reader but steered by such poetic genius that no such disaster occurs. The turbulent contents are handled tightly, deftly.’ - Kai Durkin, DURA (Dundee University Review of the Arts)
'Although Herbert is praised for his linguistic elan and brio, code-switching between registersand dialects in his often ludic poetry, many of these poems are starkly poignant...The richness and multiplicity of this book can only be saluted.' - Richie McCaffery, Northwords Now
Comments on earlier collections
‘A weird mix of Desperate Dan, MacDiarmid and Dostoyevsky…a rare and fantastic voice.’ – Fiachra Gibbons, Guardian
‘This antithesis of the slim volume bubbles and seethes with wit and polysyllabic adventurousness.’ – Edwin Morgan, The Scotsman
W.N. Herbert: an elegy from 'The Wreck of the Fathership'
Bill Herbert reads part XIV from the title-sequence of The Wreck of the Fathership, an elegy for his father. This video is from NCLA's Inside Writing series.
W.N. Herbert: 'The Fathership'
Bill Herbert reads his poem 'The Fathership', not the title-poem of The Wreck of the Fathership, but a key poem from the book, written in Scots, as he tells in his introduction to this reading. This video is from NCLA's Inside Writing series.
W.N. Herbert reads 'Dirt Bath'
Bill Herbert introduces and reads his poem 'Dirt Bath' from The Wreck of the Fathership, a poem written in Broughty Ferry during his time as Dundee Makar. This video is from NCLA's Inside Writing series.
W.N. Herbert: two poems from The Wreck of the Fathership
Bill Herbert reads and introduces two poems, ‘Fish-fight at the Basilica Cisterns’ and (in Scots) ‘June Dolphin’, from The Wreck of the Fathership. This video was made in March 2015 at Newcastle University by Neil Astley for the transatlantic edition of the US journal Ploughshares which he edited.
W.N. Herbert reads six poems
W.N. (Bill) Herbert lives in a converted lighthouse overlooking the River Tyne at North Shields. Pamela Robertson-Pearce him in December 2007 in his study at the very top of the house, the walls of which are criss-crossed with salvaged ship timbers. He reads six poems in this video taken from his collections Cabaret McGonagall (1996), The Laurelude (1998), The Big Bumper Book of Troy (2002) and Bad Shaman Blues (2006), all published by Bloodaxe: ‘Corbandie’, ‘The Black Wet’, ’To a Mousse’, ’Song of the Longboat Boys’, ‘Slow Animals Crossing’ and ‘Bad Shaman Blues’. This film is from the DVD-anthology In Person: 30 Poets, filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce & edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books, 2008).
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