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Northern tastes of gore and iron in the blood

Andy Croft reviews WN Herbert’s Murder Bear and Sampo: Heading Further North by Bob Beagrie and Andy Willoughby

WN Herbert’s new collection Murder Bear (Donut Press, £12) is about the comically sinister and previously unknown “fourth” bear.

He is the uncle to Baby Bear but he is too scary to be included in the story of Goldilocks.

The book is the usual fantastical post-modern cut-up that fans of Bill Herbert’s poetry have come to expect.

The jokes are funny — a newspaper headline “Bear Grills Bear Grylls,” “If there’s a murder in Mordor/who you gonna call — Orc-busters?” and Murder Bear is not a game-hunter, but — at least when he is in an apocalyptic mood — an “endgame hunter.”

And, being from Dundee, Herbert enjoys rhyming “Harry Potter” and “JK Rowling-related slaughter.”

Yet despite all the clowning, this is a deadly serious book.

Murder Bear may look like a cuddly teddy bear but he is also a child’s nightmare, an easy alibi, a fall guy and the escaped id of violent popular culture.

He is Sooty and Shardik, Rupert and Paddington, Baloo and Beorn, Mr Kurtz and Colonel Kurtz.

He eats dying languages — “I like a corpse/in cuneiform” — in order to “reduce the world to its original dumbness.”

It gets worse.

Murder Bear is a “guru of gore” who beats Postman Pat to death with his cat Jess, keeps his honey in the skulls of murdered fictional detectives and lives in the forest “among the gory leavings of autumn.”

The location of all this cartoon violence is recognisably the contemporary world — “gaze on our ursine paradise” — “the lovers who dined here before/won’t need their picnic anymore... and should their heads prove hard to find,/their fingers still lie here entwined...”

In The Etiology of Murder Bear, Herbert explains that while Murder Bear sleeps, “husbands put down axes, wives/relinquish knives, punks step away from/the pistol; sickles, pitchforks, lose their gleam,/professors pause at chalkboards, poets/put down their glasses and their pens.”

Sampo: Heading Further North by Bob Beagrie and Andy Willoughby (Red Squirrel Press, £8.99) is another wholly original and engrossing mash-up of history, myth, landscape and poetry.

The poems are based on a loose retelling of episodes from the first 10 runes of the Finnish Kalevala myth cycle — but you don’t need to know anything at all about the Kalevala to enjoy this extraordinary book.

The authors let the ideas unravel outwards into myth, then pull them back tight again as poems, and they are at their most successful in the wonderful final poem Sampo Unbound.

It is a book about the power — and the powerlessness — of poetry, where epic heroes sit in sad cafes, shamans wear sweaty socks and “Time is a shopping trolley with a dodgy wheel/steering you down the wrong aisle of yourself.”

But it is also a book about “the north.”

Being from Teesside, Beagrie and Willoughby are fascinated by the Scandinavian legend of the first smith who discovered the secret of iron to forge the heavens.

This smith also made the “Sampo,” a mythical object that brought good fortune to its holder. Many years ago it was lost and ever since then the world has fallen on hard times.

Sampo is a “ferric song,” “nowt but a needle point/still pricking us to all points North,” connecting the history of the Iron Age settlements in the Cleveland Hills and the ghosts of the ironstone miners who once worked beneath them:

“From the hill fort’s circle above the town/with the worked-out whale belly below... holds inside the hollow hill/the sour breath of the united dead... hollow men/sitting eating bait/in the sweating pitch/of fossilized eyeless fish... The iron in the blood points North.”

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