Mount Avila

‘el techo de la ballena’


Time to be climbing out of time

as the wild city rates it, receding from

the cable car rising from Caracas

into the marriage of leaf and mist:

a great ship composed of greying droplets

is docking at the summit of Avila

and Argelia and I must get there before

its rain-crew disembark and birdsong

resiles into its respective throats.


But first the child in a Cuban forage cap

must cry ‘no amo caer’ and her mother

must laugh, whether we fall or not,

and each tree beneath our swaying feet

must fill a bell-tower built from fog

with its shaking carillon of hangdog leaves

which dream of becoming second-hand books

laid on the pavement in the Parque Central:

World Poetry for Dummies, La Prisión de la Imaginación.


We leap from the cradle and into the haze,

pass among the sellers of arepas and melocotón

along the path stretched like a sagging clothesline

between the sweating cold palms of the fog

past the dogs that guard these heights

from the piratical stars, the thieving galaxies.

We pass by the blind dejected telescopes

and approach the colossal, mostly-obscured,

mist-broken column of the Humboldt Hotel.


It’s only as we stand beneath the topless trees

pissing down their panicking legs, waiting for

the piano bar to open, that I realise

an invisible horse has been following me

for some time – translucent notes

hanging from its eyelashes betray

its presence, truculent and shy as always,

summoned by helados and bullets wrapped

in handkerchieves, by the thighs of mangoes.


And it’s only as the mist clears and unclears

like a sea rendering up its depths, its dead,

its patient staring inhabitants,

and the horse and Argelia and I drink beer

in the English Bar, even though we’re so cold

and the bar is not even sub-mock-tudor,

that I understand the world is the wrong way up,

that mountaintops protrude into Lethe

and that we are in the grip of a devilfish.


As if to confirm this conclusion a host of devilbirds

flash their unknown yellow tails in Vs

and display the nerve-coloured blue of their breasts

and begin to converse in a cluttering language

only sailors of these dimensions could have devised

to be understood by those beings eager

to pass among the stars without questions.

Of course it is already dark as a horse

and we look down upon the city giving birth to hours.




WN Herbert is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University. He lives in a guiding lighthouse on the river Tyne.



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