Murder Bear by W. N. Herbert

-Reviewed by Richie McCaffery


Within the pages of Murder Bear we find ourselves living (albeit not for very long!) in ‘an ursine paradise’ – a paradise, that is, for one particularly sanguinary bear who is on a rampage, killing off anything in the world to do with cuddly, saccharine teddy bears. This is the fate of Winnie the Pooh in the paws and claws of ‘Murder Bear’:

He dumped po’ Winnie’s body in the well
and his head went bump, bump, bump
down after it, pondering in the last blink
of decapitated thought the distinction
between artesian and arterial, and
do bears eat chairs, or do chairs…

‘Bonfire of the Teddy Bears’

When I was little, one of the toys de rigueur was the ‘Care Bear’ – a rainbow-coloured critter which was supposed to teach me how to love and care. Inevitably, the enterprisingly gallows-humoured offspring of the ‘Care Bear’ was the ‘Scare Bear’ – a beastly metamorphic perversion of all the goodness the ‘Care Bear’ had tried to instil in me and uphold. But ‘Murder Bear’ makes the ‘Scare Bear’ look like an amateur – he’s like something from a particularly crazy Warren Zevon song, a la ‘Excitable Boy’ with his cage of little Suzie’s bones:

Murder bear kept his honey in a row
of skulls along the mantelpiece although
these were the noggins of fictional detectives.

‘Murder Bear and the Makie-up People’

What’s more, ‘Murder Bear’ seems to be everywhere all at once across space and time – his snore rattles a dying Dylan Thomas ‘as though he were a bottle on a shelf’, he’s taking an ice-axe to polar explorers, he’s scooping Bear Grylls’ ‘innards onto the barbeque’ and Montaigne is finally murdered with great poetic finesse, thus sparing him the pain of his quinsy. There are poems here that simply invite the reader to laugh out loud, such as ‘A Night Story’ where no false comfort is to be given to a scared child:

Once upon a time there was a Murder Bear.
Then he killed everyone. The end.

Why aren’t you asleep yet?
‘You frightened me talking about Murder Bear.’


‘Does he kill everyone?’
D’uh. The clue is in the name.

While these poems offer immediate fun, the strongest poems in this pamphlet seem to me to be ‘Zeichentrickbarendammerung’ (roughly translated as ‘The Twilight of the Cartoon Bears’) and ‘Hendecakillabics for the Restive Season’ which reads like a paronomasiac’s dream (or nightmare) with such high-brow punning as:

…their neatly-wrapped skin ripped open roughly
till their seasonal lights festoon the fir tree…

[my emphasis in italics]

But brilliant puns are only a fraction of the poem’s achievement – the blurb praises Herbert’s verse ‘virtuosity’ and this is a bravura display – the poem is written in the Classical form of hendecasyllables but there are also murder sonnets and sestinas, which delight the reader not only out for cheap thrills and buckets of gore, although this poem also offers lashings of that. This is the season of:

…drunks to be nudged off station platforms,
little match girls to sauté by flame-thrower,
snowmen needing to eat their magic top-hats,
anxious mothers who must see all their trimmings,
lazy fathers who need a shot of buckshot.

‘Hendecakillabics for the Restive Season’

And of course ‘Murder Bear’ only hears ‘you when you’re weeping’.

In ‘Zeichentrickbarendammerung’ I was reminded not only of a plush and mohair version of ‘The Night of The Long-Knives’ but how German as a language has some remarkably complex and specific terms – such as the feeling of being alone in the woods and so on (but no one is alone with ‘Murder Bear’ on the prowl). I know Hugh MacDiarmid was fond of using these unwieldy German compound words in his poems, and he is a major influence on Herbert’s poetry, but I very much doubt if MacDiarmid was aware while he was writing In Memoriam James Joyce of this bloody massacre of cartoon bears:

Who was not to be spared especially?
Baloo and Beorn to be shown the bare
excessities; Jeremy to go through the ricer
and be puffed, Shardick shredded, and Sooty
to have the insanity claws inserted.

‘An Etiology of Murder Bear’

By the time I read that ‘each morning Murder Bear would sit / at the feet of the Yogi’ I was on much the same twisted wavelength as the poet I guessed the following lines myself:

…although these
and his spiritual master’s other bits
had to be kept in the deep freeze

‘Bonfire of the Teddy Bears’