Ann Vickery: Mallowscatteredsharing, or Being Political in David Herd’s “All Just”
by David Herd
Reviewed by ANN VICKERY
All Just (2012) is David Herd’s second collection published by Carcanet Press (the first being Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir (2005)). The epigraph by Giorgio Agamben foregrounds the volume’s key theme which is to explore what it means to be political in contemporary times: “The thought of our time finds itself confronted with the structure of the exception in every area”(n.pag.) In many respects, All Just is Herd’s response to the epigraph to Agamben’s own book State of Exception(2005): “Why are you jurists silent about that which concerns you?” Agamben views the state of exception as the site of uncertainty or “no-man’s land” between the legal and the political.(1) As he points out, the state of exception is a structure in which the law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension and is increasingly a dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics. Perhaps the most obvious example is the U.S.A. Patriot Act which “allowed the attorney general to ‘take into custody’ any alien suspected of activities that endangered the national security of the United States.” This Act, as Agamben points out,” “erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnameable and unclassifiable being.” He or she becomes simply a ‘detainee,’ the “object of a pure de facto rule”(3). In “Fact,” Herd notes a similar erasure of rights in the British system: “when a detainee/ from the Dover Immigration Removal Centre” is not entitled to attend his own bail hearing and the bail hearing is “officially un-/recorded”(27). The poem foregrounds the dehumanisation involved in applying the letter of the law under a state of exception. In transposing the legal statement to verse form, chopping it into lines, and framing it through William Carlos William’s whimsical imagist poem, “This is just to say—”, Herd undoes the statement’s objective, totalising force as rule.
In his essay on Kafka, Walter Benjamin proposed that “[t]he law which is studied but no longer practised is the gate to justice”(qtd in Agamben 63). That is, justice is approached not through rejecting a law that no longer has any meaning, but “in having shown that it ceases to be law and blurs at all points of life.” Agamben argues that only a “studious play” with the law will be that which “allows us to arrive at that justice […] a state of the world in which the world appears as a good that absolutely cannot be appropriated or made juridical”(64). He continues, “To show law in its nonrelation to life and life in its nonrelation to law means to open a space between them for human action, which once claimed for itself the name of ‘politics.’” For Agamben, politics has, of late, been contaminated by law, “seeing itself, at best, as constituent power.” However, in Agamben’s view, “The only truly political act […] is that which severs the nexus between violence and law”(88).
This may seem like a lengthy way to getting around to talking about All Just but necessary, I think, in order to demonstrate just how significant and pressing a task Herd takes on. Herd dedicates All Just to Alpha, a synonym for “beginning” or first of a new use. It is a utopic gesture. The opening poem, “3 a.m.,” considers what Alain Badiou might call an evental moment of Rimbaud writing,
What he imagined was a vanishing point,
A tenacious correspondence between diverse spheres.
Or rather, a kind of serenity [eue’maneria, beautiful day]
The new politics which remains largely to be invented.
That’s what it’s all about,
Candle. Birds. Trees. Bread.
Seized [s’est chargé],
Already the staccato.
Just about, merely
The elements of this “new politics” can be found in terms, “3 a.m.,” “Candle,” “Birds,” “Tree,” “Bread.” As Agamben notes, language too can be cut from the confines of grammar although it gains meaning through discourse or through “merely/ Circulating”(37). In seizing these mundane words, Rimbaud stages an act of violence and challenges their normal use. In so doing, he reveals language as an empty space. This “staccato” is the suspension of the law, by which there is the possibility of “Just about”, a possible glimpse to the “vanishing point” of justice.
The collection’s title All Just suggests that the poems within might be viewed together, studiously or ‘just’ playing with, or layering one another towards the state of justice. As such, they can be approached singularly but have additional charge if read serially. Sometimes, this might be a recurring word, such as “plum.” Tying the poems between each other and back to William’s “This is just to say”, Herd ranges from a state of potential in being “plumready”(23) or “When the plums were first ready”(31) to that of destruction, with an image of plums smashed in other poems. In some cases, the connection between poems is made overt (such as through a play on title) and could be seen almost as variations. These are poems where words and phrases are extracted and rearranged, a process of condensation that encourages (Objectivist-like) a heightened attention to the remaining words and to their surrounding space. The following two poems is an example of this pairing:
Along the broken road
nearby the disparate houses
where summers, coming into purple
the mallow blooms,
complex tools and fishing nets,
stop and exchange;
beneath wires where
‘Adoration of the Child and the Young St John’,
nearby the outbuildings,
slipped open early,
‘based on conflict’,
as morning comes;
where seagulls stand
allover into language,
where mallow blooms purple along the broken road,
you stood one time
to arrive at terms. (32)
Ecology (out set)
What stands discrete
scattered against the outbuildings
mallow goldfinch complex terms
and you, stood there
not knowing if you’re coming or going
‘hostile world’ (33)
The first poem foregrounds being located in a particular place and time, one that seems to be of a Kentish seaside town and with the modern parent’s responsibility of “carting children” around. The poem, on one level, can be read as a glimpse into the privacy of the living being, situated between the aesthetic and the functional, between natural cycles (the seasons, life and death) and human degeneration. Yet on another level, the poem is focussed on its own artifice and, indeed, doubles up on itself in recycling its own terms and being ‘beautifully economical.’ The poem ends with “you stood one time/struggling/to arrive at terms,” questioning at one level, the terms of governance and the state prescribed to the ‘normal’, but at another level, asking what the living being might mean in relation to words. This is also reflected in “[W]here seagulls stand” being made “allover into language.” The second poem is an act of condensation from the first poem, intensifying attention to a few words and phrases. Attention is now drawn to the emptiness or white space surrounding the words. The words and phrases are “[w]hat stands discrete” out of a traditional verse form. One’s relation to these terms and phrases is less easy to navigate without poetic conventions, such that one is cast into “not knowing if you’re coming or going”. In placing terms like ‘hostile world’ in quotation marks, Herd foregrounds their clichéd over-use and possible emptiness.
A further poem, “One by One,” both enacts and reflects on Herd’s multiplication or fragmenting of poems, stating:
The poem splits,
It has no desire to become a nation,
It traffics in meanings, roots among stones,
The things they have with them,
Along the broken road. (37)
In the poem’s second stanza, the immigrant is marked as “it,” splitting identity “To begin again”(37). Identity papers are, of course, a way of positioning within and binding a living being to nation. The tendency of documents to ‘fix’ a person has been well-theorised. A number of poems in All Just explore the relationship between living being and documentation. “Sans papiers,” for instance, considers how the history of migration does not lend itself to empirical or juridical analysis because of the lack of documentation:
Where parts of the message must have disappeared
With time but also through violence, errors in transmission
So it couldn’t be framed how much movement there had been (12)
Herd puts tension on words (language) and genre (form), testing their degree of circulation and separation. Occasionally he merges words together into neologisms such as “seagullsallover”(52) and “sweethairbefalling”(55). In these instances, words are literally brought closer together, whereas in other cases, he tests word “scattering” against the blank page. He parallels the experience of making sense of linguistic terms with the difficulty of negotiating terms between two individuals. All Just is a wonderful collection because it has poetry that does what many do not, meditating upon the long-term nature of a ‘holding place’ in which to live (of intimacy, “[m]aking a home”(53) and “establishing a living”(53)). The articulation of personal structures, both their fragility and routine nature, is tenderly and eloquently set out. Not only this, but there is also a contrast between the efforts required to maintain connection and security against an alternative transience of life that marks those moving across places, such as refugees. The difficulty of knowing ‘where one stands’ both in space and affect, whether it requires particularising or details, whether one can choose where one stands, is perhaps the condition of being modern and is explored in All Just in a way that is resonant and haunting.
All Just articulates the ambiguities, uncertainties, and intersections between living beings and the structures that bind, including that of language itself. Herd suggests that “what we need surely/ Is a new kind of document equal/ To the places we constructed between us.” One might add, and to the dynamics between ourselves. All Just attempts to write just that and in doing so, is affectively moving, linguistically playful, and emphatically political.
Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
David Herd. Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2005.
—–. All Just. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2012.