David Herd: THROUGH the Border

David Herd
David Herd

I want to begin this series of commentaries on the Biotariat — a term I will use to explore the coming resistance of “bare life” — by looking at a poetry which directly addresses the legal excision of certain subjects. I have in mind here David Herd’s excellent 2016 Carcanet book Through, which, along with Herd’s organizing and editing of the Refugee Tales project and volumes, constitutes an extensive foray into the violence of borders and the creation and management of the state of exception. Herd explores the interpenetration of spaces and languages of, on the one hand, bordering and exclusion, and on the other, as a grassroots counter-system, spaces and languages of welcome and inclusion — thresholds, commons, and pilgrims’ paths.

A little background. In introducing a new immigration bill in 2013, then UK Home Secretary (and now Prime Minister) Theresa May called for the creation of a “hostile environment” for so-called illegal immigrants. One manifestation of this “hostile environment” is the policy of the indefinite detention of such migrants: the UK is the only country in Europe that has no term limits on how long an asylum seeker may be held in extra-judicial detention. (Even suspected terrorists have a statutory limit on how long they may be held without charge.) The detainee, the person forced into mobility sans papiers, is the defaced face of bare life, par excellence: invisible, silenced, deprived of all rights and privileges — a mere animal on the loose.

Herd enters this space, literally and figuratively, by beginning with a prose description of a visit to the government office where detainees’ cases are “heard” (though no records are kept of such hearings). This is Taylor House, the precise London address of which Herd gives — indeed, his opening statement, as he enters the building, is that “it is possible to be precise” about a place where, paradoxically, precision is systematically avoided, via “official hostility,” “questions that beggar belief,” “mistranslation,” and “documents [that] are routinely withheld.” These are the bureaucratic twists and turns of a system designed to sever all ties and remove the immigrant from “the language” — from the possibility of being heard, and the possibility of “intimacy.”

What the tribunal judges is the language. What the tribunal judges with is the language. What the judge determines when he reaches his determination is by whom the language can be used. What he circumscribes is the polis and what the tribunal constitutes is the primal scene, the setting where the language is formed by expulsion.

In a context where stories are being doubted and questioned, at times prevented from even being heard, then erased and excised by structural “hostility,” Herd turns to the connectivity of syntax and the relationality of the lyric to kick back at this structure. What follows is a linked sequence of serial poems, each probing different aspects of the language of bordering and exclusion, the point being to find affective passage “through” a system designed to prevent such access.

As Susan Howe writes, “Connections between unconnected things are the unreal reality of Poetry.” This is what makes poetry such fertile ground for the thought of the Biotariat, where we must trace the links between, say, the systemic dehumanization of (certain) human beings, and the too-often denied sentience and agency of the nonhuman. In Through, where the focus is on the dehumanizing effects of a legal (and extra-legal) language of exclusion, Herd’s quest for “precision” also brings him into lyric connectivity with a more-than-human world. Thus the poet calls upon “my associates / The waxwings,” and declares:

            As trees are my witness, the result was not anticipated.
            They are right to observe the lyric is relational.
            I count
            Such shapes
            Up in the streets the underground
            No unpaid debts
            This evening in the universe.

This is no mere lyric fancy. The world Herd would stand for in Through — a world accessed through the clausal linkages language is comprised of (as well as the lyric address, which also links speaker and addressee relationally) — is one not of the “outwith” (a Scots word for that which is outside, out of bounds) but the “herewith,” the “notwithstanding.”

            Herewith. Outwith the politics
            Notwithstanding. For none can
            Call again the passèd time. You stop
            You do nothing wrong I’d like to
            Improvise a context, where with […].

In this sequence of words Herd turns legal language against itself, moving from closure to opening, rejection to connection. It is very much of the matter that such connection does not stop at the human, but reaches out into a “landscape” — a “space” (Herd writes) produced by “movement through.”

            We are not done. After the April we had
            And the August and the January, rain
            Clean down against the dooryard steps,
            Setting out the way the architecture
            Separates things, places — persons,
            Trees, bread — the way the documents
            Stack up outwith the space set by
            To read them, think how short time
            Thou hast abyden here, airports
            Certain outskirts of our cities, after
            The process, the way the judgements
            Foreclose; after the December and all
            The elements left lying around us,
            When the winds blow and the seas
            Whose steadfast faith yet never moved,
            Process, no change of rule only
            The direction of governance, persons
            Disregarded, after the borders
            Closed; after the process, after
            The wreckage in transmission, the rain,
            The repetition, world without end,
            In the streets we are not done,
            This is unfinished business,
            Outside standing, constructing space.

These last two excerpts are from what I think is a highlight of Herd’s book — a nine-poem serial entitled “Feedback.” It is a poem turned in on itself and turned out on everything else, so that it tells us things about language (the “process” of linguistic thought, which is so dependent upon the links of anaphoric “repetition”), poetry (Charles Olson’s “unfinished business” and Chaucer’s “thou hast abyden”), the state’s treatment of refugees (the “documents,” “airports,” “judgements,” and “closed” “borders”), and the way human produced spaces separate “things, places — persons, / Trees, bread.”

This is why Herd’s book is so very good — it is a book of productively contained contradictions and multiplicity — at once lyric and long, specifically focused and yet wide-ranging in its concerns, tied to the precise detail and at the same time finding its way through those details to the general condition of our dis-integrated world. I wish I had room to say even more about this project, its deeply felt commitments and delight in its concrete orientations in space and literature. I have begun this series of commentaries with Through because it is a book I find myself returning to constantly over the past year — to think and rethink, to find my way — “outwith” — in a practice of the outside, where the leaving of one domain signifies the simultaneous arrival (and welcome) in another. It is a key poetic statement of the Biotariat because Herd so clearly sees the Anthropocene’s “human universe” as deeply folded in a wider nature where all must find their way — a context in which we are all simultaneous and dependent clauses, hooked one into and through another:

            As you go as. As the seas. As you
            Stepped over the threshold. As the
            Winds as. As the traffic. As the
            Emergency stops. As you wait as
            Nothing happens. As you passed
            Out of the currency. As the letter as
            After the process after the aircraft
            Drops. As the contract came good.
            As a still more intimate model.