From fugue to fugitive

David Herd's 'All Just'

While contemporary Canadian poetry remains the focus of this series of commentaries, I want today to shift to another neighbouring zone—contemporary British poetry—and look into David Herd’s recently released collection All Just (Carcanet 2012).

This is a book of mostly short lyric poems that at first glance seem largely observational explorations of the local—although something remains somewhat vague and indistinct about that “locale.” Contrast this with Herd’s sharp line breaks and compressed language, which recall William Carlos Williams, whose ghost is unmistakable in the poem “Fact”:

This is just to say—

when a detainee

from the Dover Immigration Removal Centre

applies for bail,

if he has a bail hearing—

which he is not entitled to attend—

though his lawyer is,

and the judge is,

and a representative of the Home Office is—

the bail hearing—


is officially un-


This poem introduces the major theme of All Just, which also reveals something about the book’s apparently foggy invocations of place. To state it flatly, this is a book about dis-placement, about locations where one becomes “unlocatable,” and the imposition of that most indeterminate and yet ever expanding “state”—the state of exception. In “Fact,” the casualness of Williams’ speaker’s apology for, and delight in, the quotidian act of having eaten plums is replaced by a more disturbing “note” casually outlining the simple “facts” of a detainee’s exceptional lack of rights under current British law.

The Dover Immigration Removal Centre is a prison in Kent (near where Herd lives). As the poet himself writes, in a recent essay in PN Review:

“It can reasonably be termed a ‘non-place’ because, in the imagination of the nation state, it constitutes a site between the place in which the men have sought asylum – Britain – and the place back to which the state would like to see them removed.”

The struggles of the detainee and refugee thread throughout Herd’s poems, as does some interesting thinking about the role of poetry when all is so very clearly not just.

“3 poems becoming elegy” pits the poem directly against its political task—in this case, the elegy and its tribute to the nation and, more generally, “things which pass,” against the “impasse” of “the citizen / detained without charge.”  The concept of the “cell” becomes the place were poetry and politics overlap, as Herd details a poetics of “cell division,” in the poem’s second section:

And as the dream of every cell
is to become two cells,
so what the poem hankers after
is another poem
splitting itself off

only to arrive at the “cell,” in the poem’s third section, where the detainee is held.

Lately it has become apparent
that the nation is deserving elegy.

There are practices among us
we are tending to forget.

For which the elegy works because the poem is here among
modelling its behaviour on things which pass.

Codes, counteractions,
the poem has its lists.

The disorientation of the citizen
detained without charge.

Scenes, descriptions, specific terms and phrases indeed seem to reproduce throughout Herd’s book, like a basic linguistic cell division, as short lyrics also betray a tendency to either divide into miniature serials or split off “out sets” in which Herd performs minute erasures on his own poems. This allows him—or perhaps propels him towards—a more subtle use of his themes of detention and exception, as the material sometimes makes almost incidental appearances in otherwise lyric “songs,” or appears to arrive unexpectedly as a poem “divides” into sequential “cells.”

Herd is everywhere concerned with the “suspension” the detainee is held in—a state in which the spatial, temporal, individual and iterative scales are enclosed, made fugitive, unmarked. “[T]he person without place,” he writes in the PN Review essay, “let’s call them a refugee for the sake of argument – is rendered, as far as possible, outside expression.”  The detainee’s “cell” cannot “divide”—cannot propagate or move or “express” itself (remembering that cell division in biology involves genetic “expression”). Thus Herd is fulfilling that crucial political role of witness, attempting to bring these very structures of exception into the realm of the expressible—to mark their absence.

The mixing of the discourses of poetics and political exception are nowhere more fascinatingly entwined than in a wonderful poem near the conclusion of All Just. “Fugue” combines the aesthetics of “polyphonic composition” with the similarly complicated status of the “fugitive” whose multivalency is “composed” by the state.

Like a fugue,
unique and irrefutable witness,
co-ordinated –
a man from Indonesia. Stop.
Designated ‘fugal,’ in flight,
decked with the certainties of science,
upon which they opened their eyes –
a man from India. Stopped.
Beaten and detained
following the common trajectory,
emulating the curve
drifting northward
imagining the map […]

In the tangle of poetics and politics, Herd notes that language “can’t very well articulate that which it doesn’t already discern.” Legislation such as the National Defense Authorization Act in the United States or Law 78 (severely limiting the freedom of assembly and expression) in Quebec are obvious attempts to expand the state of exception. This is the political arena of struggle now, between states increasingly seeking the invisibility, dis-placement, and inarticulacy of dissent, and between new social movements working networks of expressivity, using the “placeless” internet to actually “locate” each other, articulate discontent, and specifying the time and place to gather. Herd offers us a cognitive map of the spaces currently being erased.