Ann Vickery: Mallowscatteredsharing, or Being Political in David Herd’s All Just

All Just

by David Herd

Car­canet Press

ISBN 9781847771636

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,
3 a.m.
Can­dle. Birds. Trees. Bread.
Seized [s’est chargé],
Already the stac­cato.
Just about, merely
Cir­cu­lat­ing. (11) 

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,
cart­ing chil­dren,
com­plex tools and fish­ing nets,
‘envi­ron­ment act­ing’,
stop and exchange;
beneath wires where
goldfinches gather,
‘Ado­ra­tion of the Child and the Young St John’,
nearby the out­build­ings,
a vari­ant,
slipped open early,
‘based on con­flict’,
as morn­ing comes;
where seag­ulls stand
allover into lan­guage,
where mal­low blooms pur­ple along the bro­ken road,
scat­tered, dis­parate,
‘beau­ti­fully eco­nom­i­cal’,
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

‘beau­ti­fully economical’  

‘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,
Cor­ru­gated out­build­ings
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.  


Works Cited

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.