Answers on a Postcard: Justice Among Us (Citizens)

By Lytton SmithOctober 28, 2013

    All Just by David Herd. Carcanet Press Ltd. 75 pages.

    Dover is the limit –

    is it not 

    — “Fugue,” David Herd


    ON A CLEAR DAY, standing on the cliffs at Dover, a port town in Kent, southeast England, you can see to France.

    The cliffs of Dover, though, are famous for a different view — a view seen, not when looking “outwith,” to use the title of a poem in David Herd’s All Just, but when looking inward, back towards the British Isles. It may not be stretching a point to suggest that the British love of crossing the English Channel to France is less motivated by a quest for good, cheap wine and low-tax cigarettes, than by the sight that greets them on their return: the tooth-white cliffs of Dover rising almost right out of the sea, fringed at their top by a dark green turf that reaches to their very edge. 

    These cliffs have had plenty of time to acquire more than a moss of myth. Sir Thomas Malory sites one of King Arthur’s final battles here, records it as the death-and-burial place of Sir Gawain, and asserts that this is where the prodigal Lancelot disembarked. Back when we were too young to realize these stories were shaped as much by tourist boards as they were by history, we scanned the cliffs fervently, hoping to find evidence of such long-gone heroes, their forgotten graves, and hidden caves.

    My childhood home wasn’t especially given over to music, but one record I remember among the handful my parents kept by the turntable was Vera Lynn’s 1942 wartime hit, “The White Cliffs of Dover.” Lynn’s sonorous voice crooned of how “There'll be bluebirds over / The white cliffs of Dover, / Tomorrow, just you wait and see,” and it didn’t matter one bit that bluebirds aren’t native to the United Kingdom, or that the lyricist behind the song was American. Dover stood for British sovereignty, British independence, British solidarity. Dover was the line the enemy could not cross (never mind the Blitz). 

    On this island you can, without too much ado, travel from John O’Groats to Land’s End, the northernmost to southernmost points of Great Britain, a distance of less than 1,000 miles, less than the distance between Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, barely further than the route you’d take from Los Angeles to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Here, on this island, limits seem to matter to folk. Not for nothing is our version of the Department of Homeland Security called the Border Agency. The sea is either fortified wall or porous membrane, and it has long been believed here that it is only by controlling its shores that Britain can control its independence, its insularity, its stream of imperial appropriations.


    When David Herd writes of Dover as a limit, he has no romantic vision of wartime strength or medieval chivalry. A short arrow’s flight from where Dover Castle (purportedly Gawain’s last resting place) overlooks the White Cliffs, you can find the Dover Immigration Removal Centre. That the second line of its mailing address is “The Citadel” gives a clue to the site’s symbolic stature. The site was, in the 19th century, a prison for those who were to be banished overseas, to “the colonies,” a fact that underscores its present purpose: the purging from the island of the unwanted. It is not, one notes, the “Immigrant” Removal Centre; by name, at least, it hopes to remove not just its temporary inhabitants, but also the process of immigration itself. “Dover is the limit / is it not.”

    The problem faced by All Just is nothing less than how to deal with such spaces of silence, removal, and secrecy. Post-Snowden, our attention has been turned to the possibility that the State might possess an overabundance of information about us, or at least the ability to access that information. One side effect of this fact is that we become less aware of the spaces where the State prefers silence, where:

                I – 

                Have sat at the back of the court watched
                As proceedings go unrecorded as the
                Season approaches and you say “guarded”
                And your translator reports “protects” suffering
                No qualification as the Man from the Home Office
                tells your story

    Over time, my parents’ Vera Lynn record deepened its grooves, gathered scratches; we knew that her voice would catch as she sang “I remember well.” A record is meant to store information, to accumulate it, and Herd’s project in All Just is to attempt to write into the record what hasn’t been documented, what would otherwise be unknown or, — in the now-famous formulation of Donald Rumsfeld — exists as an “unknown unknown.”

    The above quotation comes from the poem “The Hearing,” which comprises three 15-line sections (sonnets, irrupted), each offsetting their lyric speaker, turning him into a heading that might actually denote an uppercase roman numeral (I) rather than a first-person pronoun (I). The witness to these events — the narrating poet — is off-camera, not even meant to be recording, certainly not meant to be using the poem to object, “And nobody present thinks to ask if you were scared / Sans-papiers pitched forward into shadow.” The official proceedings do not allow for such questions; what can be heard is predetermined and told by others, not by the person facing deportation. 

    It’s been more than a decade since the DREAM Act was first proposed, in August, 2001, and the question of documentation and what it means to be sans papiers, without papers, is increasingly familiar to the American public. One might expect the issue to be less acute within the borders of the European Union: an American friend traveling recently from the Czech Republic to Germany panicked on having left his passport at the hotel, only to find not even a demarcating sign, let alone passport control, as his train crossed national boundaries. Yet even while national borders seem to have faded into the background, sites of detention hide within European border cities, their off-the-record and paperless inhabitants out of sight. As Étienne Balibar points out in We, the People of Europe? (first published in French as Nous, citoyens d’Europe? Les frontières, l’État, le peuple) European governments tend to see the “undocumented” as “disturbances of the public order” rather than as “active citizens.” 

    One might wonder what poetry has to do with, say, the struggle of migrant workers in France to achieve legal residence (if not citizenship), “droit de cité” pour les Sans-papiers. That is precisely David Herd’s question, as he riffs off and reworks American modernist and early postmodern poets in All Just. “This is just to say — ” begins “Fact,” adopting that famous William Carlos Williams title not in order to talk about plums, but to continue: 

            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 –

    imagine –

    is officially un-


    That we end the poem asked to “imagine” what happens in “fact” — that bail application proceedings at DIRC are “officially un- / recorded” — offers one argument for the ways poetic form might argue against state (mis)deeds. “Fact” provides the closest thing to a public record of events, even if, cast in general terms (we encounter nameless roles, “his lawyer,” “the Judge”) the poem is itself under a gag order. Poetry most matters though, All Just seems to argue, when it leaves us with the possibility of imagination, not as a flight of fancy that allows us to escape from reality, but as an attempt to see what is kept behind closed doors. Or, as “3 Poems becoming elegy” terms it, “There are practices among us / we are tending to forget.” Imagination is not escapology; it is an encounter with the unobservable real.

    Somewhere behind this book of poems lies the kind of story a biographer would tell. At one point a detainee (the detainee) says “Mister David it’s all happening again,” and snatches of non-metropole French edge into the book to indicate real conversations. We could picture a David Herd and a detained immigrant — an asylum seeker, a refugee, a family man trying to put a roof over his family’s head — in a British country scene as we read:

    The morning is glamorous
    in the flush Kent sky
    And you, friend, at the station
    big with news.

    We could have had here the kind of profile several British newspapers ran after it transpired that Badar Azim, the footman who helped announce the birth of Prince George, had to return to Kolkata, India, three days later, when his work visa expired. We could have had the familiar story, a story built on personal intimacy, on hardships suffered, on struggles overcome. Such stories stand or fall on the extent to which we warm to the sufferer; a villain cannot be rehabilitated. Herd, on the other hand, uses the conventions of lyric address not to offer an elegy for a mistreated comrade, but to try to uncover the processes by which such mistreatment happens repeatedly, invisibly, at the edge of our shores. The individual matters less, he suggests, than the ongoing process, the possibility of humans being rendered illegal.

    Herd uncovers such processes of detainment for us by rewriting a lineage of American and European modernist poetry — the first line of the collection is “At three in the morning, Rimbaud wrote.” Charles Olson surfaces directly and indirectly, and there is also a “Poem beginning with a phrase from Walt Whitman.” In repurposing these figures, he draws our attention to a political heft that we can find within their poems, if we look for it, if we treat poetry as being meaningfully philosophically and politically rather than just aesthetically. While that claim might seem grand in a world that has accepted, against what Auden really wrote, that poetry makes nothing happen, the Sans-papiers of All Just are an ever-present reminder of the cost of treating poetry as outside the political.

    Just as he redirects our readings of a modernist poetic lineage, Herd also repurposes the modernist trope of name-checking figures who may or may not be known to its potential readership, who might not be of national or international significance, in order to question who occupies our attention. Taney we should know from our American history; Rimbaud is still a known name in most households (even if British journalists famously misreported the footballer Eric Cantona as listing Rambo, rather than Rimbaud, among his heroes). The Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca enters into the equation, in the three-poem series “On not being a man who is Piero della Francesca.” Yet even as we prepare to scramble to Wikipedia and look him up, we’re asked to turn our attention away from him, away from the Tuscan town of Arezzo where his most acclaimed work can be found: “where we live among has not the mood of Arezzo / No girlfriend, these are not the church steps.”

    The word “girlfriend” enters, ghazal-like, into half the lines of this poem. This is the kind of discourse-switching — the nod to the über-contemporary — that readers of Herd’s first collection Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir will expect from him. Part of the work of that first collection was to show the lives of our politicians (and, especially, our spin doctors) as forgeries worthy of any poet’s imagination, a claim made good by Armando Ianucci’s acclaimed television series The Thick of It. In All Just, we find that the names we might expect to know, the Rimbauds and the della Francesca’s, are no more (nor less) valuable than the names of those we might come to know, if we reinvent our relationship to citizenship and exclusion.

    Nowhere is this point made more finally, more intelligently, or more confoundingly, than in the collection’s end, one of several poems here titled “Document,” this one taking place in an undesignated space where “the population was largely composed of Guarani Indians.” The point is that we could be in any number of nations with this description, and the ironic joke that this population has long “been noted for its easy-going qualities” is a reminder of our tendency to classify — a colonial legacy — rather than meet with individuals. And then:

                The old man began to sing
                in the cracked voice of old age
                I am Paz Marcuzzi

    So ends All Just. The lyric speaker who confronts Rimbaud at 3 PM in the opening poem reveals himself to be not David Herd but Paz Marcuzzi.

    Though not quite a Googlewhack, “Paz Marcuzzi” yields (me) just four results. But the turn to Google (to Facebook, to Twitter, and so on) might be precisely the wrong direction, when Paz Marcuzzi, whoever he or she might be, could be just down the road, possibly in the detention center, or else “some woman / witness among us,” or whoever “not from the immediate neighborhood / sifts / sorts through / the tension among us.” At stake is a question as to who is worth our attention, our documentation. 

    A similar method of playing with background and foreground unfolds in “A footnote to the American Constitution,” a poem deriving from a Pound-Williams-Olson tradition of working with documentary materials — in this case, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s majority decision to reaffirm the exclusion of African Americans from the Constitution (Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857). A pernicious example of the ways a class of people can be “Sited” (and excised) by the State even when the State purports to have no jurisdiction over them, Taney’s objection is framed, in Herd’s poem, through a seaside scene, “the day the beach filled / though the season was already through / nobody sure.” As much as the poem tries to forget Taney’s judgment, to write past or over it, the unease of the “nobody sure,” the out-of-time quality to the gathering, can’t let us forget how “that day definitely Taney’s objection applied.”

    Commingling the legalese of constitutional language with an O’Hara-influenced, debonair conversationalism, Herd reminds us that the most casual of days might be the most political of spaces, and that language is the means by which we disrupt everyone’s claim to citizenship, “people talking bodies the way the wind picks up.”

    Language, though, might also be the means by which we support others’ claims to citizenship. All Just refuses to give up on poetry as a means for reading or writing about citizenship. If it’s the conversation on the wind, why can’t it be the concern of the poetic? Rather than cast poetry as some kind of pure space of enlightenment, Herd’s interweaving of colloquial, legal, conversational, and political discourses positions the poetic as one among the many tools by which we might express friendship and co-citizenship. Within All Just, neither the humanist world of della Francesca’s art and scholarship (embraced in the 19th and 20th centuries via Whitman and Olson’s fraternities), nor the bureaucratic domain of the detention center (and the State for which it is a metonym) offers us a space where we can live with one another because of, rather than in spite of, our differences.

    It is natural for pessimism and cynicism to arise in a world in which we must live “amid the complexity of unknown laws,” in which we find ourselves “uncertain of [our] surroundings / save this is probably Dover, / subject to requirement / maneuvered by the state.” And yet Herd, time and again, notices moments of euphoria, of connection, of what it means to live with others: “we were glad that night / to have you among us.” Detention, here, gives rise to détente, and if this easing, this thawing, happens only on the page, we might fault our own activism more than poetry’s assumed apolitical status. Herd teaches us that the 21st century will be defined by our ability, or failure, to live “among.” As Anthony Caleshu has insightfully noted in an earlier review of the collection, “the facts dealt with in this new book have to do with movement, or ‘circulation’”; borders and detention spaces put an end to circulation, and thus to the hope of a meaningful citizenship (Balibar, for examples, argues for at least the extension of “a right of entry and residency of foreigners and, in particular, of ‘immigrants,’ in the diversity of collective situations and individual trajectories”). 

    All Just is an important book — one of the few truly necessary works of poetry written on either side of the Atlantic in the past decade — because it seeks a kind of active citizenship from its readership, an ambition that speaks volumes for Herd’s faith in poetry at a time when the mode is too often and too lazily dismissed. The active citizen it imagines is one who would take a role in the shaping of the spaces he or she inhabits, the limits that are set for those spaces. The active citizen, reading these poems, has begun to wonder who Paz Marcuzzi is, why it matters, and what is “all happening again.” Perhaps, just beyond such wondering, lies a questioning of and intervening in borders, the agency such borders are given in the face of silence. “Lately it has become apparent / that the nation is deserving elegy,” Herd writes, and his aim in All Just is nothing less than the replacement of what the nation prevents — intermingling, connection — with the possibility of what being “among” might allow. The poem emerges as the exemplary space for such work: “the poem is here among / modeling its behavior on things which pass.” As ever, Herd’s language is precise, even when dealing with abstract, philosophical ideas: note the absent “us” (the poem works “among” even if we’re not paying attention) and the doubleness of “things which pass” (the poem draws from the past, but also exerts influence on anything passing by, not stopping to attend).

    We’re free, of course, to ignore this all, if we want to continue in the fugue of our “political reality,” where “the morning isn’t glamorous” and “nearly everything is unchosen” (as Herd writes in “Fugue”). Such is our choice.


    Perhaps the reason the British like the view of the Dover cliffs better than the view from the Dover cliffs is because to look out — “outwith,” as Herd would put it — means asking the awkward question, To where? For an island so certain and ignorant of its deportations, that is no easy question — but it is one All Just allows us to confront. 

    We should not look to poetry for a ready-made argument, and the ways in which Herd uses form and resists biographical detail here indicate that All Just is a space of difficult encounter rather than resolution. Nonetheless, it does offer us a methodology, a process of imaginative engagement for living among a heterogeneous body of people, a group containing those who are wonderfully not like us. Those who would shut borders, who would make some humans “illegal,” have failed in their imagination; they are unable to see how we might, together, inhabit a space.

    Imagine, then, what might happen if we found some room for poetry alongside all the politics (the hustings, the lobbying, the polling). Imagine that, somewhere between the trucks patrolling London emblazoned with the slogan “Go Home or Face Arrest” (a project not only endorsed but actually, unbelievably, organized by the UK Government) and the optimistic efforts of the “Strangers into Citizens” campaign and John McDonnell, MP (a politician who has publicly asserted that “Migrants are not criminals but human beings who would contribute to our society as any other citizens”) we might find room for a “hearing” of All Just. It would be a space for listening, for thinking, and for putting pressure on how we might proceed from here, instead of just trusting the proceedings to inevitably run their course: to Dover, to the limit, to another offshore, gone from sight and mind. 


    Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University.

    LARB Contributor

    Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. He is the author of a book of poems, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, and two translated novels from the Icelandic.


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