Lucy and Todd

Archive for July, 2016|Monthly archive page

Everyone is Watching–Megan Bradbury

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 12, 2016 at 10:21 am

This fascinating novella, almost a work of philosophy, is about the death of New York City, its forced abandonment by the very people who ought to live there: the middle and lower middle class, artists, musicians and writers. A cyclic, impressionistic narrative, it returns again and again to historical and contemporary figures whose connections are staggeringly strong, apt, poetic and, seemingly, unbreakable. That they were broken and that the city has been left culturally stunted is poignant, and conveyed with incisive, rueful calm.

The people on which Bradbury anchors her story are these: Walt Whitman, arguably America’s greatest writer, who lived in Brooklyn through most of the 19th century, when it really was a place of its own; definitely not part of the ‘United States proper’, as Frank Capra had it. Whitman is the foundation of this book, a pure note of angelic American hope.

The devil is the planner, builder and destroyer Robert Moses. A crappy visionary with obscure motives, he delivered parks, beaches, hulking roads and two World’s Fairs to the people of New York over the course of the 20th century. And in the process he illegally evicted thousands of them from their homes.

To counterbalance this Frankenstein, Bradbury proposes two controversial artists, the poet Patti Smith and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Both vitally interested in fame itself besides their art, they famously lived at the famous Chelsea Hotel, an icon and mainstay of Bohemia, just when the city of serious art was coming apart, and the infrastructure of Moses was crumbling too. The Chelsea, once luxurious, had quickly been cut up, and cut up again in the Depression – that was when the artists had moved in:

‘They lived in rooms with half a fireplace, half a ceiling rose. The outlines of the rooms were brand new and their borders were confusing. Ghost apartments. Ghost hotel.’

Those are the thoughts of the writer Edmund White, who’s also a character in Everyone is Watching. He’s there because he’s arrived back in New York too late, it seems, to live in the romantic, literary city he remembers from the Sixties. When you think about it, what’s happening to the Chelsea now is a perfect metaphor for the city:

‘When the renovation is complete, it will be a tourist hotel … the beds will be made with clean white sheets … this building will not now produce anything new.’

Artists were antithetical to what the forces of business wanted for the city. They were deemed destructive, perverse. But as clear thinkers and seekers of the new, they were just what New York always needed. The choice of Edmund White to commiserate with this story is a clever one, particularly as regards the West Side of Manhattan. Robert Moses built a huge highway there; the giant piers where ocean liners docked from all over the world became derelict, and then the locus of the gay revolution, the symbol, to White, of the freedoms New York offered when it still could. Now, the West Side is merely ‘cool’: people with money and no brains all clamour to live in the Meatpacking District.

‘Walt Whitman used to live round here somewhere,’ one woman says to another. ‘I don’t know where exactly.’ Surprising, huh?

Bradbury makes connections between people and places, and across time, that are edifying and moving. Robert Moses builds the 1964 World’s Fair and the teenage Robert Mapplethorpe works there, selling waffles. Walt Whitman is astonished by his first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge – he likens it to the printing press he operates for a living. A hundred years later, Robert Moses attempts to throw an even greater span across New York Bay. But things have changed. People no longer want to lose whole neighbourhoods to the automobile.

There’s a striking passage about how it may be possible to live on a reasonable budget in New York: ‘They avoid the organic grocers and they buy food that’s past its use-by date. They don’t have a TV and so don’t pay for cable. They use the Internet for free at the Brooklyn Library. When they go out with friends they order a beer, which they share, then they top the bottle up with liquor brought from home.’ One suspects this would make Edmund White feel sad. Walt Whitman would love it.

Why did New York have to go? ‘… that filthy place which didn’t work. What is it now? A historical exhibition of a cleaned-out place.’ What a disaster.


This review appeared in the Herald, 25 June 2016.

Dear Jurisdiction, Your Conduct Has Become Deplorable: Some Notes on ‘Through’ by David Herd

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 12, 2016 at 8:56 am

the noise which is


in the parks and

without impediment

keeping the powerful



The narrator of Through is to attend an immigration hearing in London with a refugee, an asylum seeker: ‘Let’s go then/Because if we don’t nobody will – ’. During the course of the hearing (these are not proper trials) it becomes clear that the State is set not on hearing a plea and considering the rights of the person in question, but on turning itself into an abstraction, a metaphor, and embalming the situation, each situation like this, with hostile language that cannot be penetrated or even questioned. Forever.

‘What the tribunal judges is the language’.

‘This broken English at the outbreak of the century’.

The narrator comes to understand that what the state wants, for each and every troublesome refugee from persecution or genocide, is either for him or her to die immediately on the streets (‘leaving the language unaffected by the process of expulsion’), or to be put into a kind of eternal holding pen: ‘Imagine having that dream. You’d have to have a mind of winter.’

‘The holding pen is real but in its thoroughness it functions like a metaphor.’

‘Syntax forms like lilac where the uninvited stand in line’.

Surrounding the occurrence, the act of the tribunal, is London, and a lot more: England, and some very big questions. Questions similar in nature to those Herd asked in All Just, but: sizzling.


Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman had a dooryard. So does David Herd. David Herd’s dooryard adjoins a road, a prison, an ancient town. Someone has left some crates in there. David Herd’s dooryard becomes Walt’s, in a way that will astonish you. Walt Whitman’s dooryard was full of grief, grief for the loss of a leader and for the violated hopes of a republic.

My ears of course pricked up at the mention of dooryards and lilacs. Thinking about them became part of the tension in this suspenseful work. And, finally, Herd plants such a beautiful bouquet to him, to the one he loves, to Walt.

It’s thrilling, no, it’s amazing to watch a writer with this degree of talent and inspiration working with the actual matter of Walt Whitman. It must feel like tossing hot potatoes from hand to hand, or maybe David Herd has a set of those claws you handle plutonium with from behind the safety of a thick window, while wearing one of those scary-looking hoods. Not only that, but to have built this laboratory where he uses Whitman and Olson and Chaucer and the other things he loves as well!

So. From the first mention of the ‘dooryard’ you wait for these Whitman and lilac tensions to be resolved. And Herd does it, subtly, winningly and musically.

This is a song for lovers’ = Whitman, and ‘him’. Lincoln, democracy, and freedom.

‘You strike me as contemporary’ seems just like something Walt would say.



‘A song thrush nails the neighbourhood in place’.

Many sections of the poem begin in the morning: the narrator likes to be up and doing. There are many charming and considerable birds in the story. The birds contribute to and represent the many voices and languages of the world.

Everybody is talking, but is anyone saying what they ought to be saying? Are they allowed to do that? Where?

The note taken of these little creatures adds to the suspense, to the suspense of the rbis.

Besides singing, the birds also get up and go to work. The poet is concerned to ask about this, what we take for normal. There is pleasure in the feeling of earliness in much of the writing (when you might think the poet will be saying that we’ve left things too late). The narrator takes pleasure in the background of activity, especially in London, the normal activity surrounding the astonishingly abnormal activity inside the immigration court. He skillfully and chillingly isolates those rooms, like Hitchcock pulling so slowly back from that death chamber in a teeming Covent Garden, in Frenzy.


A Master of Suspense

This is a very suspenseful book. Through might be the political, urban movie that Alfred Hitchcock always wanted to make and never did. It’s in-your-face visual: city streets, weather, greensward, and portentous rooms where things happen to people, or might happen to them.

We’re drawn into the suspense of it through a heartfelt inevitability and alarm. We have to know the disposition and yet we will not know it. Until things change.

This is very dramatic. In making an accusation of massive cover-up, the story torments us by hiding from us what we need to know in order to rectify the massive cover-up. Of how ‘these’ people are treated—and not only ‘these’ people. Us.

One of the greatest parts of the suspense is the desire to know if the narrator has remained in contact with the appellant. That life, London, even the bird song and the quotidian could have swallowed up this story, is almost unbearable and central to the ‘motor’ of this book, to use an inexcusable term.

I have lived with this book for some little time now and it is becoming inescapable – as inescapable as the ‘polis’, the world and society it examines. David Herd uses the word ‘polis’ in preference to ‘society’, which is good because Thatcher wrecked ‘society’ for all of us. I mean in addition to wrecking society for all of us. I’m going to say ‘world’, because what David Herd is writing about is bigger than even he conceives.

‘Polis’ is also slang for a policeman. I opened the door and this big polis was standing there.

Through is like Hitchcock but it’s also like Bach in the way that it twines around its own music and lyricism, the story and our earthly responsibilities. And look at this:

‘This is the tribunal’s job. It is the focal point of all the language, the setting where official hostility achieves full expression in all its multiple forms, where the Presenting Officer asks a series of questions that beggar belief in their disregard for the appellant’s actual circumstance, where mistranslation goes wilfully uncorrected, where fundamental documents are routinely withheld. Where the line is drawn. Where the hostile environment is made administratively manifest. Where the language forms by a series of procedures holding intimacy at bay. Where the procedures go unrecorded. Where all the intimacies are lost. Where that tone we live with that claims to represent us is perfected by compulsive use.’

That could be a paragraph missing from Bleak House!



Along with the birds, ‘Marcie’, a song by Joni Mitchell, is another voice in the rbis of the poem (music and birdsong are necessary urban comforts). It’s part of the background of the city – it ‘starts up’, perhaps on a radio – but it is also in the background of the narrator’s mind: therefore it’s part of civilization. And much of the suspense in Through comes from the question: is this a civilization?

Is it a civilization if it can be compromised, countermanded; edited?

‘Marcie’ and coincidence: The dark side of this book reached out and stroked my neck. I encountered this passing mention of ‘Marcie’ when I had just been listening to it not an hour previously being performed by Anne Sofie von Otter and Brad Mehldau. I don’t believe in ghosts. So this must be one of those texts that is constantly in operation. Like a car wash: if you are in the vicinity inevitably it will latch on to you, draw you through, and damn, will you get washed. Maybe, sooner or later, the poem will hook everybody.

‘Marcie’: ‘still no letter.’ This is the experience of the appellant, whom we begin to lose sight of.

‘You sit

You do nothing wrong

Maybe you go for a walk.

That way there’s no redemption.’



‘Sometimes when I say poetics I mean politics.’ Amen to that, brother.

A note on David Herd’s developing technique of erasure, used already to wondrous effect in All Just. This is how he is dealing with the idea of syntax, a crucial part of the argument here, the adjustment (and erasure?) of language and existence by those who maybe shouldn’t be allowed to adjust it.

‘Syntax forms like lilac where the uninvited stand in line’.

So parts of Through are not syntactical, because of erasure, and that is its syntax. This is a poet who takes major risks, and they are worth taking.

My experience of Through continued to involve coincidence. I found a copy of Whitman on my shelf. It’s from Arizona. I’d bought it there but surely I never opened it, as I was surprised to find the page where Out of the Cradle begins marked with an unfamiliar bird’s feather. The book previously belonged to LEONA SPAIN of Tucson. Her address has been subject to a partial erasure.

Hash Tags: there is a comic, sketchy, ironic use of this idea, because one of the subjects of Through is the degradation of language and thought, not only by the state but by the media of communication. The poet dips his toe in hash tags. Tries them on for a moment.

‘I’d like to fabricate in language a place a person could stay. That’s what I’d like. A neighbourhood made out of roofs and windows.’

‘I picture a republic of letters’.

You may be reminded of George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context. Also the brilliant comic poets The Firesign Theater, particularly their rattlingly incisive take on the future, I Think We’re All Bozos on this Bus, which includes the constant erosion and twisting of officialese, as well as a computerized President.

The writer of Through perhaps has to invent the world he lives in, and its description, starting over every morning, in order to understand what is happening to us. Perhaps if the writer constitutes the world from the ground up every day, bad things won’t exist—they can be examined and tossed aside. Not used in the making of the world, or let’s say the nation. Don’t need ’em.

‘In the polis in the dooryard we talked./Late. The way things go. Set down/Evenly as context. The impulse is primitive/To report the names. Hyssop. Cigarettes./One option is to accumulate images/Evidence surely of a meaningful exchange./In private. I mean to say the impulse is/Basically lyrical.’


The Archaeology of Walking

Now, this remarkable sequence takes us back to an earlier version of the writer’s city, at the same time an earlier described version of the place. It appears to be Canterbury, or perhaps it happens to be Canterbury. The city is described as it would have been apprehended by the famous pilgrims, approaching from the north on foot, essentially naming everything for themselves, for the first time. In an age when the language was malleable because it was new, not because it was seen as an uncontrollable subversive entity. In a way this is the first world, the first constitution of a town or world as an exemplar. And what, the poet wants to know, did that place and those people have to do with us and this world now? Could they or could they not have imagined the degree of control, of networks we live with without even squeaking about it?

‘Broken only by the moments the networks went down as we talked’.

A smattering of Middle English opens out the story. Our world is connected through thorny problems to what went before. The mixture of language reminds us that we are people, no matter who is trying to do what to us. Then, suddenly, we are dragged as if through a hedge backwards into the ominous language of the state, the nonsensical legalisms we were terrified of in the beginning, back into the cinematic suspense of the first part of the book. It’s scary, because that part of the book is now even more dehumanized as we never quite descried the appellant, the victim. Which means of course that it could be anybody. ‘Our all we have held together by spit and syntax’. Through is nothing less than a story of murder, of rape. Someone gets royally screwed in this book. I think it’s you.


A handsome book from Carcanet. The cover suggests, to me, an official folder, as well as haze. A manila quality – as if it ought to have a treasury tag stuck through it, or a brad, or adorned with one of those cardboard circles you wind string around. For closure.


Through concludes with a dictionary entry for the word ‘through’. Even this is chilling as there are usages given which correspond to the story of Through. ‘In London through May 7.’ ‘Seeking justice through the proper channels.’ A dictionary contains much of the ambiguous, sinister material of the narrative. Brilliant. But why people, unknown people are leaving crates in David Herd’s dooryard I still cannot quite guess.


Through is published by Carcanet at £9.99. David Herd is one of the organizers of Refugee Tales, an inspiring poetic, political and geographic project. Fictionatelier applauds it noisily. Read about it here: