Lucy and Todd

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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:


I Am China — Xiaolu Guo

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on June 7, 2014 at 8:21 pm
I Am China looks as though it is going to be a simple, even classical love story. Jian is a fiery alternative musician in China. Having become notorious as a political gadfly, he’s expelled from the country. From detention centres around the world he exchanges letters with his girlfriend Mu, an altogether more hard-headed and practical poet. Their correspondence supposedly forms a debate about China, artistic freedom, love and individuality. Jian, wishing to be a firebrand, loses his liberty, of course; Mu is more flexible and remains in the world.

Then there’s Iona, a slightly unsure translator of Chinese in London. She’s from Scotland, which we are told is cold, rather like herself. When she gets bored with translating, which is often, she likes to have anonymous sex, which we have to watch. A handsome publisher straight out of Mills and Boon, and one of the most astonishingly wooden, implausible characters you will ever encounter, gives her a sheaf of documents he’s acquired – the letters and diaries of Jian and Mu. He doesn’t speak Chinese, but he thinks there may be something compelling in there somewhere. Iona must sift these scraps to see if she can find, or forge, their narrative. It takes her an amazingly long time, and the reader is unwillingly drawn in to the same process, the same doubt: is this a story?

Jian quickly ceases to be a viable character, as he’s under arrest most of the time. There’s a good point made about the nomenclature governments use for the “non-persons” of this world: he’s in a “removal” centre, then in “detention”, then “protection” (as he rightly wonders, protection from whom?). The novel could be about dissidents and the “detained”, but detention centres are all pretty much the same, and it doesn’t make for much drama. Jian loses interest in writing, coming up with stuff like: “The artist looks down at his cock, and his cock looks at his guitar. Then his guitar looks at him. They all look at each other. Who is playing whom? Each said: ‘I am!'” As he’s bounced around the globe his correspondence with Mu becomes patchy; their belief in each other wanes.

And this is the problem with this novel: having Iona paw through this bundle of stuff, which she never appears to assess or even put in order, the power and the eloquence of Mu and Jian’s work and thoughts are lost. There is a story, but it’s not helped by stopping and starting (the idea being, possibly, to add a fast-cutting, “cinematic” energy). There’s a constant, inelegant repetition of what we’ve been told, implying we need to be reminded of things – when in fact the plot was so simple it didn’t need to be hacked up like this in the first place. The diaries and letters, atomised as they are, remain inchoate to Iona, and to us.

There’s a stubborn opacity to the prose, which is strewn not with incident but with what the author plainly believes to be emotional triggers, though they come across as Tin Pan Alley cliches. Dead baby? Flowers? Snow falls on an apple tree in the garden of the silly publisher? So? And it’s unfair – it’s torture, in fact – to be intricately told what it’s like to scroll up and down in a document on a computer screen, and to be expected to find suspense in that.

Mu’s story is the best the novel has to offer, the only story that takes place before our eyes – everything else is maddeningly hidden, reported; off-stage. But we’ve gone through quite a bit in order to watch the only fully-realised character, a revolutionary poet, get a running-dog’s office job in London, the very heart of late capitalism, just as Mr Fancy Pants Publisher caves in to Chinese government coercion like a wet noodle. It doesn’t always seem right to turn a book against itself, but after so much wheel-spinning and cruel dangling of plot points and forced coincidences, Jian dies just minutes before Iona, moved as she was by his plight, was to meet him. “It cannot be!” she exclaims. “Oh fuck.” My sentiments exactly.