David Herd begins his new collection Through with the line:
——It is possible to be precise.
The wording– “it is possible”– is telling. Not promised, not achieved, not even desirable: possible. A Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Kent, Herd published All Just and Outwith in 2012. Here, in his third collection, Herd turns his attention to the language of public spaces and explores, in seven longform and often prosaic poems, how this can often preclude intimacy through its linguistic structures. Herd’s examination is highly conceptual in its politics, offering the reader a poetics of echoes to be interpreted. But this is an echo chamber whose effect is not fuzziness or obfuscation, rather intense focus on the practice of listening, scrutinizing and complicating how public language works; how it is discrete from and an adjunct to intimacy and how space and liminality can be considered syntactically.
The texts are freeform and collagistic, professing their own object to be:
——A modern document, put the pieces
——Together in the open the way
——The days fall out.
And the feel of them, their texture and weight, is organic and truthful. They take in and hold up the heard world around us and make it ‘clear and unequivocal’ while recognising that the failure of memory is often in the editing and that voices and language forms cannot be portioned off. The experience is startling, the recognition being that ‘syntax/ forms like lilac’ and the process of conceptualising the modern world in poetry is complex and confusing but also rapidly paced.
This organicism and its implicit heteroglossia allows one to experience descriptions of space within the poems as something expansive and enfolding. Borders within lines become fluid as the phenomenological metaphors of place and home begin to blur. The poems explicitly encompass a ‘new geography/ Which is a series of interruptions’. The language of separation becomes the very act of separation as ‘the fugitive lands/ Crowd under separate names’ and the poems then offer opposition to this by turning boundaries into permeable membranes, by forming syntactic connections between different language forms and conceptual ideas.
And though everything feels unforced– the text speaks plainly and almost parochially, lurching unabashedly through subjects and tones — Within the collages there are balletic, dextrous twists that are intensely rich but difficult to figure, as when a poem about a blackbird becomes a poem about globalisation and national borders. Herd’s lines are expressive and full of small gifts that reward careful attention.
Which is what the poetry is about: being attentive to what the world actually looks, sounds, and feels like. When Herd “assemble[s] this night/ In the present participle” he both acknowledges the act of assembly and also calls you to pay attention to it. This is a complex political act, one that inveighs against the fetishized cultural capital that poetry could be, seeing it as an opportunity to lay bare the mechanics of the poems. Insodoing Herd attempts to lay bare the mechanics of public language that temper our world: in Adorno’s phrasing, ‘the reality of artworks testifies to the possibility of the possible”.
These are intimate poems. I say intimate because they are not hectoring or florid, but quiet and patient. They call on you to look harder at the world, whilst also saying that your view is only ever occluded, written in a ‘language/ remembering itself/ partial and incomplete’, where partial and incomplete concords both with language, memory, and with the reader. The collection will leave you broiling with complex questions:
——It is a moment of
——The bitter wind searching eagerly
——Houses for which I can vouch
——But can’t quite see
——The tree opposite
——Backed by sunlight
——Something has left
By Nathan Ellis
Through, David Herd, Carcanet Press, 2016, £9.99