Carcanet, paperback, 76 pages,
£9.95, ISBN: 9781847771636
In his book, John Ashbery and the American Tradition (MUP, 2000), David Herd outlines the ways in which Ashbery’s poetry is occasional, which is to say, it is a poetry which reflects, and makes much of, the occasion of its making. Ashbery’s intention, Herd writes, ‘in aiming to write the poem “fit” for, or belonging to, its occasion, is to achieve a poem appropriate to the occasion of its own writing. His concern is with the time, place, situation and circumstances of the poem itself.’ In interview, Ashbery confirms this sense of his poetry, commenting how ‘the room, wherever I happen to be when I am writing is, of course, very important to me. They are frames for the poet, which lead him into a kind of reflection… Somehow I make connections and want to find out why I’m doing that, at this particular time.’ Or as Ashbery develops in another interview:
We’re sitting here, presumably having a nice discussion about somebody’s poetry, and yet the occasion is something else also. First of all, I’m in a strange place with lots of lights whose meaning I don’t quite understand, and I’m talking about a poem I wrote years ago and which no longer means very much to me. I have a feeling that everything is slipping away from me as I’m trying to talk about it – a feeling I have most of the time, in fact – and I think I was probably trying to call attention to this same feeling in ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ and in other poems as well. Not because of any intrinsic importance the feeling might have, but because I feel that somebody should call attention to this. Maybe once it’s called attention to we can think about something else, which is what I’d like to do.
On the face of it, All Just, Herd’s second collection from Carcanet, is interesting in exploring similar terrain, largely because, like Ashbery, Herd’s poetry is also interested in thinking and talking, about something else. Yet while the occasions of All Just are various, its preoccupations are remarkably particular. It is a collection about displacement and dislocation, both voluntary and involuntary.
So while there are undoubted parallels with his previous 2005 collection, Mandleson! Mandelson! A Memoir, a work which constructed a playful, satirical, and highly entertaining postmodern portrait of twenty-first century Britain, All Just is rather more sober in both its rhythms and its concerns. With the collapse of New Labour and the promise of 1997 fudged behind a litany of collapses too numerous to list here, All Just is a collection that trawls the fringes of modern Britain, and in so doing, comes to locate the matter of the nation in those margins, sites of suspension, those spaces of exception which simultaneously define and deny that nation. It is no surprise to see Giorgio Agamben’s sense of the exception providing both epigraph and compass to this collection: ‘The thought of our time finds itself confronted with the structure of the exception in every area.’
Dover is the geographical heart of this collection. Dover: conurbation dating back to the Stone Age, port town, border town, ancient ‘gateway to England’, beacon of Matthew Arnold’s nineteenth century England, site of transience, holdings, arrivals, departures, deportations, the ‘Dover immigration removal centre’ which facilitates both the voluntary and involuntary repatriation of individuals and families from the United Kingdom. As Herd has written in an essay published in PN Review, ‘It can reasonably be termed a ‘non-place’ because, in the imagination of the nation state, it constitutes a site between the place in which the men have sought asylum – Britain – and the place back to which the state would like to see them removed,’ such as, in the words of the poem ‘Somehow it seems’:
some woman maybe
who just came through,
carrying a baby,
on false documentation,
drawn by the language
because the syntax runs deep,
uncertain of her surroundings save
this is probably Dover (51).
This is probably Dover, where, as ‘The Hearing’ has it, the ‘proceedings go unrecorded as the / Season approaches and you “guarded” / And your translator reports “protects” suffering / No qualification as the man from the Home Office / Tells your story’ (48). This is Dover, the United Kingdom’s immigration administrative centre where, in the spare force of the documentary style poem, ‘Fact’, which owes much to the poetics of Charles Reznikoff:
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 –
is officially un-
All Just frequently, deliberately, misses a beat. It disorientates. Phrasing can be strange; often there is a word too many, sometimes there is one too few; frequently, the grammar is a little off. The short lyric, ‘Song of the road,’ is one example among many:
On the road towards the tenement
Not long gone since
A man stops.
This is a function of the imagery.
In the darkness surrounds us
He tells us own story (21).
It’s those third lines in each stanza that really strike and that seem to carry much of the poem’s focus. Their phrasing is awkward but only marginally so, a little stilted but not too much. It’s a sense of language which in another poem is described as ‘inherited vocabulary.’ The shifts are simple, slight, and telling.
That sense of inheritance plays out in other ways, too. I’ve a sense that many of these poems may be made from other poems, though I would always be too busy to spend the time diligently checking. But even if the lines themselves aren’t inherited there’s the sense that much of the poetry is: there are poems that begin with a line from Whitman, Williams, Olson, or O’Hara, others that end with a phrase from Berryman, and so on: the inheritance and heritage of language, the way, in language, we map ourselves, the way, in turn, we are ourselves mapped by language. And thus Herd’s interest in this collection in etymology and translation. Here translation is not to be understood as the simple transmission of content, but rather as the opening of a rift between word and meaning, a discord which, in its opening, draws attention to a strangeness at the heart of language, a restlessness which does something else, something other than simply render a work from one language to another. As Edwin Gentlzer points out, in Contemporary Translation Theories, etymologically ‘translate’ is derived from the Latin word translatus, meaning ‘carried over’, and translatus is the past participle of transferre, whereby:
the Latin ferre means ‘to carry’ or ‘to transport’ as in carrying a shield, and was often used to mean to bear or convey with the notion of motion (Homer), as in ships borne by the forces of wind. It also meant to endure, to suffer, as in to bear a mental burden, and survives in expressions such as ‘you’re not faring well’ […] translation refers to the sense of roads or ways that lead to a place, as in a door leading to a garden, or a road leading to a city, conveying a sense of stretching or extension toward (166).
Maurice Blanchot holds that translation ‘is the sheer play of difference: it constantly makes allusion to difference, dissimulates difference, but by occasionally revealing and often accentuating it, translation becomes the very life of this difference.’ ‘Not resemblance,’ Blanchot goes on to develop, ‘but identity on the basis of otherness.’ ‘“Otherness,” writes Rosmarie Waldrop in relation to Jabès, ‘is the condition of individuation, the condition of being set apart from the rest of creation in the glorious – and murderous – species of humankind and, in addition, set apart from our fellow humans as individuals, always “other”.’
In an era in which the relationship between poetry and politics is rarely subtle, the quiet but insistent linguistic and thematic complexities of All Just carry a rare quality and one that mark it out as that rare thing in the poetry marketplace: an important collection. Complexity need not be a pejorative. As the American poet, Michael Palmer, has written in his book Active Boundaries: ‘It is sometimes forgotten that there is a profoundly historical and social dimension to such hermetic speech, that is its own form of intervention, and that its resistance to meaning […] is shared by many types of poetry, including some of the most avowedly public and/or “transparent.” Before the contradictions and paradoxes of the real, including the quotidian, those very paradoxes and contradictions become agents of articulation and the reassertion of meaning.’
Nikolai Duffy’s first chapbook, the little shed of various lamps, was published by The Red Ceilings Press in 2011. His poems, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Blackbox Manifold, Ink Sweat & Tears, Jacket, Mosaic, Shearsman, and Stride. He is the founding editor of Like This Press (www.likethispress.co.uk). He teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University.