Common Place by Rob Halpern


Common Place

Rob Halpern

New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015

166 pages



reviewed by Tom Bamford

Rob Halpern’s Common Place (2015) is the latest in a linked series of books that began with 2004’s Rumored Place and continues through Disaster Suites (2009), Music for Porn (2012) and others.  Parts of this series were collected and reconfigured in the Enitharmon edition [____] Placeholder, also from 2015.  Common Place extends the sequence’s theme – best summed up by Halpern himself with the question ‘What does it mean to desire “community” under current conditions of geopolitical crisis?’ – by quoting and responding to text from the autopsy report of Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh al-Hanashi, a Yemeni detainee in Guantanamo Bay who died aged 31 in 2009, the official reason being given as suicide, though this account has been challenged [1]. Al-Hanashi had been held in Guantanamo’s psychiatric ward and subjected to force-feeding prior to his claimed suicide.[2] For those unfamiliar with Common Place, be aware that this review will describe in detail other violent scenarios involving al-Hanashi’s body, many of them sexual.  

Rumored Place (2004)
Rumored Place (Krupskaya Press, 2004)

Al-Hanashi is named once within Common Place but elsewhere within this text is denoted as ‘my detainee’ or his name is replaced with the bracketed space of [____] Placeholder, a ‘placeholder’ for the absent possibilities suggested by the detainee’s also-absent body: absent by being dead, absent because legally occulted and removed to the hidden space of Gitmo, a space both within and outside the United States, that seems to uphold the security and rights of those within the boundary of the US by casting others outside it to a place where no such guarantees of personhood exist.  Here I am paraphrasing, I hope accurately, Halpern’s own discourse around his work.[3]  

Halpern’s work obsessively exposes the bodily presence of the speaker of the poem in relation to al-Hanashi’s absent body. This is done in a number of ways, most notably through a series of sometimes-violent fantasised homoerotic entanglements with the detainee’s body:

So I place the cord around his cock while looking sadly at my own, establishing equivalence between organs and garbage.  He claims to be much older, without having achieved a single orgasm in his twelve years behind bars.  Yr body, my devotional kink, what do I mean when I say ‘I burn with love for you’?  I’m still seeking a lyric structure that might allow me to ask this question, a sentence feeling for its own conditions but whose words continue to elude them, for example, “On my knees, in the back of the cell, he holds my head to the rim of his latrine, just close enough for me to smell the crap he left there only an hour ago, and this fantasy turns me on to such a degree that I can feel a tiny bead of cum on the head of my dick, though I’m not even hard, as if whatever I’m breathing from that metal expanse might coincide with the limit of our episteme and the whole taxonomy of signs that make our world visible at the expense of what cannot appear here.” (68-69)

I quote the passage at length to give some sense of the cumulative effect of the text’s relentless pile-up of contradictions, its continual questioning of itself, of the relationship between the body of the poet and the excluded body.  I want to try to extend some of the questions the passage asks about this relationship.  The passage, like much of Common Place, focuses on a fantasised sexual relation with the detainee rather than other types of relation we might imagine (for example, to be prosaic, we might imagine poetry that reports on actual attempts at communication and solidarity with detainees – not that this would be unproblematic).  The poetry is very aware that it is choosing this relation rather than any other, and of the ‘improper’ (64) nature of this choice.  This focus on the sexualised or pornographic relation (see Music for Porn), functions, I think, to emphasise the ways in which this relation is for ‘us’ paradoxically both distant and intimate.  The intractability of this paradox is emphasised by the ‘improper’ nature of the relation: the more outrageous the sexual scenario, the more incongruous its relationship to al-Hanashi, the more we are confronted by the outrageousness, the impossibility even, of any attempt by ‘us’ to have genuine communication or solidarity with the very individual whose erasure guarantees ‘our’ existence in the first place.  So goes one reading of Common Place, one which describes much of the text’s effectiveness; as I will discuss, the text also tries to go beyond the limit this reading describes.  

Rob Halpern
Rob Halpern

However, I put that ‘us’ in quotation marks in order to ask: just who is the ‘us’ for the poetry?  In reading and responding to the book we are, I would argue, figured as having the same distanced relation as that possessed by the ‘I’ of the text.  What would it mean, then, if the ‘us’ were to include people who may not feel this kind of separation from Guantanamo Bay detainees because, for example, they are exposed to the kinds of racist and Islamophobic violence that Halpern, as a white American, is not subject to but that detainees are (though as a queer man, of course, Halpern is certainly exposed to other forms of political violence).  

the whole taxonomy of signs that make our world visible at the expense of what cannot appear here.

It is not that the book explicitly refuses such readers, but rather that, I would argue, the book presumes a reader who is similar to the ‘I’ of the book in the sense of being a Western citizen who is both radically distanced from and complicit in the violence being enacted against the detainees excluded from Western society.  It presumes this reader because most of the book’s affect emerges from the pathos of this intimate separation and the sense that bridging it is impossible.  I and many other readers of the book can be fairly safely categorised as this kind of reader: I am a white, middle-class English man living freely in London.  How, though, does Common Place relate to possible readers who do not start from this position of presumed separation?  Of course, I’m not really the one to answer this question. 

Leaving this problem temporarily aside, we might say that Halpern’s images are effective insofar as they show ‘our’ relation with the detainee as one that fails because of its social conditions: ‘What community will emerge in so negative a place without being sentenced in advance?’ the speaker asks (128).  This failure manifests in the collapse of the attempted relation into fantasies of, among other things, violent sexual exploitation, as in the sentence, occurring soon after the long passage quoted above: ‘And so I hollow out a cunt in his corpse my opening to the other and fuck a patient orifice’ (70).  I want to ask what this expression of sexual dominance using what to me seems like violently misogynistic language used against the feminised body of the detainee (‘hollow out a cunt’) is doing here.  I also want to ask how this violence interacts with other aspects of Common Place.  For there is also in Common Place an attempted move towards a relation of love, of ‘devotional kink’ (155), which, it seems, wants to occur through this relation of violent failure (this violence, of course, being that of the objective carceral system, not just occurring in the reader’s mind in response to Halpern’s images).  The book concludes: 

Maybe this is what I mean by love, the failure of my name for you.  And if this tenderness is true it will shatter the truth that excludes it, realizing my heresy by exhausting every identity in glamour and void. (163)

This, as far as it goes, is a beautiful and stimulating idea.  But what is the relationship between, on the one hand, the failure to relate arguably indicated by the passages of sadism towards the detainee’s body and, on the other, this move towards shattering love? [4]   My concern about the work is that if it insists on the possibility of this relation of love – if the work insists on not being failure, on trying not just to indicate the non-relation but in so doing to realise the relation in a negating, disruptive way – then the subject’s sometimes-violent fantasy of sexual relationship with the detainee’s body becomes not the marker of the Western ‘I’s limitation but rather may function to shore up the relative power and privilege that this subject already possesses.  This is because even though the ‘I’s attempts at relation fail and are exhausted, this failure and exhaustion nonetheless takes place on the terms the ‘I’ has established.  As Halpern comments in a 2016 essay discussing his own work, the detainee ‘has been sacrificed to ensure’ the bourgeois subject’s ‘proprietary relation to a secured and securitised personhood’.[5]   Common Place, I would argue, risks at times going beyond just exposing this sacrifice to give primacy to the relation based on this sacrifice, downplaying other possibilities in the process.  

 the book’s sadistic scenarios… thus block rather than open possibilities for relation

In this reading, the book’s sadistic scenarios would look like assertions of power that resist rather than moving towards the ‘suspension of one’s self-enclosed individuality’ that Halpern invokes in his essay, and that thus block rather than open possibilities for relation.[6] Even the scenarios where the ‘I’ takes on a masochistic role (‘he holds my head to the rim of his latrine,’ 68) might still look like such assertions of power insofar as the ‘I’ has generated the terms of the fantasy and the language with which it is evoked.  If, then, the fantasised sexual relation is intended to materialise the detainee’s body as both the path to and the obstruction to community, this relation may in some ways insist upon, rather than simply materialising, this obstruction.  In this view the poem’s ‘I’ can try to explode this obstructed relation only from the starting point of having invoked it as obstructed rather than as any other possible kind of relation we could imagine.  

Again, Common Place acknowledges these kinds of problems, and in part the work of the poetry is about these problems.  ‘I wonder,’ asks the speaker, quoting a friend’s comment on the material,

whether it’s possible “to transmute death, torture, hatred into love, communion, life”… or whether the writing can only materialize the ethical bind that traps this erotic transfer of energy, arousing the affective blocks and psychic clots that keep his body emotionally remote. (92)

In this sense the work pre-empts my critique of it.  However, is it possible that Common Place’s acknowledgement of this problem functions not just to expose the problem but to emphasise that the ‘I’ of the book, acknowledged to be ‘white, American, male… protected,’ is the one in the position to make such an acknowledgement?[7] What happens if the ‘I’ of the book is the one with the power over the language of racialised and/or sexual violence?  To what extent does the ‘I’ then echo the role of the aggressor in real-life acts of systemic sexual violence, the roles of the rapist and/or police officer (all roles which again Halpern’s work acknowledges an implication in)?  If the ‘I’ is explicitly and anxiously aware of the problems associated with what it is doing, can this awareness, perhaps despite itself, reinforce the ‘I’s status as the powerful aggressor within the relation?  

(These are contentious questions, perhaps, and not ones that I would claim to be able to answer here, but I think they are important ones to ask about Common Place.  And this is only one reading of the book, in which I have not done justice to all its aspects.  I recommend those interested seek out other engagements with this work such as those by Sam Ladkin, who talks about Halpern’s work in the context of lyric poetry’s relation to pornography, and by Halpern himself.)[8] [9]

Here is another way of putting what I see as the problem: when the insistence on the obstruction is coupled with the figuring of the sadistic ‘I’ as both the source of the obstruction and the one whose ‘love’ tries to overcome it, the text seems to be saying that representations of sexual violence from the point of view of the aggressor (however contextualised) can form part of an attempt (however desperate) to overcome that society that makes sexual violence happen (on systemic and interpersonal levels).  (Here ‘sexual violence’ would refer to the violence portrayed within some of the text’s scenarios, and the sexual violence of carceral capitalist society, and, I think, the violence of representation, the violence arguably enacted on another individual by controlling the terms in which that individual is represented in a certain context, in this case a sexual one.)  This suggestion is troubling because it implicitly places the power to overcome a violently exploitative social relation in the hands of the one who is fantasmatically portrayed as the enactor of such violence and/or as controlling the terms in which this violence is represented and theorised, namely the privileged and protected ‘I’ of the text. 

 The reader is faced with the (metaphorical) violence of a separation that, for her, does not exist

The ‘enforcement of impossibility’ that I mentioned earlier might come into play in the case of the reader of the book who is different from this ‘I,’ who is not separated in the way that the book presumes.  This reader, arguably, is faced with the (metaphorical) violence of a separation that, for her, does not exist, or at least does not exist in the same way as is being assumed.  She is being told, perhaps, that the enactor of this metaphorical violence, the ‘I’ of the poem, is the only one who can overcome this violent separation precisely by pushing its violence to the limit; but she might respond that this separation only needed to be overcome in this way because the ‘I’ insisted upon it, and that other possibilities have been occluded in the process.  (Again, this is one reading of the text, and may have its own limitations.) 

Perhaps one such alternative possibility is opened up by a poem by Syed Talha Ahsan, who was himself detained without trial for six years in HM Prison Long Lartin on highly spurious terrorism charges before being extradited to the US in 2012 (as Home Secretary our new prime minister Theresa May failed to block the extradition) and held in solitary confinement (he has now been released).  Ahsan’s ‘Life Sentence,’[10] with which I’ll conclude this review, provides an important counterpoint to Halpern’s work if we are considering excluded and imprisoned bodies and who speaks for, about, in relation to and from these bodies: 

 to kill

is to erase an image 

off a mirror:

swift glance &


no body

just a gaping hole

upon an indifferent world


1 ‘“An intense desire for relation at the place of relation’s prohibition: an interview with Rob Halpern,’ Open House (2016), accessed at:
2 David McFadden and Danica Coto, ‘Military: Gitmo detainee dies of apparent suicide’ (Associated Press, 2009), accessed at:
3 Halpern, ‘Useless Commodities, Disposable Bodies: An Essay on Value and Waste,’ in Against Value in the Arts and Education, eds. Sam Ladkin, Robert McKay and Emile Bojesen (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), p. 157.
4 A crucial reference point here is Leo Bersani’s work: see ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’ October 43 (1987), pp.197-222.
5 ‘Useless Commodities,’ p. 157
6 ‘Useless Commodities,’ p. 157
7 ‘Useless Commodities,’ p. 151
8 ‘The “Onanism of Poetry”,’ Angelaki 20:4 (2015), pp. 131-156
9 See ‘Useless Commodities,’ or Halpern’s illuminating Open House interview, cited above.
10 This Be the Answer: Poems from Prison (Edinburgh: Radio Ramadan, 2011), unpaginated.
Main image credit: Kathleen T. Rhem, Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This work is in the public domain

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