can we do to this word’ begins James Womack’s ‘Misprint’.
Why not possible to make
Like a study for a
A verbal proposition, Wittgenstein said, ‘is a picture of reality’. Under
this view, a poet scribbling his impressions of the landscape will be
representing reality via mechanisms that are analogous to those employed by
his friend the painter, as he too opens his notebook and doodles here a line
of shrubs, there a featureless cliff face.
Writing does not necessarily (as Wittgenstein insisted a picture must)
contain ‘the possibility of the situation it represents’; words are more than
capable of expressing an impossible landscape, of representing things that
have never, and could never have occurred. ‘Misprint’ examines the tensions
that this realisation creates.
Language, I imagine Womack may argue, is not only inclined towards misrepresenting
reality, but also (by virtue of the complex relationship that objects have to
their linguistic counterparts) inclined towards obscuring the very mechanism
by which it represents reality. With no way to tell what is a picture of
reality and what is is not, poetry becomes in ‘From a Notebook’ ‘like a
As such, when Womack provides us with the web address for the U.S Department
of Defense as a title for one
poem, the images that we find there do not correlate with his description of
a gosu ‘transforming
targets/ into slippery sand and jelly’. When in the notes he insists that
some details found in the poem ‘Tourism’ come from oral testimony, he knows
that confusion will rise from his deliberate imprecision; are we to believe that the italicised
voice ( ‘not everyone// has-or wants- a historical homeland’) has been lifted from oral testimony?
If so, who was testifying and why should we believe them? The fog of words
The cover of an issue of the pulp magazine Young Romance (this
particular issue adorned with the image of a crying girl, a kissing couple
reflected in her sunglasses) provides the inspiration for a prose poem of the
same name, a deliberation on how such dramatic images fail to reflect the
text that they encase, let alone the reality that they purport to represent.
Womack’s playful misinterpretation of tears as evidence of a virginal bukkake
raised a wry smile.
‘Maisky Poems’ is a sequence whose titles are lifted from poems written by
the Soviet diplomat Ivan Maisky whilst he spent time in prison. Womack
assures us that the original poems are nothing like his; where the titles
suggested snippets of a past reality; words again fail to adhere to what
actually was and is the case. Womack’s notes serve constantly to titillate us
with this unavoidable frustration.
‘Eurydice’ concludes the
collection. The blurb tells us that it ‘draws the different strands of the
collection together’; the virgin - now a statue, cleansed of her bukkake
residue - reappears.
An analysis of how we can write about death given the slipperiness of
language demonstrated in the pages that precede it, Eurydice begins with an
epigraph that warns against resurrecting the dead in poetry for fear that
they shall ‘betray nothing at all’.
Where Christopher Reid’s ‘A Scattering’ provides a mechanism by which the
bereavement process can be structured around the writing process, Eurydice
suggests that it cannot. As in the Greek Myth that around which this sequence
is loosely structured, Eurydice is resurrected only to fade away once again.
A man who turns to face
the past is blind
Because he forgets thing
Writing obscures even the most fixed of realities. Pop art tears can become
something else entirely and the assurance that lines were lifted from oral
testimony can assure us of nothing at all. Words, it is tempting to conclude,
can have no purchase over that
which has passed into memory only. Chillingly, Eurydice backs into the mist
people cut themselves
into the film
at times disparate images of David Herd’s ‘All Just’, though not surrealist
in nature, bring to remembrance Federico Garcia Lorca’s ‘A Poet in New York’,
a collection which similarly proffers images liberally, but with a distinct,
oftentimes frustrating sparseness of connecting tissue.
The Situationist Internationals were an essentially Marxist movement. They
recognised a world in which our exploration, both inner and outer, is
controlled by geography and our perception of it, and envisaged in turn a world in
which people drop ‘their usual motives for movement and
action, their relations, their work and leisure activities’ in order to break
from the ‘spectacle of society’. ‘All Just’ suggests this interpretation of
our environment whilst
commenting on the structures that exert control, knowingly or unknowingly, on
the lonely wandering soul.
‘To the historians – a letter’, a prose poem, paints a portrait of the
grand shaft (a triple staircase situated in Dover and built so as to provide
a means by which troops could manoeuvre quickly and safely in the event of an
invasion) and the surrounding fortifications. They were never called into the use for which they were
built; parts of it are now long demolished, turned into tourist destinations
or acquired and absorbed into a wider immigration control system.
As such, the poem explores the intended use of the fortifications, the
‘crowds’ of its modern day usage, its history which cannot fail to inform our
understanding (present in quotes made by its designer) and the ‘imaginary’,
present in the incompleteness of its modern day manifestation and the
‘possibility of controlled withdrawal’, the need for which did not
‘maybe there was a place here’
Herd suggests, hinting maybe that the multitude of ways in which we can
understand this location combine so as to create a non entity rather than a place; history usurping the
capitalistic, touristic appropriation and vice versa. The poem concludes with
a sentence structure seemingly built on skewed logic, an attempt to break
from the multitude of prescribed paths of exploration and understanding:
that the imaginary cuts
The imaginary, the subjective interpretation cannot triumph over the pre
existing, objective facts. History is made present for the benefit of the
economy yet explicitly off limits; the citadel turned immigration removal
centre a testament to this.
The first fragmented poem of ‘On
not being a man who is Piero della Francesca’ is chopped and rearranged in
order to provide the remainder. Francesca’s style of painting was informed by
an understanding of geometry and
perspective, each painting
essentially a reworking of the base geometric forms. Herd provides a sequence built on a
practice analogous to this, suggesting at once that though our surroundings
are built with common motives, utilising common forms and materials, therein
lies great possibility for creativity, subversion.
We are still ‘complicit moving equally among’, however. As in ‘To a historian
– a letter’, the landscape can be reworked, but not subverted entirely. As
such, ‘Song of the cigarette’ refers to an ‘inherited vocabulary’,
portmanteau words providing a mild subversion that nevertheless relies on pre
existing structures. Even Love can only be understood in objective terms in
‘3 notes towards a love song’ and ‘product placement’ pervades ‘Where things
Despite the ‘Habeas/Corpus of just wandering about’ described in ‘We do this, we do that’, Herd relies on a
prosaic depiction of the images he picks out, hoping that arranging them in
various ways will provide poetic force.
The subversion that this book seemingly desires would find its
kindling in this act of seeing anew. To put it in Situationist terms, Herd
denies himself a détournement fix.
Having presented such prosaic fragments, Herd denies too his own agency. ‘The poem splits’ in ‘One by one’, ‘craving sources of
stability’ in a landscape that provides none. Whether this is to make a point
about the difficulty of rooting poetry in rootless surroundings or not, the
poetry suffers. Luckily, the ideas that are expressed fascinate enough to
warrant a second read.
Thomas White 2012