I enjoyed reading David Herd’s Through (Carcanet Press 2016), a collection of poetry assembled from some events and other publications and put under one cover. That gives an opportunity to appreciate their shared themes and concerns, despite their diverse provenances. “Who Leaves the Language”, the opening sequence, refers constantly to an issue that Herd has made his own – the use/abuse of human language in the context of officialdom. In particular, he has worked with refugees and asylum seekers and deploys well the forms of bureaucratic procedure that those taking this path have to go through, frequently coming from communities where English is not the mother tongue, as it clashes with the very human issues which underlie this sterile, often dehumanising discourse. Perhaps that is the point of this treatment – it blunts the real emotions and turmoil underlying the events described.
It is very provincial of me, but the fact that Herd is based at the University of Kent in Canterbury means that a lot of his writings refer to very familiar spaces for me – the city, of course, and then forlorn landscapes and “routes on the way to somewhere” (because they could not possibly be destinations in their own right) like Dartford, on the edge of Kent, and, as far as I could detect in my seven years there in the late 1970s and early 1980s, (and from the way Herd writes about this place) right at the edge of civilisation. How someone not so intimate with Herd’s spatial references might respond is hard to say – for me, they certainly resonated. And they raised interesting questions about how one might try to reappropriate some of these places from their endless associations with Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens and the other writers who have drenched Kent with references and associations. In that sense, Through commits a kind of purge of this sentimentalisation of a landscape to a register which is more contemporary, more global and more demotic.