In / Divisible Ink: On David Lloyd’s “The Harm Fields”

IN DAVID LLOYD’S remarkable new book The Harm Fields, lyricism aspires to the condition of stone. In the book’s 11 poems or poetic series, language is pared back to its essentials, often leaving only a trace of some prior formulation. And since the personal pronoun is often absent, objects and natural forms gain a level of agency usually reserved for persons — eg, “Salt ventures underfoot.” Even in the book’s opening prose memoir of growing up and leaving Ireland, the poet’s voice tends to blend into those of family members and acquaintances as if the life left is replaced by voices of the ones remembered.

In The Harm Fields, Lloyd sets himself an impossible task, “to write where there is nothing left to say.” On the one hand, this might invoke Adorno’s famous question of whether writing after Auschwitz is possible, now applied to our contemporary moment. But Lloyd continues — “nothing left to say, only the charge to say it.” Here is a conundrum: while words are inadequate to history, there remains “the charge to say it,” a variation on Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

In The Harm Fieldsthe imperative to speak — to “go on” — is framed by the politics of harm: populations displaced, refugees encircled, nature despoiled:

Dress the harm fields
I drink my water
from the master’s jug:
toxic seepage
in the clay

all our numbers
stretched
unbroken […]

The oxymoronic harm fields are those sites where a landscape is blighted by toxins, blasted by warfare, transformed into commodities. The nourishing drink of water is tainted when it is served “from the master’s jug.” Throughout the book, the plenitude of nature — rock, water, tree, root — is vulnerable to human manipulation: “Wrap stone with all their new / Brutalities: root, blast, frack.” Not only is nature defiled; those who live on and by it are similarly harmed — at Sabra and Shatilah refugee camps (“Scarf”), in London (“Leavings”), at Qana (“Psalm II”). Although the poems are filled with personal and political details, their surface is lapidary and spare, as in “Fields”:

So livid a gleam along the rim.
White winds descended from the
Shattering fields, groove runs
The mantle, the folded slab breaks
Down the gradient. Numbed
In the song they sing, lay down
The possibilities: flesh knits its
Meshes into the grain of the stone.

The economy of phrasing and absence of personal pronouns creates a mobile-like structure of interlinked phrases without connectives, a work that resembles that of Paul Celan or George Oppen. Each vowel and consonant assists in shaping the next phrase, as in “gleam along the rim,” “White winds,” “runnels groove / The mantle,” “folded slab breaks / Down the gradient,” “song they sing.” If the poem depicts, as its title suggests, a “field,” it is one undergoing constant transformation and change, reiterated sonically by tone-leading vowels, internal rhymes, and patterned alliterations.

The series in which “Fields” appears is titled “Kodalith,” a term that, as Lloyd says in an appended note, is a brand name for a high-contrast film used in lithography. Kodalith technology reduces the color palette to a chiaroscuro of light and dark. The elimination of gray tones, the emphasis on high-contrast black and white, reinforces the book’s exploration of oppositions that ultimately contain each other:

so this is written in
divisible ink, as if there might have been
a word for such a time.

Lloyd writes in an ink that is both invisible and indivisible from the world it attempts to describe — “as if there might have been / a word for such a time.” This constant inscription and erasure hints at a Derridean trace or supplement in language, but for Lloyd, this linguistic aporia accompanies a political response to power. The “in / divisible ink” in which he writes is announced in the book’s opening prose memoir of growing up in Ireland, a country riven by conflict and upheaval. It is a landscape affectionately remembered (“So I feel my heart leap over Shannon or at the bars of ‘Dear Old Donegal’”), but one from which, like Joyce, he is estranged as he moves away from Dublin, loses his accent , and revisits in memory: “That’s the allure of distance: what you never were, you speak, as if the border were a borrowed skin.”

As it turns out, the relationship between national borders and skin has particular salience for Lloyd. The Easter Rising of 1916 is etched in a family history that contains a (perhaps apocryphal) biological connection with the feminist, nationalist radical Constance Markievicz. In one passage, Lloyd sees a photograph of “the Countess” (as she was known) that reminds him of his mother: “I open the journal and it’s my mother’s face staring sidelong at me out of Con Markievicz’s photo, pistol in hand. ” It turns out that his grandfather, who was a major in the Curragh British Army, was sent to collect the signatures — and pistols — of the defeated rebels, including Markievicz. Lloyd pictures the two versions of Anglo-Irish Protestantism, his grandfather and the Countess, “[o]ne dutiful, one a rebel” — a phrase that recalls Yeats’s lines from “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz”: “Two girls in silk kimonos, both / Beautiful, one a gazelle.” The blending of autobiography with Ireland’s political history sets the stage for the book’s interrogation of what it means to leave the country of one’s birth but also what “leavings,” as Lloyd titles this section, remain.

Perhaps the most complex elaboration of “in / divisible” ink occurs in “Bar Null,” a series of dense 16-lined poems that explore what Wallace Stevens described, in a different context, as the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” I’m unclear what a “bar null” refers to — perhaps a reference to statistics and bar graphs in which a “null” bar would be one for which there is no value and would thus serve as a placeholder for data to come. Whatever its meaning, the null bar joins many other references to empty elements in what Lloyd calls a “science of disappearance” — zeros, noughts, invisible ink, ashes, cyphers, ruins, “traces / rubbed out.” Landscape itself is an empty term, perceptible only through elements displaced or disappeared:

All the waves arrive bereft of their refugees,
the trees abolish even their ruins,
amassed in the chamber of zeroes.
There is nothing there to be filled:
you could grow learned in noughts,
study the accumulation of chalk.
That too is waiting, teller of shames
and of dreamworks […]

These are “biocultural” poems that refuse the nature/culture divide and that recognize the human manipulation of landscapes. This is a world “bereft” of prior elements — refugees, trees, chalk — their features now only visible as traces. One may become “learned in noughts,” since, as Robert Kaplan says in his 1999 book The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, the zero undergirds mathematics itself: “If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world.” Kaplan could be describing Lloyd’s own particular vision, toggling constantly between zero and world, between the rock and what we say about it:

A lifeline sutures the hand, crossed, only
that there to read, a seam unseen
fastens the gray graft to the red bark
as an old moon in the young one’s lap.

The lifeline in a palm reading leads to a graft of a tree or perhaps the dividing line between waning and waxing moons, a “seam” that is yet “unseen.” The center cannot hold in these poems, revealing in the process the mutability of lines that divide — and connect.

One particularly elliptical phrase — “what you do give to be of” — provides a condensed if oblique summary of The Harm Fields: an impossible syntax describing the difficulty of separating action (“what you do”) from what you are. This phrase concludes a poem, “Salt,” that follows a thread from nonhuman stone to human agency, from salt as a mineral to salt as a savor in the sensorium:

Salt ventures underfoot: a thread
Trodden back into the slab, dulled
Gentle to the tongue, reminding.
a plain wind dresses the stone,
Histories scored into his face
It stands out from the dark room,
White remnant of the promised
Flight: what you do give to be of […]

As I’ve suggested, fields and landscapes in the book are constantly under the threat of harm, and in poems like “Salt,” Lloyd brings us back to the fields themselves and their resistant, mutable surfaces. The “face” of stone bears the history of its weathering; traces of salt offer “dulled / sweet”; stone becomes a “White remnant of the promised / Flight.” Flight out of what? Egypt? Ireland? Or is this a reference to the flight of birds? To transcendence? The chiaroscuro of Kodalith film now represents the stark contrast of stone and movement, material and agency. Whether that flight is “from” some oppressive power or towards a new life, the Promise de Bonheur lies in what you do give [in order] to be of something. It’s a tall order but one David Lloyd makes concrete in these vividly resilient poems.

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Michael Davidson is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. His most recent critical book is Distressing Language: Disability and the Poetics of Error (NYU, 2022), and his most recent book of poems is Bleed Through: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2013).

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