Terra Terra and Bar Null by David Lloyd: a Review

Terra Terra, David Lloyd, Magra Books, 2022, $10.00

The Harm Fields, David Lloyd, The University of Georgia Press, 2022, ISBN: 9-780-8203-6262-5, $19.95

Having just reviewed some of David Lloyd’s critical work, it’s with great pleasure that I turn to his recent poetry via these two recent publications. Terra Terra is the shorter of the two, consisting of three sequences, two in verse and the last a set of prose poems.

The first of these, ‘AA, Poeta’ is a kind of homage to the Chicano poet Alfred Arteaga, whose work Lloyd has translated in the past. The first section of this two-part poem opens in Spanish ‘el poeta/da/de nada’, which then morphs through Italian, French, German (with a nod to Heidegger) to English again. This process of transformation is shaped by the sounds of the words involved as much as a semantic thread (poet/nothing/unmoving/desire/being):

el poeta


                de nada




des         seins





gives this sign

                                de estar

Driven by the vowel shift through short ‘a’ to short ‘e’ to that long ‘a’ in estar, the extraordinary density of the text combined with the ‘open field’ structure sets a tone of immersion in the world, a responsiveness to the idea of the rhythm of language as a mirror of the rhythm of what is:

measure and beat

                                of the wing

The second Sequence, ‘The Dull Charge of Europe’ is technically similar, but the content is more overtly both political and personal. The politics, as befits one of our most important writers on Post-Colonialism, has to do with the effects of imperialist projects:

we laid waste, we

                burned, we plundered


                destroyed houses and trees

The repeated and visually emphasised use of ‘we’ serves to emphasise collective responsibility, as opposed to moralistic fingerpointing. However, this is, as I said, only one aspect of the poem’s engagement. The second section ends with the quote that gives the pamphlet its title: ‘a terra terra remota mea’, taken from the end of the first part of Book I of Ovid’s Tristia, a poem of exile and nostalgia, the exile of a poet whose work failed to find favour in his homeland.:

plura quidem mandare tibi, si quaeris, habebam,
     sed uereor tardae causa fuisse uiae;
et si quae subeunt, tecum, liber, omnia ferres,
     sarcina laturo magna futurus eras.
longa uia est, propera! nobis habitabitur orbis
     ultimus, a terra terra remota mea.

The poet is asking his book to reconcile his fellow citizens to that work, while recognising the near impossibility of the task. The third section of Lloyd’s poem opens with a translation of the Ovidian phrase while making the leap from the west coast of the USA to the west coast of Ireland:

o land far from my land

                my west is not your west

                                                                 (so she sleeps)

the Bloody Foreland

                                a red wash

                                                            in the air

mantled in mizzling rain

This shift to the ‘shattered edge of Europe’ serves to complicate any notion of that continent as an imperial power; Ireland is both of Europe and of the Post-Colonial world and has embraced the former as a way out of the shadow of the latter, even more so since the Brexit farce. Lloyd’s vision of ‘an archipelago/of red republics/threaded along/this ragged rim’ is not one that is likely to find much support here, for good or ill.

This thread is picked up in ‘Landscape’, the first prose poem in ‘Spores’ (the section has as epigraph le pire oubli, c’est l’ouble de l’oubli, a pointer towards the importance of memory, and it’s sibling nostalgia, in these pieces):

In any place long ravaged by enforced departures, those who wove the fabric of its life in common out of the complex networks memory and feeling are more likely than not to have left….

The migrant’s nostalgia is not the romanticization of the place or time of her youth. It is an appalled gaze levelled at desolation, grasping the landscape as the ruin that is all that remains of a life that once was to have gone on.

This notion of presence-in-absence, of the intimate engagement with the place you no longer inhabit because, like Ovid, the centre has mandated your removal is central, although it could be argued that, from the perspective of those who did not leave, that ‘appalled gaze’ is romantic, missing the value of change for those who live in the place’s present.

In a later piece, ‘Archive’, the reader is presented with a catalogue of absent lives: work boots, shoes, suits and shirts long abandoned, ‘letters from the archipelago of loss’; it’s a phrase that might serve as a summary of these poems.

The Harm Field opens with a prose sequence, ‘Leavings’ a memoir of sorts in three parts, the first focused on experiences of hostility in London in, I guess, the 1970s, the second primarily memories of childhood and the third a looking back on Ireland from the same position of exile that informs Terra Terra, a ‘homesickness for places that were never yours’. A new element that intrudes here is the question of language, and specifically the loss or lack of Irish as a native tongue, as in a mamoty of the narrator’s mother teaching him and his brother ‘the numbers’:

…a-hain, a-doe, a-tray, a-kather, a-cooig, a-shock, a-shay, the rest escapes me. Lisping in numbers. The road dips and turns, if I remember right, the architect’s modernist bungalow dominating the bend. I left on the ferry and come back by plane. Sometimes I think the language that I never learnt still weighs on my tongue, thickening my Ts behind my teeth.

Again, the reader is struck by the complex web that lies behind this apparently simple memory: the striking conjunction of modernism and the rural belies any straightforward narrative of unsophisticated home versus cosmopolitan exile; this contrasts with he clear evidence of change in the narrator’s fortunes (ferry/plane); the rich inter-relationship between the language not learnt and the language that is the narrator’s professional concern. We are, as in Terra Terra, in a world of necessary ambiguity.

The brutality of the London Irish experience is amplified when the poetry turns to the Middle East in poems like ‘Scarf’, that grows out of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982:

For the killed there is no sheltering

and no talk of it. We do not

speak of the dead gathering

where stillness took over.

And ‘Psalm’, which turns to similar events in Qana in 1986:

Bitter ash of Qana and this is not the end

smoke of an outrage smearing the sullen sun

dark dusts from Zion trouble the splitting air

ashen the fallen olives in the bulldozed groves

ashen the captive corpses under their crusting blood

bitter ash of Qana and this is not the end

This stanza, from the four-verse second section of the poem, shows many of the characteristics of the lyric: assonance, alliteration, repetition, internal rhyming. One key factor is, however, removed, the first person singular; this is lyric without the lyric ‘I’. There’s a deep irony, also, that Lloyd chooses to use the Biblical song of praise to mourn, this is psalm as lamentation and a cry against injustice. The titular harm fields are, amongst other things, these places of slaughter.

The most substantial piece in the book is the last sequence, ‘Bar Null’, a set of 14 poems of 16 lines each, written, we are told, ‘in/divisible ink’. The title is intriguing in itself. Does it refer to a zero value on a bar graph, generating in invisible (indivisible) bar? Is there an echo of the expression ‘bar none’? It almost certainly relates to Robert Kaplan’s The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, which is referenced in the notes; not having read Kaplan’s book I can only guess as to the nature of the relationship. One thing that is clear is that Zero is neither a negative nor a positive. t is, if you loke, an absence that stands outside that binary but that makes our calculations about the world possible.

The sequence begins with a significant absence:

All the waves arrive bereft of their refugees,

the trees abolish even their ruins,

amassed in the chamber of zeroes.

The refugee that doesn’t make landfall is a nothing that is. Beyond that, these open lines begin to establish the landscape of ‘Bar Null’: seashore, trees, rocks and stones form the world of the poem’s absences. Time and again we return to the beachscape as a place of provisional presence in absence:

A stone standing along the rim, a pine

cut-out, fog-dodged, determined the limit

you’d meet, a human looming maybe on

the foreshore.

The ‘maybe’ is hinge, a Beckettian hesitation:

Across the meridian

the new thing escapes me, there then

not there.

Lloyd uses literary references to bring out all the dimensions of his charting of ‘this great null of ocean’ that both separates and connects, offers hope and delivers death. Four words in the sixth poem of the sequence summon up the spirit of Yeats and link the absent seekers after refuge to a global political power game in which the worst most definitely are possessed of ‘a passionate intensity’ of hate and greed:

Like a blue water clause, scale determines

where you step—beyond the limit

the centre doesn’t hold, rhythm grows wily

and makes grooves of its own, will you won’t you

one two want to now. We were speaking of

power, showy things and shit: the base is four-

fold and still things move into their refuge.

All along a slow burn festers in the root mat.

For me, at least, another axis on this null graph is a set of ecological concerns ranging from the climate factors behind an increasing proportion of migration to a general sense of foreboding:

Phosphor drops searing out of the scalded air,

splutter of sparks annulling the bone:

dredged earth laid bare afire, every thing

burns in its own way, with an aura

of hot breath. Dead face turned from me

recedes into the fold, a word breathed in

my ear catches in its knot, reticulate

loops snaring the parting song, this science

of disappearance checking out for now.

Not in detail, but as a general underlay, I sense the absent presence of Hugh MacDiarmid’s great proto-ecopoetic ‘On a Raised Beach’ behind ‘Bar Null’. MacDiarmid was writing in times at least as dark as ours and out of a political sense that connected with the environment in much the same way as Lloyd does. The core perception in MacDiarmid’s poem is:

We must reconcile ourselves to the stones,

Not the stones to us.

This call for humility, for the ability to live in the world in terms that are other than our own, lies, as I read it, at the heart of ‘Bar Null’, with its insistence on reconciling ourselves to the counter-power of absence as a means to undermine the anarchic power that causes environmental disaster and migrant deaths. It is not without significance that the ‘I’ is quietly, unassumingly reinserted in this poem, as an act of accepting responsibility. Its an important poem in an important book. Read it.