(REVIEW) Dressings by Tom Betteridge
Alice Hill-Woods dissects the scalpel precision, tenderness, agile morphology and laparoscopic poetics of Tom Betteridge’s Dressings (Materials, 2019).
> On advancedtissue.com, the advice for healing wounds quickly is as follows: get your rest / eat your vegetables / stay active / don’t smoke / keep the wound clean and dressed. The ‘good’ layers of existing are looped into platelet trajectories. You can follow the ritual in order to change the layout of a wound, so that it’s not obnoxiously red and sticky, but rather a sickle moon, shadow-play, a rubbed-out comma. But before that point – in the time between – are dressings, the textural shapes that promise care.
> On reading Tom Betteridge’s Dressings: can there be a better time to peel back the gauze? Published by Materials in November 2019, the pamphlet’s pink façade is marbled like steak-flesh. The first page introduces its black and inky twin, reminding me less of steak and more of thumbprints, the whorls that mean everything and nothing at the same time. The internal text is unnumbered, unnamed and fluid, its skeleton of eighty-four tercets positioned like an abacus, or a spine, three stanzas per page. The threes, the nines and the almost predictable metre of each line make it feel like a text stratified with luck, like finding a penny on the floor of a hospital waiting room.
> In poetic tradition, afflatus is literally to in-spire and ex-spire, an exchange of air (Falco 2012). This breathiness is something I thought about when reading Dressings; Betteridge’s pamphlet expects you to pause for air on your own account, refusing to provide any punctuation… no punctuation *except* for dashing hyphens, stretching as they do to knit words together – darkly reflexive bodies in a typographical ecosystem. Are hyphens the dressings of typography? So mutualising and firm. Some of my favourites: ‘carp-litter’, ‘lake-dip skin-taut’, ‘flint-knappers’, Betteridge making scar tissue out of disparate scraps.
> I am enthralled by Betteridge’s ability to morph agilely from acid-raw observations to basking murmurs. Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s an apathetic gaze or one that is feeling a lot as it sees:
the time left what’s left to hold harried tense cycle hemmed in speech scrutiny bedside duress grey light adore you
The anxiety brought by death-suggestion is evoked through time that is simultaneously slipping away and being pushed into the square corners of timetables, prescription documents and calendars. It is unsurprising that speech is ‘hemmed in’, a further reference to a texture but one that feels suffocating. The sibilance gathers spit as overflow.
> There are some lines that summon a throat lump (also known as globus sensation, when your glottis arches wide with emotion). Consider: ‘care is all sorts chorus no hard no’. This calls to mind a rising serenade of fussing around the sickly, where family members and nurses forget the gentle wiring of linguistic turn-taking, replacing it with fretting and love and soft distress. I imagine that these net over one another in different hushed pitches: care as chorus, a choir with a common intention.
> Nevertheless, sentimentality is not immune to rupture, and Dressings is hard-to-trust matter because the scalpel is always close by. The gauze deceives and sticks to the hurt. I read it in tangent with Betteridge’s poem, ‘Mudchute’, published by Granta in April this year. In this, ‘marker-pen gooseys’ turn to ‘fucking hanging geese’ and ‘feathered nooses’ and ‘geese and throat-cuts’ so quickly it could be likened to vertigo, where the urgent rush between solid ground and a deadly drop happens before you can think about it. Although this is dangerous territory, Betteridge’s ability to throw you off balance with unexpected diction is never exploitative; it gestures to poetry’s psychoactive properties. Your perception of things is perpetually altered by the deliberate positioning of words and phrases, and it’s an exciting thing to surrender to. Dressings barters surrender for brilliance.
> Where there are bodies there are landscapes too, and Betteridge makes their interlacing visible:
this adit drainage this crush of ore to mass carp-litter beneath our quick skirt of the opencast this high-volume matter flung out for settled patchwork cast-off orchids abandoned drill muds bespoke under brightening hardway
Violence is encoded within the drilling and the dead flowers, the crushed ore. On the next page, ‘red of cellared collapse no exit’ invokes the tunnelled, panicky materiality of mining, which echoes the noun ‘adit’: ‘a roughly horizontal passage introduced into a mine for the purpose of access or drainage’ (OED Online, 2020). The body is painted as terrain in the throes of being quarried – the mud is just another bit of viscid matter, and what makes this bit mud and this blood? Through this vital play of re-signification, Betteridge makes all manner of objects intimate with each other, and we begin to lose the astringent boundaries we make to divide the chaos into manageable portions.
> A few years ago, I had my appendix removed. The surgeon placed a laparoscope through a small incision in my body. This instrument has a bright light and a high-resolution camera, which means that you can see all that soft, pink pulp beneath the skin. If you saw the cavernous labyrinth of intestines growing dark and alive in their bends, would you look away? I feel as though Dressings would gaze at that image with keen eyes, somehow troubling the idea that it would be any different from the peaty underbelly of a quagmire. I celebrate the aliveness that Betteridge brings to everything – I’m not embarrassed to say that I would describe Dressings as laparoscopic poetics (you heard it here first!).
> In The Birth of the Clinic (Naissance de la Clinique), Michael Foucault writes:
From the point of view of death, disease has a land, a mappable territory, a subterranean, but secure place where its kinships and its consequences are formed; local values define its forms. Paradoxically, the presence of the corpse enables us to perceive it living – living with a life that is no longer that of either old sympathies or the combinative laws of complications, but one that has its own roles and its own laws. (Foucault 2003: 183)
In a way that I think demonstrates Foucault’s immersion of locality/geography into his readers’ perception of the sick body, Dressings quite literally (ad)dresses the body with signs until it is no longer a finite object but an accordion of expanding folds, within which snapshots of sensation and space are grouped. In Dressings, to ‘clip back | rough courage dreamt in the fresh tree-growth’ is a heart-tug metaphor that releases energy in paralleled dimensions. Its semantic charge roots the body in a thousand vivid places at once, which is ironic if you are to assume that such a body – maybe under anaesthetic, maybe undergoing an operation, maybe comatose – is distinctively in one place: the hospital ward.*
> On the ninth and thirty-first pages (i.e., excluding the initial paratext), three stanzas make up a séance of prefixes and suffixes. When read aloud they sound like a Latin hymn, or a prayer chant. They soothe in vibrating cadences, reaching out to a divine unknowingness, something whispered beside a bedside in Accident & Emergency. The sounds have more than just sonorous impact, however. Some examples: ‘–algia’ denotes pain; ‘or–‘ is a prefix belonging to nouns and adjectives with various senses; ‘aur–‘ is something to do with the ear; ‘–penia’ denotes lack, or a deficiency of some kind; ‘–pnea’ relates to respiration; ‘–stomy’ speaks of surgical openings in the body. These meanings are all taken from Google and, while it would be nice and impressive to know these already, it’s also nice to extract them like bones from a site.
> There is more to say about Dressings, much more to say. But reading it is how I imagine painters feel about an oil painting that occupies a studio for weeks: you could keep going, using rag cloths and methylated spirits to thin the Prussian blue into lovely variegations, but often it is good to pause. The pamphlet splays downwards on my slow-rising, slow-falling diaphragm. It is a composition that will seduce me to return.
*I like the term ‘semantic charge’ and read it in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics on page 1287.
Text: Alice Hill-Woods
Dressings is out now and available to order from Materials.
‘adit, n.’ OED Online, Oxford University Press <www.oed.com/view/Entry/2406> [accessed 1 August 2020]
Betteridge, Tom. 2020. ‘Mudchute’, Granta <https://granta.com/mudchute/> [accessed 2 August 2020]
Betteridge, Tom. 2019. Dressings (London: Materials)
Falco, R. ‘Afflatus’, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. by Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman, Clare Cavanagh, Jahan Ramazani and Paul Rouzer, 4th edn (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p. 13
Foucault, Michael.  2003. The Birth of the Clinic: An archaeology of medical perception, trans. By A. M. Sheridan (London: Routledge)