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  • Cai Draper

(REVIEW) Tenter by Susie Campbell

Front cover of pamphlet 'Tenter' by Susie Campbell , illustrated by Rose Ferraby. Black text on a yellow background, featuring an abstract monoprint illustration in black ink..

Cai Draper enters Susie Campbell's Tenter (Guillemot Press, 2020), to unpick the rhythms that exist between the woven text and Rose Ferraby's monoprint illustrations, and the work's engagement with memory, forgetting and the priviledged narrative of history.

What does forgetting make way for? How will we remember? Susie Campbell’s first poem from Tenter (Guillemot Press, 2020), ‘Mamor’, from the sequence ‘Memoration’, offers up a pair of images which might go some way to answer this question central to the rest of the book: ‘as a tree gives way, or the side of a hill from beneath.’

Parsing an essential message from Eavan Boland’s Outside History and The Journey with Two Maps, Mícheál McCann says ‘the past is not history, and history is not the past.’ In other words, history is in-and pre-scribed with power structures and dynamics which so often omit the voices of oppressed people, especially—as in the collection's context—in the way that wars are remembered. Favouring ‘a privileged narrative’, as Campbell puts it in a reflection of the making of the book for Guillemot’s journal, history is a thing constructed by the already-powerful.

The past is something different. In Tenter, Campbell ‘problematise[s] any notion of memory or language as a translucent and universal conveyor of experience’, by giving voice to those who history would seek to silence. Be they the women who wove the Bayeux Tapestry several centuries ago, Campbell’s own war-invalided grandfather, or refugees who are forced into ever-more dangerous situations at the increasingly militarised borders of the UK and Europe, the book weaves together mostly prose poetry with etymologies, Latin phrases, old drinking songs, Bible passages, hospital notes, press releases, tourist brochures and other source texts to create a collage of voice and meaning which ranges across time and space.

Rose Ferraby’s monoprint illustrations enhance the book’s steady rhythms, and echo the processes which gave Tenter its conception: re-using; re-tracing; re-telling. Campbell wrote it during her time as poet in residence at Oxford Brookes/University of Oxford’s 2017-18 Mellon Sawyer Lecture Series on Post-War Commemoration, and as such was able to engage with a range of folk, from politicians to veterans to artists and others, who offered her their varied perspectives on remembering war. The product of that process is Tenter, a documenting-meets-archaeology-meets-personal history-meets-lyric mash-up.

‘Memoration’ is a meditative deep-dive into the word-histories related to our current conceptions of memory, intertwined with private chronicle. The sequence offers up examples of related words, from Old English (as in ‘Mamor‘: 'deep thought, deep inwards’) to present-day Dutch (‘Mijmeren': ‘to ponder, muse’) to proto-Germanic (‘Maimrona’: ‘to take care, worry’) and proto-Indo-European (‘mer, (s)mer ‘: 'to think about, be mindful’). These proto-languages are particularly exciting. I remember first learning about proto-Indo-European as an undergraduate English Language student: a theoretical ancient language, the existence of which explains why there are cognate words that link Icelandic at one geographical extreme to Armenian at the other; in turn giving rise to the theory of an Indo-European people, who travelled east from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe—what we now call Ukraine/Southern Russia —to western Europe at some point about 5,000 years ago.

This sequence is more than just a set of linguistic curiosities, however. Here, Campbell brings in the first instances of one of the metaphors which will extend throughout the book: ‘A thread, surprising as gorse’, which turns out to be ‘individual memory persisting into public grief.’ The speaker—‘you’— ‘start[s] to clear the house… it is impossible to throw anything away.’ Excavated linguistic histories are blended—subtle, inextricable— with intensely personal ones which will be returned to later.

We also see Ferraby’s illustrations highlighting certain motifs and meanings, as with the beautiful thread in the plate opposing ‘Mameren’.

Black and white abstract monograph illustration from the work: wavy link cuts through the middle of glitchy ink effect. The background could resemble a fingerprint, or the patterns of worked fields.

This image, depending on the perspective or scale you choose to perceive it by, could resemble the intricate and unique patterns of a fingerprint underneath a tangle of string, or could depict the patterns of worked fields surrounding the confluence of rivers or roads as seen from high above. Ferraby’s prints master ambiguous scale of this kind. As she says in the journal entry, the process of matching illustrations to the poems gave rise to the sense of the ‘trickles and rapids’ of the books’ rhythms, speaking to the variation between close-up and panorama that extends throughout.

The second section, ‘Et Aelfgyva’, takes us into the world of the Bayeux Tapestry’s making; this medieval depiction of the Battle of Hastings was woven by a score of women probably in Kent or Sussex. It stretches metres and is now housed sullenly in a dark hall in northern France, worth a visit even if just to witness the surreal way such artefacts are commodified and monetised to such extremes in Western culture. ‘The design is given’, rings a refrain in this sequence, a comment on the fact the weavers had no authorial control in the making of the narrative, being ‘overseen’ by the imposing ‘Old Badb’, a more powerful figure on quality control: a history-maker. The weavers were, however, given more creative freedom to stitch originalities in the margins—‘the border is ours and what’s left over’— their power literally marginalised.

This section is threaded through with Latin phrases that appear in the tapestry, adding a variegation in texture that is only enhanced by Ferraby’s prints, pocking the text intermittently. I am especially drawn to those opposing this:

all worked in stem-stich. no leaves or fruit. Ubi Harold sacramentum fecit Willilmo duci. the root of it. but no leaves or fruit. Hic Harold dux versus est ad Anglican terram. backwards we stitch.

Another black and white monograph abstract diptych llustration from the work, with a cross hatched design giving the impressin of a chain link fence.

The illustration resembles at once honeycomb, tangerine bags, chain mail, lace, its own ambiguity speaking from and towards the polyvocality Campbell draws from the multiple sources as she re-centralises this group of women that history has muzzled.

Campbell’s freighted, reaching, gloopy prosody defines this part of the poetry:

Et hic defenctus est. we squabble over Edward’s corpse. not for the soft old body but who will work God’s hand. & which. the pale god of veils. or a scythe lord of the field. but Badb’s red tongue outlined in gold. her storm horse bears the bastard.

I love the long, assonantal vowel sounds in ‘pale’, ‘field’ and ‘gold’, which draw out and offer a massiveness to the monosyllabic (i.e. pre-Norman French) part-sentences. It is one of my favourite features of English that there are—very roughly—three layers of historical influence: Old Norse, Latin and French, in order of their invasion dates. Where the eldest of the three is generally monosyllabic, the Latin gave us slightly longer forms, then the French, in all its haughtiness, offered all sorts of new (and long) word-endings. Thus: flame, fire, conflagration. At different times, these forms would have had varying cultural and social value. This is also why (you probably know this) we sometimes have different words for the living animal and the prepared meat. The less rich and powerful farmer would labour to rear the animals for the more rich and powerful coloniser-landlord to eat. Thus: pig/pork; deer/venison; calf/veal; cow/beef. Campbell notes this linguistic shift throughout ‘Et Aelfgyva’, which becomes particularly prominent in the final piece: ‘now we are all watchful. the invaders and the invaded. […] the old laws are gone. this is our new vernacular. our new husbands moan in broken English. […] all of us turn nervously to the shore’. As the second-person pronoun ‘you’ made space for a personal history to blend with the linguistic in ‘Memoration’, here the third-person plural ‘we’ creates a ventriloquism through which the previously mentioned re-centralising process can happen.

The following poem, ‘Wound’, explores Campbell’s grandfather’s experience of the 1939-45 war, from which he was invalided out with the contemporaneous diagnosis of ‘psycho-neurosis’.

Monograph black and white illustration from the work: one image processed over the top of a strip of black ink; could resemble a photo of a mountain ridge.

In this section, Ferraby’s illustrations seem to become more flurried and frenetic, reflective of Gunner Leslie’s psychological trauma. Campbell’s original phrase ‘it blew him up an epiphany’ is a devastation in six words which does huge work at the start of this sequence. Once again the poetry is committed to threading through voices and forms that underline the book’s purpose of breaking through privileged narratives in favour of polyvocality and a championing of the past as opposed to history. Here, Campbell draws again on the central metaphor (‘the action is held together with...stitch-marks/joined up with pale red thread’), imbricating it with Gunner Leslie’s medical records (‘whose courts martial were in the hands of officers who lacked legal training...’), an old drinking song rendered in Latin, a passage from Thessalonians, and the line ‘We would have all offenders so cut-off’, from Henry V. Preceding Shakespeare’s line, Campbell writes, ‘nothing to support those who beg for a pardon…nothing of grace for them… lily-livered, shroud-wavers’, working through the argument that straddles the morality of posthumous pardons for those courts-martialled and executed for the dubious ‘crime’ of cowardice.

Along with those earlier threads in ‘Memoration’, the penultimate section, ‘Hush’, is the book’s most personal: ‘An edge of grief you can park in an empty tongue.’ Loss and the grief therein entwine with a place made for public mourning, but ‘The fields are empty’. So too, has memory become ‘spongy underfoot’. In this ‘apophatic silence’, Campbell draws from a list of ‘useful words’, found in sculptor Rachel Whiteread’s 2012 notebook: ‘Blank/Nil/Null/Hush-hush/Shh/Shush’. In grieving, language has reached its limits. It is interesting that Campbell turns to the words of a sculptor at this moment, and reminds me of a passage in a Fine Art Society article I came across when researching the sculptor Frank Dobson a few years back: ‘it was exactly this need to represent some indefinable emotion, which stood outside the structures of spoken language…which made him a sculptor’. I believe those words could equally be applied to a poet; Campbell speaks through the unspeakable.

Another black and white monograph illustration from the publication. Several images appeared to be overlaid. Two pressed leafs can be seen on the right side of the picture.

Preceding ‘Our D-Day’, the final part of Tenter, is another more abstract illustration. Here we see the imprints of rollers that trace their paths but only faintly. A pattern is repeated but with decaying amounts of ink, replicating the poetry’s notions of a fading: of memory; of language; of space; of connection and relation. But, as Ferraby comments, the poems are not simply ‘of loss and losing, but also discovery and growth: rotting and renewal at once’. So, where we see the negative outline of a leaf on the one page, a ghost almost, we also see its vital intricacies in detail replicated on the next, even where the ink seems paradoxically to be failing. This is where the illustrations are at their strongest, presenting silent versions of the complexities offered up in the text.

‘Our D-Day’, like the rest of the book, is a patchwork of varied source texts and original poetry. The ‘we’ in the first part of the poem ventriloquises English soldiers who ‘are soaking wet with wading ashore’, having been sent to fight the Axis armies in northern France during the 1939-45 war. One of the source texts is a so-called tourist brochure of the battlefields, the light-hearted tone of which jars violently with Campbell’s re-telling:

there is a vintage bike ride with civilian clothes from WWII and bikes from the 1940s then there are no trees no help comes when we get up he treads on an a mine it blows his legs off his legs right off

Veterans’ accounts of that offensive provide a level of detail which address Campbell’s original hypothesis that history, as opposed to the past, suppresses certain experiences and voices in order to construct simplified narratives which fit with the ideologies of those already in power. This idea is nowhere more clear than in her threading-in of the announcement that Philip Hammond, then Chancellor, provided £20 million for a new D-Day memorial in northern France in 2017. As The Sun had it, the offensive ‘led to the defeat of the Nazis’, a claim that no doubt sought to justify the colossal expenditure at a time when poverty and malnutrition were on the rise after years of austerity implemented by Hammond’s own department.

Campbell ends the book in a deft move. Taking the proximity between Calais and Dover (‘only 21 miles’, we are repeatedly told), as well as the notion of D-Day, which was used by a certain M. Puissesseau, CEO of the Port of Calais to refer to the day on which the camps established by refugees were razed to the ground by the French state, Campbell re-formulates the ways in which the British political class and their media friends portray the refugee crisis: ‘refugees throw stones at police who retaliate with tear gas’, as if it is those fleeing war and persecution for the relative safety Europe, who aggress. Those veteran accounts from the first half of the poem are again woven through the media references, the details reminding us of the parallels of power relations between those sent to die ‘for their country’ versus those who do the sending on one hand, and on the other those who flee their country versus those forces which made them flee.

The final line asks, ‘how will we remember’, followed by the Latin ‘Omnes gentes plaudite!’, from Psalm 47, translating roughly as ‘All people, clap’. The exclamation marks put a shudder through me. I write this on 12th November, just a few days after ‘Remembrance Sunday’, the day when all the wheels of the state and their media turn to ‘honour the fallen’. This year, Extinction Rebellion activists (including army veteran Donald Bell) staged an intervention during the proceedings, unveiling a banner that read, ‘Honour their sacrifice, climate change means war.’ Whatever your take on the group or the protest, one thing we are reminded of, as Campbell and Ferraby’s book so beautifully, sensitively and painfully depicts, is that the act of remembering war is never neutral. Where the already-powerful continue to justify state aggression and Western hegemony through these acts of commemoration, Campbell and Ferraby show us that another way forward might be possible; one that holds honesty, empathy and love as the higher virtues.

Tenter is available to buy here from Guillemot Press.


Text/Photos: Cai Draper

Published: 26/01/2021


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