For some time I have been meaning to write about Susie Campbell’s book, Tenter (published by Guillemot). And seeing as it is the first anniversary of its publication, I thought now might be a good time. Beautifully illustrated by the artist-archaeologist Rose Ferraby, this small but powerful collection of five extended prose poems grew out of Campbell’s residency for the Mellon-Sawyer series – ‘Post-War: Commemoration, Reconstruction, Reconciliation’. The collection explores ideas around conflict, with particular reference to the complexities of remembrance and to the ethical conflicts inherent in Britain’s framing of itself as a post-war nation. It is a remarkable body of work that I would argue stands alongside other notable treatments of war such as David Jones’s In Parenthesis, Jorie Graham’s Overlord, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial.
Tenter is a profoundly eloquent study in loss and restoration. It skilfully patches together modern and medieval conflict, using threads of history, myth, D-Day tourism, etymology, personal testimony, and acts of public remembering, particularly Tenter’s touchstone and primary motif, the Bayeux Tapestry. The central, standout sequence is Et Ælfgyva, which explores the Battle of Hastings through the eyes of the Kentish women instructed by the Normans to embroider the tapestry ‘. this English art to tell of our own defeat.’ The title of the book itself refers to the frame on which such an embroidery would have been stretched to prevent shrinkage and, in keeping with that idea, Tenter offers its own framework on which to peg down the opposing forces of its theme.
Etymologies are important to Campbell’s work both here and elsewhere, and indeed this collection begins with a section called Memoration: an invented word with suggestions of mémoration (French for committing to memory); murmuration (murmuring, a flock of starlings, emerging order); and commemoration (ceremonial remembering). Memoration comprises nine proposed etymologies exploring ideas of root languages and definitions, intimations of personal loss, the stories of people fleeing war zones, stitchwork and the building of memorials. The first of these is Mamor, which posits memory as deep thought ‘as a tree gives way, or the side of a hill from beneath’. This ground giving way is something that recurs throughout Tenter, as Campbell uses shifts in grammar and prosody to move the field beneath the reader’s feet, with her text excavating meaning as well as layers of personal and public remembrance. She talks elsewhere of other raids on meaning, moments of ‘breaking and entering’. Memoration is also peppered with phrases that prefigure the imagery of the central poem Et Ælfgyva – ‘A thread, surprising as gorse, jerks you on’ and ‘The restorer re-stitches using the same holes.’ Indeed embroidery motifs stretch across all the poems in this book, creating a weave in which all the parts are in dialogue with each other. All, I would argue, speaking primarily through the image of the tapestry.
The poem Et Ælfgyva lays out a battlefield in twelve panels. It is a bawdy and convincing conjuration of both told and untold history, in which embroiderers curse, stitch and squabble over the more significant motifs of the tapestry, all under the watchful eye of Dame Badb, a brilliant evocation of the war goddess Badb, the sower (or indeed sew-er?) of confusion on the battlefield. It is fitting that Badb should be in command of a posse of embroiderers (as she is here) as one version of her name’s etymology finds it in ‘bhedh’ meaning ‘to pierce’. And there is a LOT of piercing in Tenter. The full-stops that both puncture and punctuate Et Ælfgyva are a clever device that physically embodies the little needle holes of the embroidery: the ‘prick-and-pounce’ of the commissioner of the tapestry, Odo ‘Catspaw’, who ‘orders the story. bolting now & only our needles to hold it down. […] . but ghosts fall quietly. to our bloody needles.’
‘[B]ackwards we stitch’ would seem to be as good a phrase as any in this collection to describe the way nations back-stitch their history. But the bawdy women of Badb’s sewing room are busy in the margins, disturbing dominant narratives of ‘glory’ and ‘nationhood’ with their wit and embroidered asides. This margin-work is something Campbell does well, both here and in her work elsewhere. She is a champion of other voices (. the border is ours and what’s left over.) and her work is always picking away at that border, teasing out in this instance the voices of the fallen and the collateral; the voices of women and the voices of desperate migrants fleeing war zones ‘ we stitch into the margin other memories.’
The two primary motifs of the collection are the field and the needle, and in Wound, the section that follows Et Ælfgyva, we are introduced to the field of the body, a site of injury and provisional repair. Some of the images in this section could easily have been lifted from the Bayeux Tapestry, with its warhorses and ‘heads like turnips rolling from a saddlebag’ (this later recalling Harold’s ‘slashed turnip grin’). In this poem, the text itself is filled with spaces, wounds that ‘appear as holes gaping in the fabric’. These spaces could be interpreted as physical wounds, or the gaps inherent in untold histories, ‘darns beneath the feet of soldiers’, but also as ways to honour the elective silences associated with trauma. Holes that are beyond repairing.
Wound also pulls in Gallipoli, the field of Agincourt, and the Somme. Campbell’s notes tell us her own grandfather was invalided out of the army and hospitalised for what would now be termed PTSD, and Wound uses phrases from his hospital record interwoven with snippets from medieval song, bible verse, Shakespeare, and the poems of Laurence Binyon and Alice Oswald. It is a profoundly inter-textual piece, much in the manner of David Jones’s First World War epic, In Parenthesis (1937), which Tenter absolutely deserves to be discussed in the company of. I am thinking here of Section 4, King Pellam’s Launde, and the boast of Jones’ eternal infantryman Dai Great-coat, who says ‘I watched them work the terrible embroidery’. Tenter also shares elements of grail imagery with In Parenthesis; there are allusions to Knights of the Grail and also to the Fisher King (gunner Leslie with his groin injury, and Dai Great-coat as La Cote Male Taile.) Both refer to bodies buried to protect Britain: the head of the injured giant Brân (In Parenthesis); and Harold’s body that ‘must be buried by the shore. to teach him to guard it better’ (Tenter). Wound also offers a sensitive unpicking of what Campbell calls the ‘narrow tent of masculinity’, its relationship to the body and to the field of battle.
Both David Jones and Susie Campbell explore Badb’s eternal battlefield, or the garden of the Badb, by placing personal record alongside legend and myth and binding them together with popular song lyrics, prayer and poetry. Neither does so in an aggrandizing way, and both demand that the reader listen to and question these narratives: ‘Why, / what is this, / what’s the meaning of this.’ (In Parenthesis) ‘Listen. Hush.’ (Tenter)
Hush, the penultimate poem in Tenter, develops this theme of listening, as well as the inadequacy of words to honour or ‘hold’ the dead, but it is also a poem of personal grief. In her notes Campbell mentions that her own mother died just before her post-war commemoration residency began, and Hush describes a visit by the poet to the site of the Battle of Hastings and a memory whilst there of having visited it once before with her mother. Hush is a tremendously affecting poem and it anchors the collection with a moment of profoundly felt personal grief, ‘A dead tree stripped clean and time fucking stops.’ This reflection on the way grief stops us, and its attendant need for silence and attentive listening, struck me as being in sympathy with some of Jorie Graham’s work ‘...your mind––which keeps on stepping mind you–– / until it doesn’t and the stopping / happens again.‘ (Dawn Day One, Overlord).
There are two phrases in Hush I especially enjoyed. Firstly, the Gertrude Stein-ian ‘An edge of grief you can park in an empty tongue.’ And secondly, ‘You cannot enter nor explore its spaces nor the dead in their apophatic silence // that gap in words.‘ This last reminded me of Graham’s ‘there is no / entrance, / only entering‘ (At Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body) and I was thrown back to the beginning of Tenter with its ‘side of a hill from beneath’, a phrase which also speaks to Graham’s ‘There is no underneath. / It is all souvenir.’ (Upon Emergence, Overlord)
The last poem in the book, Our D-Day, begins with a traditional drinking song, lines from which punctuate the text, ending with the refrain ‘omnes gentes plaudite!’ This Latin imperative (plaudite) comes from the root verb meaning to beat; flap wings; clap; or applaud, and stems in turn from the Greek πλήσσω (plisso) which means to strike, or, in its passive usage, to be stricken or emotionally overcome. This poem adds complexity to Tenter’s exploration of war and commemoration, with its weaving together of the experience in the trenches and beach landings with that of the recent migrant camps in France. Our D-Day mixes veteran accounts and phrases from D-Day tourism brochures with newspaper coverage of the brutal clearances of the camps at Calais.
This poem also nods us back to the opening of the book with its reference to refrigerated lorries, which could on the one hand be a mode of transporting bodies to be repatriated for burial, but equally could be a perilous vehicle for stowaways. Our D-Day examines and critiques the enduring theme of invasion, and its toxic persistence in British exclusionary narratives. Campbell draws marginalised voices into this narrative, including those of people displaced by conflicts in which we as a nation are implicated, and who are now seeking refuge on Britain’s shores. This shift makes Tenter as much a way of moving forward, as it is a way of looking back. Campbell offers her readers a more holistic approach to remembrance, an approach that honours sacrifice whilst remaining clear eyed about its ramifications for the individual and the society to which that individual does not return. It does not lose sight of the sometimes pernicious certainties of history, instead reaching beyond them for a way of holding both the dead and the living, the known and the unknown. The ‘omnes gentes’ of Tenter’s restorative and inclusive final refrain.
Susie Campbell is a tremendously exciting and thoughtful poet, whose work is both gutsy and precise. Contemporising and humane, her book Tenter is an extraordinary meditation on remembrance, and as such deserves greater visibility in the debate around modern poetry and what it can achieve. It can be found here – https://www.guillemotpress.co.uk/poetry/susie-campbell