Tenter by Susie Campbell (Guillemot Press 2021), Sanchez Ventura by Simon Collings (Leafe Press 2021), The Dusty Angel by Vahni Capildeo (Oystercatcher 2021)
Reviewed by Lucy Sheerman
These three very different books explore the scope and capacity of the long poem form using subtly different techniques and approaches. The connections between the books and between the phrases, epiphanies and insights which each work offers are web-like and expansive. Each slim pamphlet includes endnotes which suggest the highly collaborative and interconnected nature of the process each writer uses. Campbell and Collings have included original artwork by the artists Rose Ferraby and Zoë Rubens that directly responds to their writing (the artists are both credited on the cover). Ferraby’s close-up abstracts explore, as Guillemot Press states, ‘the texture of tapestry, threads of narrative, the warp and weave of ink’. Rubens’ anarchic sequential art engages with text, situations and characters that appear in the book in a comic strip format. Capildeo’s lush cover image of Pink pouis in Queen’s Park Savannah by photographer and artist Rachel Lee Young suggests the literary terrain of Trinidad’s flora and fauna as well as the bittersweet cycle of life into death glimpsed in the pink of the fallen blossom reflecting the blossoms on the trees above. This dynamic creates a standoff or stasis between hope and despair, which Capildeo reflects upon throughout the book. All three books appear to be in conversation with these images, so that the work might appear incomplete in some senses, as though the reader has happened upon a conversation or thought process in mid-flow. Even with the two sides of the dialogue represented on the page the gaps between them leaves a space of rich possibility. Because they cannot be complete, the allusions, references, extensions implicit in the writing of all three poets can therefore only expand and augment the fragmentary nature of the ideas and themes captured on these pages.
Campbell’s Tenter seems to indicate such a state of provisionality even in its title. The notes state that a tenter is ‘a person who stretches cloth, or the framework on which fabric is held taut and secured with ‘tenter-hooks’ ’. It suggests a work in continuous movement, the artist as the agent of stretch, pulling the fabric of the world or book tauter and tauter in order to see what might happen, tiny gaps between warp and weft emerging through which to glimpse something differently. It sets up the possibility of a strain which is unrelenting as the burden of the process oppresses the physical and mental strength of the stretcher, the awful possibility of a rip in the fabric they stretch, suggesting also the point at which order or truth starts to unravel. The title also refers to the stretching of the canvas for the Bayeux tapestry, and hence the text, the material itself, becomes a site of damage, needles pierce the cloth in a process both figurative and literal, as they trace out the record of a devastating battle.
The first sequence, ‘Memoration’, is an encounter with the act of memory and memorialising, reflecting on the meanings of the word as it extends across linguistic boundaries and countries. It sets the framework for the entire sequence, a collection which explores themes of war and loss and how to remember and mark them. It is also shaped by the death of the poet’s mother and by recollections of her grandfather, invalided out of the first world war and ‘admitted to a local mental hospital’.
Commemorate, English (to recall and mark by doing or
producing something). A passage through time moth-holed
and embroidered by desire. The restorer re-stitches using
the same holes but different coloured thread. When was
it you came here with her? When she could still walk, and
that wooden soldier recalled her father.
The extract suggests the play that takes place throughout this sequence of the provisional fragile nature of material – the tapestry, physical being, language, thought, circling back on perception, communication, understanding, misunderstanding and the terrible conflicts that can result.
The title of the second sequence, ‘Et Aelfgyva’, refers to the infamous image in the Bayeux tapestry, one of the only ones featuring a woman. It is a quotation from the text that appears above: ‘Here a certain clerk and Aelfgyva’. The image is of a clerk placing his hand upon her face or possibly striking her; it’s impossible to know the history of the incident it depicts, its scandalous or controversial character can only be guessed at. The full description indicates the uneven representation of women in the history of conflict and also of the role of the author in the setting down of that history by ‘some cleric’ when for the women who made the tapestry ‘it is forbidden for us to use ink … but we may sew’. The facts represented are lost, uncertain, just as the truths of the battles the poet attempts to reconsider seem to slip from her fingers. The sequence quotes from the Latin phrases taken from the tapestry, tangible elements of an act of representation that echoes the distance of the original embroiderers from the events they described. There are lines which suggest the political nature of this act, not least in the jostling for position around the actual tapestry as it was made, which took place between the female artists ‘no gap between us. our needles mad with blood. stab-stitch. wild with missing sons.’ The materials they work with are redolent of the processes of the body, its annihilation, bound into its representation: ‘we split needles from bone & fashion an axe.’ The coloured threads they use are also bound into the reality of the body; the blue thread, a highly prized colour at the time made from woad leaves, dried, crushed and composted with manure, creates an intense physical reaction in the sewers: ‘blue stinks & sticks in the throat. making us sob or laugh. blue piss blue spit. but bruises come up green & today we start for real.’Grief, anguish, longing are made material in this work as it depicts the stitching, the bruising of fingers, the politics of representation and memorialisation in the images of fallen kings, lost loved ones and the wishful thinking of women severed from the distant events they record:
these bloody needles sew their story. Hic navis Anglica venti
in terram Willelmi ducis. are the same needles. to embroider
our shrouds and winding sheets. how we searched each
mutilated body. ten thousand or more. greedy to find a
familiar ring or a chain.
Tenter is a beautifully produced book, making its presence felt as it sits in the palm of your hand, resisting any attempt to press the pages open without the reader’s fingers pushing them apart, its heavy pages suggestive of the fact that paper was once made from rags of clothing. The works are, in the main, prose poems, set out on the page like scraps of fabric and juxtaposed with Rose Ferraby’s ghostly images of fabric. Like the poems the illustrations are constructed from elements made by others, pieces of net, sections of crochet, threads unravelling and knotted. The intricate frustrations of stitching as a form of writing and editing are displayed and hugely magnified. These beautiful images focus on the materiality of thread and cloth, the fraying of material, the chinks and gaps that appear within a swatch of fabric or lace. They, like the poems are so sheer, magnified and stretched so thin as to make visible the craft of threads shaped and woven and stitched by women’s ‘invisible hands’.
Simon Collings’ Sanchez Ventura considers the possibilities and capacities of meaning-making in language also explored throughout Tenter. Unlike Tenter, which is anchored in the tangible process of writing, stitching and memorialising, Sanchez Ventura’s words exist in a textual world in which the materiality that words convey can seem hyper-real and then, suddenly, other. Through a subtly odd angle of looking or twist of phrase, the reader is left questioning the reality of the scenes in which they have been immersed. While Campbell returns repeatedly to the sometimes painful process of meaning-making and its analogy with stitching, Collings’ poems are flightier accounts of lyrical dream-like realities and scenes in which the impossible appears to be possible. They are peopled by characters, like the reader, attempting to make sense of such lived realities. Any grasp on scene, setting or plot is contingent and quickly slips away. While specific details and events may make sense in isolation or in juxtaposition with each other, they resist the linear narrative form frequently introduced by plot or story structure.
The author (perhaps), named simply “C” in the opening poem, seems to court such a slip between the real and fictional or imagined worlds, when he is encountered “browsing the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, searching for something out of the ordinary to read”. In a scene which sets the tone for the rest of the sequence as C transitions from the state of author to reader, he experiences a heightened sense of reality, of the detailed physicality of his own appearance as well as his surroundings:
As he examined the cover the light in the shop grew brighter, and he became aware that his linen suit was crumpled and his shoes scuffed and coated with dust. The scent of gardenias briefly filled his nostrils. C opened the book at random and began reading. (p7)
The reader thus joins C in the state of intensified perception as they enter the disjointed world of the author and begin reading. Each prose poem presents characters who inhabit this fluid space between real and dream. In the second stanza Teresa wakes up and, going to look out of the window, sees ‘a group of young gauchos parading in the road, waving their boleros and whooping. One of them glanced up at her, then they galloped off down the street and disappeared into the night.’ (p8) Sanchez Ventura appears in this stanza, leading the gauchos and walking with a limp:
Since cattle ranching had become unprofitable they had taken to appearing in the dreams of people more prosperous than themselves. The number of riders in the group varied according to Sanchez Ventura’s whim. Tonight they would bivouac in the shelter of a forlorn hope of restitution. (p8)
Numerous characters appear throughout these poems, tattooed with words, erasing them from books and stencilling quotations from Baudelaire onto walls and tables. Teresa, for example, is a figure who appears consistently throughout these poems and one with whom the reader begins to identify as a protagonist with a form of story arc within the book. You see her sleeping and awake, reading and writing, leaving a library, and entering a room in which the door handle is ‘a cleverly disguised trompe l’oeil’. Her narrative reveals the extent to which meaning is uncertain, provisional, misleading. Falling asleep reading a book from which someone has cut ‘random words and phrases’, she dreams that she was ‘walking down an empty street, a shower of words falling like confetti. She gathered them […] on the back of her hand, wondering if this might be a message. ‘thus to express/ the texture of the past as / a backlist of/ impossibilities,’ she read.’ (p10) Teresa inhabits the arbitrary spaces between consciousness and unconsciousness, intended and accidental meaning in a surrealist homage which wavers between the inflected interpretations and agency of reader and writer. Her passage through the text becomes a mechanism for play with possibility, interpretation and meaning. References and inferences planted throughout the text are picked up, deciphered and reinterpreted when she appears. She is both textual device and point of reference for the reader and, like the rest of the text, a figure who is both tacitly real and not real. In one of the final stanzas she turns the trompe l’oeil door handle to discover ‘a life-size waxwork of Sanchez Ventura, the man she had come to interview’; however in a whimsical reference back to the beginning of the book, it is clear that Sanchez Ventura is not just the subject but also the author/reader C. ‘He was dressed in a 1930s-style linen suit and seated at an escritoire, bent over an open notebook with a pen in his hand. His shoes she noticed were scuffed and covered in dust.’ When Teresa approaches the figure she sees that ‘its brow was creased, the eyes unfocused as if the writer were struggling to express something he couldn’t quite find the language for’. (p24) In a humorous play upon the capacities of language to express thought, we thus see the fictional Teresa, product of C’s imagination, encountering him in the moment at which the narrative opened, along with the strange book In the Shadow of Dreams that he opened at the beginning of the sequence. The title is a clue to the action of the sequence that followed, and the reflective axis of meaning to which the reader inevitably returns.
Sanchez Ventura is a book that plays with writerly intent and readerly expectation, defying and raising it with details that are whimsical and uplifting and distracting in turns. Zoë Rubens’ accompanying illustrations work similarly, referencing scenes and text from the sequence and presenting them in a graphic novel format which echoes the landscape of the poems. In a further extension of the book’s self-referentiality, these comic strips also purport to be the work of one of the characters in the sequence. Excerpts from Edmund Burke float over buildings, alongside the thoughts of figures reading from self- improvement manuals. Morgan le Fay and Galahad, figures from the book Teresa has been reading, emerge to watch over scenes of urban desolation. Visual references and images jostle against each other; it’s hard to see where the face of Sanchez Ventura begins and the images of collapsing buildings, speech bubbles and stampeding buffalo end. Figures who appear in the sequence quote phrases from the graphic novel but that work as a context for reference and meaning is further displaced. The reader, seeking the origins of these phrases, is directed elsewhere once again; the graphic novel is itself a construction formed of displaced phrases, fabricated from material cut from old magazines from the real world of author, reader and artist.
Like Tenter, the book’s title functions as a clue to the reader about how to encounter the sequence and alludes to the friend of the famous surrealist film-maker Luis Buñuel who worked as an assistant on Buñuel’s 1933 film Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Land without Bread). The film is a pseudo-documentary of one of Spain’s most desolate regions, which was at that time so isolated that bread was unknown. The title thus sets the scene for the book’s desolate urban sketches, its surreal and deadpan tone and its dream-like segues from one prose poem to another. It also archly undercuts the possibility of such connections in the author’s note which, following an account of these biographical details, states that ‘the fictional character in this story has no connection with the historical Sanchez Ventura’.
Vahni Capildeo’s pamphlet from Oystercatcher Press, The Dusty Angel, opens with a quote from Ezekiel, ‘they stood, and let down their wings.’ It refers to a vision of divinity, bringing hope to an exiled people and to the impossible moment at which this celestial and monstrous creature begins to speak. The sequence consists of three sections, each made up of seven Walks, seven Nocturnes and seven Lullabies. Their titles, Walk #1, Walk #2, etc., suggest a terrain which is not simply poetic; these might be titles deployed by a visual artist to map a study in form or abstraction as it progresses over time and space. Already the reader knows that the sequence will bring both escape and distraction with its walks, but also a preoccupation with night, the melancholic ending of the day and the need for comfort as the light and consciousness fade, a tone suggested by the series of Nocturnes and Lullabies which follow.
The Walks section is a place fraught with risk, the first poem opening with the urgent warning that ‘now is the time when / the mapepires are mating.’ Mapepires are venomous serpents indigenous to Trinidad and Tobago; the walk is thus traversing Capildeo’s home ground, a place of anxious reckoning with the threats and dangers of the environment, mapped out in the traces of difficult experiences or possibilities. Here, every step marks out territories of other people, a walk fraught with danger, ‘the leaf trash on trails / is cool and full / of daytime sleepers / ready to sss.’ Here, putting one foot in front of another, keeping going, takes on the additional freight of scanning undergrowth and pathways and seasons for threat. The canon of walking poems to which Capildeo might be referring – authors exploring a transcendental connection with nature in the British countryside, who might, like the mapepires, sleep beneath the texture of this work – exert their pressure upon the writing but in the real world of the author, there are still new ones. The hiss of the snakes is alarming and disconcerting; it merges into fear of social anxiety, not being able to keep track of manifold conversations and who is part of them, who excluded, who withdrawn: ‘I can’t keep track / of who is talking to each other […] Or who isn’t. Who isn’t.’
Walk #2 describes the panic of a walker separated from their companion and the vulnerability, imagined and real, of being alone in an area filled with the traces of real, historical and anticipated threat. The recitation of possible meeting points once again locates this walk amongst the lush vegetation of the Caribbean, but also in a landscape filled with terrors which have the terrible vividness of childhood. They might meet by the ‘tulip tree’ or by ‘the hospital’ or ‘Before raper-man corner / and the gingerbread house.’ ‘If you walk slowly, / I’ll have further to run. // If nobody has abducted you, / I’ll double back to meet you.’ The urgent fear induced by the separation between writer and companion feels terrible, conveying a sense of the real possibility of harm and also the devastation of the separation. In the context of walks taken in the time of a global pandemic, these journeys take on new significance, playing out the pressures of freedom, dependence and isolation upon the individual walker/reader. This meditative walking seeks the flashes of inspiration offered by a communion with nature or with the work of Romantic poets. The terrible edge of such sublimity is present in the awareness of the snakes and the many other dangers facing the walker/reader. The fear of catastrophe is hinted at in the image of doves wheeling in the air and not landing. Unlike the people dwelling in the houses below, watching and listening and waiting, the doves are ‘rising like a dust of sublime objection’. The poet, pinned into the rooms below, can only wonder: ‘Where will they land, and when?’ Flight is thus a metaphor for freedom as well as loss of control. Flight is also a symbol of the catastrophe of landing, as for example the arrival of flights bringing infection to the island in which the poet lives, on which they walk. The poet thus imagines themselves being sent ‘someplace tiredness must fill my feet, high up, / maybe the abandoned tracking station. / I am no satellite. There is no moon.’ In the following poem, Walk #4, ‘A plane crashes / without sound, in the experimental past.’
The leaves, underneath which the mapepires hid, return in Walk #5 in a poem which interlaces lines from Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind with the record of the poet’s walking. The fallen leaves which Shelley pictured blown along by the wind in Autumn, borne through the air like clouds and, finally, like his dead thoughts driven ‘over the universe like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth’ are also harbingers of death. In Capildeo’s rewriting the leaves ‘cling and fall’ and time is frozen as the author, the poem, the leaves, even the seasons are suspended:
A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d.
They pass more often than is possible
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Slot into a standstill near the waterfall.
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
Magenta petals and an emerald bird.
O Wind! The trumpet of a prophecy
Isn’t required. Just bring our seasons home. (p5)
Here the wind is one of the terrible angels who appeared in the opening quotation from Ezekiel returning in Walk #6 with dust blown in from the Sahara which ‘dumps pink on ochre. Fullness / of allergens.’ The angel, like the breathless writer/walker, is:
with a bad job, looking down at his bare feet,
the shamed, outsize angel shakes dust off his heels.
His tunic purple. His task: to spread new plague.
Walk as if your knees are lifting higher,
though it’s a gift box shelved inside your chest
that smallens breathing, makes lungs toil. (p6)
The poet, climbing precariously above the city, is still ‘not in the sky’ although they are high above the roofs, able to watch as ‘the wind blows as he goes about the city. / There’s no fixing his hair. Brightness thickens. / People fall. He leans in. Light falls from the air.’ The wind brings cool fresh air as well as sand and infection with it. Even here the poet’s walk brings them once again into contact with terror and the sublime. It is a combination that is inescapable and inseparable, just as it was for the poets such as Shelley whose writing and walking Capildeo retraces. Thoughts fly inevitably to the fearful threat that hovers at the edges of every walk so that ‘people’ and even ‘light’ are seen to fall. The final line of #Walk 6, ‘light falls from the air’, seems to reference Thomas Nashe’s A Litany in Time of Plague, when ‘brightness falls from the air’. It marks the terrible point in this walk when the ‘blue’ the poet restlessly seeks becomes, ‘both an expectation and a thirst’. The blue of colour and emotion appear bound into the loss of light and thus ‘a bluer depth’. Like the other revelatory poems in this sequence, the poet clings to the rhythm, routine and ritual of walking, taking the reader with them into a state of longing for and fear of the dying light that blights and comforts in the Walks and in the Nocturnes and Lullabies which follow.
Each of these sequences submerges the reader in a form of darkness. One of these is night time and the unknown it represents as lightness falls away. Another is the imaginary shade in which the reader seeks real and metaphoric illumination and pursues the brightness of an image or illustration and the idea of revelation. At other times the book has the quality of a darkened room in which the poet encounters memory like a slideshow and finds, as Campbell does, that they ‘walk out of each moment as it flares bright as a stuck frame’. The complexity of the questions each of these sequences asks can leave the reader in a certain amount of darkness, as they search for answers. It is a darkness that brings both pleasure and fear as the reader seeks to make sense of the connections, allusions and threads of thought they find gleaming there. The subtle shades and resistances between dark and light and thus between clarity and obscurity become a means of endlessly extending the possibilities of the form beyond the scope and constraint of the words themselves.