Susie Campbell, ‘The Sleeping Place’ (Guillemot, 2023) : Ruth Wiggins, ‘The Lost Book of Barkynge’ (Shearsman, 2023)
Reviewed by Anna Reckin
Superficially, these two beautiful and substantially researched book-length sequences are alike. Both use full-page, open-form structures. Both engage with buried histories in specific landscapes. Both also address issues of nationality and identity, but whereas Wiggins’s is a reconstructive project, Campbell’s deconstructs, focusing on change, dissolution, recombination.
The Sleeping Place is in fact part of a larger body of research that shifts between writing and performance, in a process that aligns with visual arts practice as much as textual production. A timeline at the end of the book describes Campbell’s research process and the poetic procedures, textual and performative, from which the poems in the book derive.
It begins with Campbell’s discovery at a ‘local museum’ that ancient human remains had been found in the late 1920s close to her family home in Surrey. Unlike the bodies in an adjacent Victorian burial ground, they are nameless and it looks as if the main source for them is a 1931 report by an archaeologist investigating a ‘Saxon Cemetery’. And when she gets to visit the site in person, a process is set in motion: ‘I find there is nothing to see due to the row of large houses built along the ridge. I visit the site repeatedly and realise there is everything to see’. This ‘everything’ is landscape, what changes and what remains: ‘the chalky earth and the way it has subsided around the Victorian graves, and the treeline, and the open downland lying just below the ridge’. As her research continues, the picture becomes more complex, particularly as regards the identities of the humans who were buried there – for a period, it turns out, of about five hundred years, with ‘pagan and christian graves mixed together’ and ‘shared graves [which] suggest it may have been, for a time, an execution place or the site of a massacre’. There is even a suggestion that ‘bones may have been ritually mixed together to make one ancestral body’. A site plan prepared by the archaeologist looks promising ‘as a template’ for a writing project, but this too is mired in complexity, as it plots not only the variety of graves and their layers but also finds made by earlier investigators. Campbell decides that her creative research should involve various kinds of procedural poetics, allowing her to respond to the dynamics of the landscape while also unsettling nationalist myths (for example ‘a White Anglo-Saxon originary’) and the idea of the cemetery as a resting /sleeping place.
The first stage is based on a new, clearer version of the original report and the site plan. She produces 233 fragmented short texts, the same number as the number of burials recorded there, each one seeded with a deictic, defined as a ‘part . . . of speech which establish[es] the spatial and temporal co-ordinates of a piece of writing’. These deictics come into their own as the textual matter undergoes various combinatorial operations, reading through randomness to make new syntactic relationships within it.
The second stage took its cue from the many beads found on the site, which, even more scattered than the bones, were impossible to reassemble. A new set of glass beads in the same colours as the Saxon ones, proxies for both human remains and for pieces of text, is used to stage yet another, temporary, settlement, in private and public performance. One final stage involves a ritual performed with pieces of chalk taken from a Victorian grave, which prompts another set of re-orientations and (re)settlings.
The results, as published in the Guillemot book, are a series of Steinian prose poems, headed by one or another set of remnants from the various procedures and sources used to generate them. The poetry is teasing and unsettling, moving paratactically between apparent connection and/or closure and sudden glimpses of openness:
[. . . ]
Bone settlement is only down or across, a chalk
downland erodes down
When a dream only shines before dawn, the bones of
the limbs are often stouter and long as was usual in S
X N M N SEXAN MON or SAXON MEN. Invaders
in neighbouring valleys plough down old names, they
creep back up with the chalk. A finding bird flies to
the deer-shaped rock for shelter.What is more like hope
than no horizon, and why is this white plastic rabbit,
and who has a home?
A notebook and a pencil and a mask make a boundary
a map. If there is a here, it is never healed or whole,
still sharing a ditch with gifts of Godwin’s murders still
Just as the archaeologist’s site plan attempted to account for all the finds made on the site, so Campbell’s text reproduces a wide variety of representations of what is found and experienced there, by her and by others. The swing from ‘nothing to see’ to ‘everything to see’ that she noted at the outset of the process opens the way to a wonderfully expansive set of materials and discourses, taking in (amongst other things) numbering and cataloguing systems (successively re-ordered through the course of the book); collaged found text, including commentary from the original site reports and Victorian epitaphs; the poet’s own observations, from her ‘imagined engagement with the material circumstances of the site’ and (also constantly varying) lists of beads. Last but not least is the presence of Alice in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll’s grave is among those be found in the Victorian cemetery. Some phrases in the text are continually re-cast and recycled, others appear only once, breaking up what might otherwise seem an over-smooth series of variations.
Another kind of disruption, which might be termed the presence of absence, is marked explicitly, for example ‘& an amber bead, a missing bead, a silver bead, a broken bead, a white bead, a broken bead, a missing bead – ‘ and also presentationally, through variants of missing letters: ‘& y ll w bead, m v bead, m ttl d bead, bl ck bead, bl ck bead, mb r bead – ‘ and (extending the ‘damage’ to the beads themselves), ‘& s lv r b d, bl b d, wh t b d, m ttl d b d, m ttl d b d, m v b d, r d b –‘. New patterns and formulae are revealed in this new treatment, but at the same time, what persists in a rubble of consonants that is also a rubble of bones, is a disordering that can also be applied to other areas of the text, providing a code for how to read them.
Oulipian play with vowels provides another means of defamiliarization, this time into something that looks like one or another Germanic language: ‘& e blau boed, i grun baid, o yollew baud . . . ‘ and on into the following paragraph: ‘haw i frii wumon welks os tha wilk af una net birn haru‘ , translation of the proposition that ‘how a free woman walks is the walk of one not born here’. Like all such language games, the moves and transpositions enact confusion while opening up new perspectives, here performing the process of archaeological excavation while acknowledging the violence (and possibility of violation) inherent in the process.
The final poem in the sequence, referring to a later find, handwritten into the main sequence after the report was published, is first brutal, then gentle in its presentation of dis- and re-orientations:
Found subsequent to main excavation
November 14th 1931
Top of skull missing
Postscript smashed by a plough as unboxed bones agitate
& who enters here disturbs a white spectre
& a single bead
to be counted
What can be done, other than continue counting, continue the attempts to account: to bring to book, in the broadest sense of that phrase?
Wiggins’s task, addressing a vanished community whose members (or at least the most important ones) are named, and for whom some written records survive, is rather different. But her starting point is also absence.
All that survives of the ’lost book’ of her title is a reference in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica to a ’libellus’ put together at Barking Abbey in the early 700s, and Wiggins describes her project as ‘a conjectural history’ (p viii), responding to that absent text with a new one that activates the voices of the women associated with the abbey, within the landscape near the Roding River, in what is now East London, north of the Thames. The timescale is ambitious, from the founding of the abbey in the seventh century to its abolition at the time of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, a period of nearly 900 years that includes the destruction of the abbey by Vikings and its re-founding almost a hundred years later.
The history of the abbey is closely intertwined with the fates of royal houses. The documentation for this, and the historical context for the nuns’ lives is in effect another book-presence within the project, a challenge which Wiggins meets through a substantial body of critical apparatus, which takes up about a third as many pages as the poems themselves.
The poet urges the reader to treat her ‘extensive notes’ as ‘integral to the text’ (p viii), but having struggled with the practicalities of this – constantly going back and forth between poetry and end matter, which itself is divided into ‘timeline’, ‘characters’ and ‘notes’ –I would suggest a different strategy for at least a first reading of the book, beginning by going online to find a quick overview of the history of the abbey, and then plunging straight into the poetry:
At Lundenwic, the Thamesis cannot move for ice
cold on her bed and
drifting towards release
In these, the opening lines of the first poem, as the deathbed-scene drama of the first abbess unfolds, the imagism holds its own, and by the end of this poem we have a series of miracles, initially:
A bold comet standing
and standing in the autumn dawn
for months standing
and then, in answer to a prayer about where the nuns of the new abbey should be buried:
Of a sudden a great sheet of light
sky like wool combed
by a great weft beater
billow lifting from the loom
south and west of the chapel
where it does hang in plain view
[. . . ]
The next poem, ‘Shucked and cast away – Tortgyth’, is more personal, describing the closeness and separation that was characteristic of the women’s lives, signified by the ritual cutting of hair. Towards the end of her life, racked by pain, Tortgyth, who had been like a sister to the first abbess, accompanying her on the journey south to Barking, ventures outside to witness:
[ . . .] in the sky
longhaired and in a white robe
drawn up up
on golden cords of virtue
brighter than the moon
a miracle of light that rolls in the air
sleeves folding in a cascade
towards the earth
It is Æthelburh my dearest friend in all the world
her habit as though hung about with
weights and yet aloft
her hair long no longer shorn
[. . .]
it must mean soon
soon she will be
not take me with you
In a more humorous vein, Wiggins also pays attention to others in the immediate environment of the abbey; the washerwomen, for example, cutting the holy sisters down to size:
[. . .]
Cold hours crouched on the bank. Keep moving is the trick,
don’t settle to it. Soapwort, neck grease and soupy bibs.
Sleeves trailed in ink. Their monthly tatters are a lost cause
but we freshen them nonetheless
[. . . ]
And in the midst of harrowing accounts of famine, flood and pestilence in the 14th century, she finds space for an interlude in the voice of a woodsman’s wife showing how she and her small son accompany her husband into the forest, a tale of innocence with a tragic sting in the tail:
[. . .]
The boy high on his shoulder
all ears for the axe the voice of his father
hard and good for splitting
[. . .]
The boy runs
around pretending chock, chock, chock the
sound of the chopping His daddy brings
him a nest a tiny coracle His sister could’ve
curled up in it
Within the abbey too, the roles of women other than the nuns and abbesses are included. ‘Mustard and salt biscuits’ adapts a translation of guidelines left by an unnamed cellaress into a series of lists, such as
[. . . ]
For Shrovetide – crisps & cakes
fat conies Stub-eels /
shaft eels to bake on Maundy
wheat and milk for frumenty
Gallons of red for the convent /
a pottle of Tyre for the abbess
Half a goose each
at Assumption / twelve hundred
red herring at
Advent [ . . .]
This is followed by a reconstructed, part-conjectural annotated catalogue of books that could have been in the library at Barking in the 15th century. Here ‘the chart of our cellaress’ quoted above finds a place amongst ‘Lives of the saints & desert fathers’ and ‘various tracts, sermons, & meditations’ as well as, tellingly, ‘the bible in englisshe, especially licensed, with gold initials’ (p 93) Alongside the male canon Wiggins finds a place for such figures as Christine de Pisan (and, through her, Joan of Arc) and Hildegard of Bingen and numerous female saints.
So far I have written about The Lost Book of Barkynge as if it consisted entirely of poems and end matter. But in fact, there are various structural devices in place to provide a sense of narrative and historical context. The poems are organised chronologically into named sections, each poem with a title that usually gives a name for the main character under discussion. For example, the title for the poem about the woodsman’s family quoted above is ‘Three hundred oaks – the woodsman’s wife’. In this case, the wording about the oaks in the poem is also used for the section title, and can be seen to be taken from a brief introduction:
The abbey falls into disrepair Eleanor petitions the king, who grants
a felling Three hundred oaks, to roof and buttress if she can find
the men How to haul the heart out of the wood with all the draught
animals long slaughtered But slowly the granary sings again dry grain
a roof over the rectory. (p 80)
These introductions are the most striking structural feature of the book, short prose poems that set the scene and mention major players. Wiggins describes them in the Foreword as ‘lyric captions’ (viii) and in the notes gives them the Latin name ‘hic’ (‘this’, or ‘here’) to differentiate them from the poems), but they also work as a series of subtitles, giving another, more distanced voice that is both narrative and lyrical. Unlike the deictics used in Campbell’s book, these are static rather than dynamic, pinning the text firmly in time and place.
Interestingly the word ‘hic’ is included, startlingly and very effectively, in the introduction to what is the most tragic chapter in the abbey’s early history, its complete destruction by Vikings in the 9th century, with the loss of the twenty nuns who lived there. At the end of a series of dramatic portents, comes news of
. . . Lindisfarne, Jarrow London besieged Northumbria
fallen East Anglia fallen Edmund martyred hic hic hic in the
bracken And then in Barking the great undoing
The notes (p 120) explain the story of Edmund the Martyr’s severed head calling out to be found, and give a source, but they don’t give a source for the powerful wording in the poem that follows, describing the 300 longships ‘prowling up the Thamesis’ with ‘long beaks [that] jostle and leer / along the strand’ (p 27), although the use of italics, introduced with the words ‘in a margin:’ would seem to indicate direct quotation.
For me, this part of the abbey’s history, which is given the initially baffling section title ‘These dear bricks’, seems somewhat underplayed. It isn’t flagged up in the Foreword, and the reader is left to find the fate of the abbey and its nuns described starkly in the notes: ‘Barking was razed in the 9th century and remained disused for a century after. The sisters, for whom we have no names, were all burned to death’ (p 120).
In the poetry of this section of the book, the menace of the approaching longships works well, caught briefly, as is the moment when the fire reaches the nuns – it is surely right not to dwell on their suffering – as I find myself resisting quoting even the short account given here. But then, it seems to me, the reader’s attention is deflected, first, rather strangely, towards phantasmagoria, with what seems to be an imagined unsuccessful rescue attempt by pagans and witches (the final part of the first poem in this section) and then towards royalty, and Abbess Wulfhild’s negotiations with King Edgar. (Unlike the sisters, she managed to escape.) The emphasis here is on recovery and reconstruction, institutional survival, including, in Wulfhild’s voice, the wording of the title for this section of the book:
[. . . ]
In recompense, he offers –
anything. And these dear
bricks are what I ask. This
abbey of terrible ash, I will
raise it from the ground.
I mean for this place, this
time, to last. [. . . ]
As it did, until 1539, when it was finally surrendered. This second destruction is much more clearly realised than the first one: included in this section are poems full of anger at the dissolution’s wanton destruction of buildings, books, scholarship, the loss of community and a way of life, securely embedded within the intricacies of the politics involved.
An epilogue takes us out of the book, an elegiac beautifully paced prose poem using the trope of a felled oak and what happens to its wood. In doing so, it references the bodies of the first, sainted abbesses, which were moved from place to place as relics, and, finally, books and writing:
[ . . .]
the limbs are
gone as relics about the land,
and one goes here, another
there. And others, where the
wasp has been, are gone to ink.