Inter-forms: (Un)Making in Charlotte Serre’s “La Campe”

Roland Barthes, in an essay on the sculptor Bernard Réquichot, differentiates work that is formal from work that is “merely visual, simply and directly articulating a perception and a nomination” [1]. Description and naming are not form-offering acts; form, for Barthes, “is what is between the thing and its name, form is what delays the name” [2]. Form, we might say, is suspended between being and knowing, between the capacity for presence and the capacity for meaning. Susan Stewart, in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, argues that poetry “is not simply intimate: it is constitutive of the social, mutual, and intersubjective ground of intimacy itself”.[3] Stewart’s inter- echoes Barthes’ betweenness, and here I am interested in the “ground of intimacy” as a site of interforms—ruptures, folds; sites where form is in conversation with void: the possibility of being versus the possibility of not being. In Charlotte Serre’s “La Campe,” presence irrupts into being through these sites of betweenness.

            Charlotte Serre launched and ran the Nazi resistance movement with her husband Charles in Dordogne-Nord, France from 1941-1944 when she was captured and imprisoned at Ravensbrück, the largest women-only concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Although her poetry and biography have received minimal translation into English, she’s received medals of commendation in France and her work has taken on regional significance; there is even a Charlotte Serre Literary Walk in Saint-Jory-de Chalais, the commune where she lived in Dordogne. I encountered her poem “La Campe,” translated by Timothy Adè as “The Camp,” in an anthology of Holocaust poetry. Written during her imprisonment in Ravensbrück, the translation reads in full:

Horror, terror, hunger, blows,

Flames, the walls, the whip, the cold,

Lice and roll-call, dogs and snow...

The watchtower…

Turn… turn… carousel…[4]

I find this poem brutal. Why? In part the answer is obvious. The poem carries with it our knowledge of its history, and to deny its brutality risks denying that history. But the poem’s brutality is also in how it surprises us, how it takes us off our guard. The poem is short, uncomplicated, and easy to read over. Its opening line offers vague abstractions (horror, terror). The trochaic rhythm moves us along, but the commas propose a slow, methodical pace. In the second line the violence becomes more visceral: “Flames, the walls, the whip, the cold.” There is urgency, danger: from violent heat to violent cold, the blunt contact of “the walls, the whip.” Still, it’s not until the poem's third line that these abstractions start to concretize into image: “Lice and roll-call, dogs and snow…” Here we need less external historical context to locate ourselves in the poem, particularly for the combination of “lice” and “roll-call,” the abjection of infestation and the routine of surveillance. Danger is no longer abstract—and immediately, we get our first ellipsis.

The ellipses create the poem. In the ellipses is the possibility of a world being (un)made. Commenting on Roland Barthes’ description of form’s betweenness, Angela Leighton says it b“stops us in our tracks of thinking, and inserts itself in that moment of stillness”. [5] Ellipses: from the ancient Greek élleipsis meaning “leave out.” We conventionally use ellipses to indicate one of two possibilities: either something has been removed or someone trailed off. Either way, ellipses locate us in a space between—it can be a rupture, a fold, a state of suspension, an erasure, an anticipation. The first ellipsis in “The Camp” throws us toward a void, a one-word line surrounded by white space: “The watchtower…”

While the watchtower is an image in the sense that we imagine it, what is striking about the watchtower isn’t its status as image, but its presence, how it informs the scene. For a moment we contend only with that, with the presence of the watchtower. We are once again aware of the possibility for (un)making; we are suspended. In the final line we get an ellipsis after each word: “Turn… turn… carousel…” This is a shift—suddenly we are aware of a voice, an interior world. We might say that we are suddenly struck that the poem is lyric, that it is not narrating a past event, but existing in the present moment of that event. A pair of eyes are watching. The poem slows in these tracks of thought—suspended, between.

Susan Stewart’s launching point in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses is that “the cultural, or form-giving, work of poetry is to counter the oblivion of darkness,” which she translates into the claim that “it is precisely in material ways that poetry is a force against effacement.” [6] “The Camp’s” final line retcons the whole poem—its abstractions, rhythm, commas, the suspended watchtower. Someone has been paying attention, someone who has an interior world fomenting potential action. Stewart’s “ground of intimacy” forefronts the relational, the intimate, and in the moment that we are reminded of an interior world, we feel an intimacy with it. How can we not feel the brutality of the poem in that moment of intimacy?

Often when we attend to interform, formprefixes into transform. The ellipses in “The Camp” suspend us in a liminal, interformal space in which transformation is both unequivocal and uncertain. The catalogued stability of the opening tercet constructs an interminable surface, a torture rendered banal in its relentless, bureaucratic march. Each ellipsis shows us a crack in the surface, a space from which everything can change. The poem’s brutality is in that tension, between the relentlessly stable tercet and the elliptic rupture that births a presence and all that a presence entails—the violence of effacement, the power of witness, and the possibility for resistance. Charlotte Serre was liberated from Ravensbrück on April 5th, 1945. She lived until 2000, dedicating her life to activism, writing, and what she called a duty to memory. [7] 


[1] Barthes, Roland. “Réquichot and His Body.” The Responsibility of Forms, trans Richard Howard, University of California Press, 1985. 234.

[2] Ibid 234

[3] Stewart, Susan. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. University of Chicago Press, 2002. 13.

[4] Serre, Charlotte. “Le Campe.” Poetry of the Holocaust: An Anthology, ed. Jean Boase-beir and Marian de Vooght. Arc Publications, 2019. 65.

[5] Leighton, Angela. On Form: Poetry, Aesthetics, and the Legacy of a Word. Oxford University Press, 2007. 13.

[6] Stewart, Susan. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. University of Chicago Press, 2002. 2.

[7] Guine, Jacques. L’école prend le nom de Charlotte Serre. https://www.sudouest.fr/dordogne/thiviers/l-ecole-prend-le-nom-de-charlotte-serre-7539753.php

Josh English’s work has appeared in Lana Turner, Bennington Review, OmniVerse, West Branch and elsewhere. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Houston where he is an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor Fellow and winner of the Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize. He is currently the head editor for The Newsletter from Public Poetry.