“Joy” Sasha Dugdale (Carcanet) – poetry review

These poems focus on memory, including memories that are best forgotten or at least buried, and recording of memories, particularly who records, and the effects of remembering and recording. Central to this collection is the title poem, an imagined stage monologue with Catherine Blake, widow of William. The title poem starts

“A dark stage. A woman in a rocking chair. Catherine Blake

Silence.

They don’t want me here… they don’t want me…”

Wives of famous husbands often find themselves sidelined or ignored as if an inconvenient reminder someone knew the husband better than his fans. But Catherine Blake was not ignored by William,

“So you freed me from the angel and you taught me what you knew so I should never bow to you I should be your equal in all practical matters and thenceforth you gave me a free hand to colour, and even draw which I willingly did. And stitched and bound your books, and I cut the linen and polished the plates and made up inks and did all the work of an engraver at your side.

See my hands? Here. Look.

You said they were the hands of a craftsman.

Where to put them? (She rubs her body with them.) They have never lain so long in my lap. They begin to gnaw at the air. (She lays them palm up on her lap) Two twisted vessels. All the craft trickles out of them…”

Here the strange place of widowhood emerges. After spending so long being defined as part of a couple, particularly the part that managed the house and enabled the more famous partner, there’s an emptiness and a search for a re-definition. Here it’s captured not just in what’s said but also in Catherine’s gawky, uncoordinated movements. It’s a visual poem. Catherine Blake didn’t just lose her husband, but also her creative partner – she worked alongside William Blake – so it not just re-identifying herself as a widow but also whether to continue the creative work in progress. That dislocating sense of widowhood is also picked up in “The Widow and the Kaleidoscope” which ends,

“the lightest movement will perturb
the pattern translates itself around the whole
in new perfections always perfect always
fearfully falling into new associations.”

Dislocation can also come from being disconnected with family roots. Here a friend travels to her place of origin, “How my friend went to look for her roots”,

“- If you’re from here then why don’t you stay with your family?

– My family left.

So, asked the woman, why come here then? Which, thought my
friend, was a reasonable question, as the darkness came hard across
the open land and up the street and nowhere to sleep that night
except an empty room where the builders kept their tools
on a pallet and under a thin blanket.
She slept hardly at all that night, for fear of falling off the mattress,
she rued her purpose and scratched her skin
and vowed she would leave at dawn if she had to walk.

Dawn arrived, the pink sky was vaster than anywhere she’d known.
Geography is a strange thing, this town left beyond
the known world, the comfortable road, on the edge of nothing
from where her family had been plucked
with a million others, carrying only memories of home

walking, walking out of the town.”

There may not seem to be much joy here, except in the afirmation that leaving was the right choice.

Sasha Dugdale has a deserved reputation for translating Russian writers so there’s no surprise in find a sequence, “Days” inspired by reading Svenlana Aleksievich’s book on women’s experiences in the Second World War, “The Unwomanly Face of War”,

“7
My daughter does my hair in two pigtails
I like her holding it and twisting it up
I remember someone else putting it up
When I was a child.
I remember how she brushed it.
Me, in a hospital bed with a beaker.
I remember how she combed it
Carefully. Me in the parlour
With the candles lighting the way.

8
I have no right to grief
I am whole
I have no right to grief
I am whole
I have no right to grief
I am whole

9
My wife was a stenographer
She typed the word rape
Forty times in one hour
She sat in a bank of woman
Making records of what had been done
And she felt herself to be lucky
To be alive and unscathed…”

History tends to be written by victors and women’s voices during war struggle to be heard. They are often the ones left on the home front, keeping families together, raising children, or forced to leave and set out on treacherous journeys to seek refuge with the additional risk of sexual violence. Section 7 shows a hankering back to the simplicity of childhood and being looking after, a wishful hope that someone else might share the burden of motherhood albeit briefly. Section 8 uses its repetition like a mantra as if the speaker is trying to be something she is not. Even if still physically whole, the mental scars mean the narrator is irrevocably changed no matter how often her mantra is repeated. The factual description of Section 9 belies the inevitable secondary trauma of the stenographer in recording war crimes that they had either blocked out or survived. There’s an irony in the voice being her husband’s rather than hers.

At face value, there doesn’t seem to be much joy here. Other poems take in the joy of a walk or of physical acts such as canoeing. But, looking beyond the surface, the joy emerges in the ability to remember, the ability to tell one’s story in one’s own words. The mantra “I am whole” seems entirely out of place for one traumatised by war, but it gives the speaker agency, gives her a sense of power over who she is, enables her to rebuild herself and create a narrative for herself where she is whole. The stenographer’s job in recording women’s voices describing the crimes against them is vital. Sasha Dugdale’s “Joy” is vital reading.


 

 

 

 

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