“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


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”,

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.

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

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.






“Jilted City” Patrick McGuinness (Carcanet) Poetry Review

Jilted City by Patrick McGuinness A sadness permeates “Jilted City”, but it’s not malignant, more the benign sadness that comes with acknowledging change and progress.  In “French”, Patrick McGuiness is teaching his own children what used to be his first language, 

“Now my children taste it,
the empty-courtyard French I used to speak:
they push their tongues along the language
and as I hear their words snag I hear my own again
and wake from that recurrent dream in which
I’m always waking up and break off that aborted

first line of my story which I’m always starting:
that I’m much younger and still Belgian.”

Although the longer lines suggest a prosaic rhythm, the assonances and consonances suggest poetry.  Captures too that realisation that you want your children to naturally be good at what you’re good at, but they are their own people with their own talents and not mini-versions of their parents.

In “Nineteenth Century Blues”, a woman, unaware she only lives in a man’s head,

“Even to herself she is no more than half there,
however totally described.

The language enfolds her. Later it embalms her.”

 “Jilted City” gives a feeling of trying to trap something ephemeral that cannot be expressed explicitly but through mood and hints.  The book’s wrapped up with some translations from Livia Campanu (1932 – 1994), a poet and lecturer from Bucharest who felt out of favour with the Ceausescu regime, finding himself in Constanta, where Ovid was once banished.  In “From the Ovid Complex”,

“I’m not adapting. But what’s worse
is that I’m getting used to it: I’m a bad version
from the classics, Ovid in translationese,
jazzed up with radio and TV
(albeit black and white and with just one channel),
unable to hit the right note without feeling
I’m borrowing from someone else’s story.

And what I complain most about is that it’s not exactly
suffering, not quite extremity, but rather fretting
at tedium’s hem, picking myself apart remembering
those nights in Bucharest, or one night in particular,
when we stole a moment on the balcony,
adultery’s hanging basket, at the Union of Writers
Festival of Progressive Literature:
she was the trellis and I the vine (which is a bourgeois
poet’s way of saying I was all over her.)”

The attraction’s clear.  These poems fret but don’t ruminate.  A tender harvesting of language.

“Continental Shelf” Fred D’Aguiar (Carcanet) – Poetry Review

Fred DAguiar Continental Shelf

There’s an elegiac feel to this collection and not just because of the sequence “Elegies”.  The opening section of “Continental Shelf”revisits Fred D’Aguiar’s Guyanese childhood with the benefit of memory and maturity layering the poems with sensual detail.  The poems aren’t as energetic as previously but better for their measured tone.

Fred D’Aguiar teaches at Virginia Tech State University, where one student killed 32 people before turning his gun on himself on 16 April 2007.  “Elegies” is a sequence that explores that event, “While those sirens keep building a wedding cake of sound./ I know there is more. I slice open the door to my office/ To find the decorated girl gone and no one else around.// I zoom back to the Web for any news of what’s going on/ In my immediate vicinity, since I cannot trust the song// And dance of my senses. Then I hear a loudspeaker/ Asking everyone to remain indoors and stay away/ From windows and I know for sure it’s a shooter…” as someone on campus but not directly caught up in the action, relying on web news to keep up with events. 

The sequence also picks up the aftermath, that meandering feeling of the world being very different yet ordinary life having to continue as staff have to teach grief-stricken students whilst mourning and thinking about whether they should have picked up any early warning signs and preventing the tragedy occurring, “…The whole story remains ever present,// Charts and ever changing feeling/ for events of that Poetry Month Monday./ Imagine a trowel smoothing concrete// Adding to those layers and smoothing/ A thicker and thicker wall, well, that’s how/ The lyric builds meaning in a deepening circle,// Except the concrete never dries/ And the worker with that trowel never dies.”

Fred D’Aguiar writes of grief compassionately and with respect, “…If you bury a child the rest of your life/ Spoils even though you live it as best/ As you can and never let on to others.// When I touched you in a loving way/ I fought off pictures of our children/ Dead before their time, dead before us:// When we hugged I left no room for air/ Other than hers exhaled into my face.”  He doesn’t intrude on the feelings of others but records unsentimentally and demonstrating his poetic strengths.