A few days ago, a sequence of poems entitled ‘Welfare Handbook’ by Sasha Dugdale appeared in Mal, the online journal of sexuality and erotics. Its subject matter is difficult: the artist Eric Gill, a culturally significant figure who created many celebrated works and developed the Gill Sans typeface, but also a sexual predator who among other things abused his daughters (I won’t discuss his art and crimes here, they can all be found elsewhere online). Dugdale recognises the difficulty of tackling Gill but she has faced it down to produce a remarkable and, I think, important work which highlights some of the ways in which poetry can respond in measured and careful, but no less fierce – and proud – tones to subject matter that could all-too-easily be washed over with angry denunciations or indignant defences.
I would recommend reading the sequence carefully multiple times before continuing.
Dugdale is of course a translator, and she book-ends the sequence with quotes translated from languages other than English, the last lines being from Valerie Meyer Caso: “English is a language of water / and good for recording disaster”. And she tells us in the introduction that “The voice in the sequence is not Gill’s – it is the voice of water”. So, English as water is at the heart of the sequence: useful, dangerous, dominating, all-pervasive; water, with all its many and varied symbolic and practical qualities, but water as language, which not only flows through us but creates us. And this is the level from which the poet is working, from the level of creation; she is, in fact, re-creating the subject matter, translating it, even reclaiming it.
Reclaiming it for whom? Well, it seems to me that by getting into Gill’s very creative fibres, quoting snippets (phrases, individual words) from his diary, and surrounding his voice with her own (because the voice may be water, but the water is also the poet), Dugdale has carried out a profoundly feminist act – she has created an artwork-response which turns a male abuser’s artwork back on itself – this becomes clearer in a soon-to-be-published poem the poet shared with me (more on this in a moment) which graphically, hilariously and powerfully reimagines the Homeric scene of Nausicaa meeting Odysseus – a Gill frieze of which adorns the lobby of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe. The point is that this is a female work which, by taking us inside the Gill community at a creative level, both challenges the male gaze of the artist (his nude images of women famously have them looking down and away from the viewer, submissive even) and takes on the notion that abusers-who-create (or their defenders) can in some sense hide behind the art, justifying their abuse with ideas of ‘free-spiritedness’ and ‘Bohemianism’.
And this is an angry sequence. Dugdale’s rage comes across in the first poem, which establishes both Gill’s sexism and his religious hypocrisy, but at the same time sets out the poet’s aim for the sequence:
When I write about this, shall I bang my fist
on the pound of paper to puncture it
or shall I gradually entrap my subject
with words written in mucous…
But it is an anger which Dugdale has taken as a tool for her craft, it is the very antithesis of the flailing, wild, formless anger found on city streets and social media in 2019, anger given a voice (one ‘good for recording disaster’) – and I think this is where the sequence’s real importance lies, especially in these times when there are so many reasons to be angry.
I mentioned earlier the Homeric (as-yet-unpublished) poem the poet shared with me. This was during a brief exchange of emails in preparation for this blogpost, in which Dugdale was kind enough to share some thoughts on where the sequence came from and what it means to her. I asked her what had drawn her to write about Gill and she mentioned the strong, visceral reaction she had had when visiting the Ditchling museum during an exhibition in 2017 which dealt with Gill as an abuser: “There are truths we intellectually know but a moment can arise when we feel that truth as a physical sensation, and the Ditchling Museum’s exhibition on Gill’s art and his abuse was that moment.” It is this ‘physical sensation’, but controlled, targeted, that comes through so strongly in this sequence.
Another strategy Dugdale uses is that of allowing multiple texts to talk to, and through, each other. She tinkers with Odysseus and Nausicaa in the Homeric poem, and in ‘Welfare Handbook’ she reworks Catullus in a similar way though to different effect. By corrupting the beautiful ‘Catullus 7’, and answering Lesbia’s question about how many kisses would be enough not with “as many as there are grains of sand on the beach” or “as many as there are stars in the sky” but with “as many stinking binbags as there are grains of sand on the shore…perhaps a private beach now (or)…as many cotton buds as there are stars in the sky to behold the illicit fumblings of men in railway carriages”, Dugdale draws attention to the artist’s betrayal of his muse, evoking a kind of spoiling, a degrading of art, but at the same time suggesting that the dominating and controlling male gaze has been there since Roman times (and before). ‘Welfare Handbook’ also plays with TS Eliot’s Wasteland, repudiating the association of the wasteland image with either ‘mental breakdown’ or ‘infertility’ (“Just picture the deserts / of Mexico, blooming with cactuses like prosthetic limbs.”). I don’t know if Gill knew Eliot, but he certainly knew and was admired by the poet David Jones, who in turn knew and was admired by Eliot, so perhaps that’s the connection. There could be reference here to both Gill’s breakdown and also Eliot’s first wife Vivienne’s mental health problems, but over-layering that is the notion that the wasteland image is a male construct imposed on women, to make them fear infertility, independence, and perhaps post-menopausal existence entirely:
A wasteland is what we have been taught to fear,
unhusbanded, without the city walls, infertile
And here, clearly I think, the voice is that of women – or perhaps ‘Woman’. Here also the female ‘water’ of language clashes with the male imposition of ‘dryness/barrenness’, and so a fuller significance attaches to Dugdale’s use of language-as-water trope – a female symbolism being used to flood and cleanse the world (her world, the world of Gill’s daughters) of masculine domination and debasement.
I for one hope that this sequence expands, even to book length. I hear in the language a natural evolution from her collection Joy, and particularly in the ‘Joy’ sequence itself, which does not contain the same anger but also fashions, extracts perhaps, a female presence from an overly dominant male one.
I will finish by mentioning something which struck me about the poem which cannot be ignored and which Dugdale told me was “probably the hardest poem to write because it refers to more recent sexual crimes against children”. It is towards the centre of the sequence and it begins:
sex with children upsets us
more than it used to. As my friend’s mother
once pointed out: stay away from him
you know what he’s like. They’re manipulative
said the policeman, they often ingratiate themselves
with the parents
There is something shockingly blunt about the phrasing of that first line, statement of fact that it is; to see not ‘abuse’ or ‘rape’ or ‘paedophilia’ but ‘sex with children’ knocks the reader off-kilter I would suggest. We sit up. We absorb the bluntness. We wonder whether the rest of the poem will increase our sense shock – and perhaps hope that it will. We try to decide how we feel about the shock: Will it become outrage? Will we call for the poem to be pulled from the website? We may not yet have read the later poem ‘Sexual Antinomianism’ with its evocation of “St Euph, patron saint of euphemism” but on a second reading we might wonder whether those words (abuser etc.) which we think still shocking are themselves becoming euphemistic, and then return to the line, thinking: sex with children? Really? Those words together? And perhaps we also aim some anger at our parents and grandparents – yes, you ignored it, you glossed it over. But do we do any better (Jimmy Saville)? And finally, we are faced, worst of all, with the old fear and knowledge that if it happened then, it’s likely to be happening now.
Later in the poem the victims are described, achingly, wrenchingly, as “those lonely exquisite pickings” and “the anxious child who fears not pleasing”; but the poem ends acknowledging the strength inherent in developing coping strategies, in learning that pleasure
is a structure like a tent, erected on sand
pack it up take it with you
it will never catch you unawares.
As I said at the beginning, it’s a difficult topic. And this is a difficult poem. Difficult to read, difficult to write about. And undoubtedly it was difficult to write. But now it is with us, and perhaps by being with us, it can help.