In a year of toppling statues, it’s perhaps surprising that no one has taken a chisel to the ones built into the walls of the BBC – the Ariel sculptures by Eric Gill. The largest, looming over the entrance to Broadcasting House, depicts a bearded man with a naked child in his hands. They will not meet your eye: the broad, placid faces are turned aside, focused on something we can’t see. My mind kept drifting back to that image while reading Sasha Dugdale’s Welfare Handbook, an astonishing and deeply unnerving sequence of poems inspired by Gill’s life and work.
Gill (1882-1940) was one of the most admired artists of his age. He also raped his daughters, committed incest with his sisters and sexually experimented on his dog, as a 1989 biography revealed. “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 mucus”? Dugdale asks. She chooses the latter: expect no fist-banging or heavy-handed moralizing. This is sly, subtle, elliptical work, entrapping both subject and reader in something queasily human. Drawing on Gill’s notes and diaries, the voice in Welfare Handbook is constantly shifting; it can sound like Gill, or the poet, or neither. It’s a stranger, bolder exercise than her last in-depth study of an artist, the 2016 Forward Prize-winning poem Joy, a moving monologue in the voice of William Blake’s wife.
Welfare Handbook takes up a third of Dugdale’s sixth collection, Deformations – a word which, in the field of linguistics, can refer to words changed to avoid a taboo (eg “Jesus!” becoming “jeez!”). It’s a way of making the unspeakable speakable; the new word takes its power from what is not said.
This poetry works in the same way. Gill is never named, and the poems often rely on a shared knowledge of what is being hinted at. “One x for Mary and xx for May”, for instance, consists entirely of dashes and x’s. Mary was Gill’s wife and May his mistress; those crosses were, presumably, the symbols he used in his diary to mark meetings with each.
It’s as eclectic as it is indirect: there are lists, a riff on Catullus, and a found poem made from translations of the Song of Solomon. One of the most direct parts deals with Gill’s work as as a letter-cutter. The typefaces he invented are still in use everywhere, from Penguin Classics (Perpetua) to the BBC logo (Gill Sans). “No sign is left now,” Dugdale writes; “every typographic glyph looks labial”.
I’d like to believe one can separate an artist from their art. For instance, I once spent a few months in an evening class with Dugdale, but I’m confident her personality has had no bearing on my opinion of her poetry. In the face of actions as viscerally repellent as Gill’s, however, it can be hard to avoid a reflexive revulsion; everything feels tainted.
These poems play with that feeling, drawing tension from the way our expectations for their subject matter (the abuse of pubescent girls) cast a shadow over otherwise innocent images – a flower, a child’s toy – through the meaning we read into them. One poem reads in its entirety:
“White poplars are green until they suddenly flip/ into trees of tiny white flags in the breeze./ Like that doll, whose skirt, carefully lifted/ upended over her head like a bellflower,/ revealed a different face, a different outfit,/ a different girl existing between the legs of the first”
If Welfare Handbook explores a story we’d rather not hear, the book’s other major sequence, Pitysad, revisits a story that’s too often retold – The Odyssey. After wading through Alice Oswald’s Nobody (2019), I was left wishing poets would give poor old Odysseus just one year off from semi-abstract modernist retellings.
And yet Pitysad – which, here, is also the hero’s name – won me over with its dramatic immediacy and inventiveness. A traumatized war veteran, Pitysad wanders through a no-man’s-land of failing hotels and abandoned ski resorts, occasionally bumping into deformed-yet-recognisable Homeric figures. Scylla and Charybdis turn up as staff at a spa, unmoved by his anguish (“I don’t want to hear/ says the whirlpool bath operator/ try a jigsaw/ says the snake-haired enema nurse”). The sirens, meanwhile, are now an unseen voice in a strip-club, crooning an unsettling come-on: “I ask you/ to fly here now my dipper/ watch me unpick your skin/ open you so I/ too/ can be free”.
There’s space for real pathos and tenderness, amid these learned winks and mythical nods. The sequence’s final poem, an unpunctuated prose stream-of-consciousness in the voice of Penelope, lost in her “strange fierce hot tent of a body”, seems to allude to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses – but it ends with a moving simplicity: “I am so full of love”.
Sandwiched between Welfare Handbook and Pitysad come a handful of shorter poems, which share the longer sequences’ dark and troubled world-view. A couple feel trapped by their neat conceits: “Temple Song”, a biblical scene subversively rewritten as a dramatic monologue, a la Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”; and the synesthesia-heavy “Pigment” (“violet-black is the mortal colour”, yellow “is the debased colour of survival”, etc). The rest, though, are exceptionally strong.
In these smaller pieces, Dugdale shows a keen sense of how one perfect word can elevate a line. Just look at that “hurriedly” in her description of a hare: “When the sun was bright she could see through the hare’s hindlegs/ its thin skin, thrown hurriedly over bone and tendon”. It’s the sign of a poet utterly in control of her gifts. This may seem a strange thing to say about a book so filled with unreliable narrators, but in Deformations Dugdale proves hers is a voice you can trust.
Deformations is published by Carcanet at £11.99. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop