Never hit a woman, even with a flower …

NEVER HIT A WOMAN, EVEN WITH A FLOWER Kate Ashton takes a close look at recent collections by Sasha Dugdale and Patricia McCarthy and considers how well they respond to the serious issues they address

Sasha Dugdale
Carcanet, 2020
ISBN 9781784108984

Patricia McCarthy
Worple Press, 2018
ISBN: 9 781905 208 395

‘I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic,’ tweeted United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, calling for action to combat a worldwide surge in domestic violence during the first lockdown. In April 2020 the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, Refuge, reported a 700% increase in phone calls to its helpline in a single day. By June the UN was describing a ‘shadow pandemic’ alongside Covid-19.

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 passed by the House of Commons a year later legislates for a Domestic Abuse Commissioner tasked with early-stage intervention, victim support and improving understanding. The first, Nicole Jacobs, has been instated.

A moment’s reflection should dissipate any surprise that the current global atmosphere of anxiety, fear and isolation terribly exacerbates the suffering experienced by (mostly) women living in abusive relationships. But a ‘shadow pandemic’ is just that: it fades into obscurity beside the daily deluge of Covid-19 news, choreographed daily press briefings, statistics and hospital reality television. The truth of domestic abuse demands quite another category of reflection and response; a quiet dwelling on the difficult thought of spending every hour of each new day and night in enforced proximity to an oppressor in a sort of pressure-cooker version of ‘normality’. It hardly bears imagining.

Yet it must be imagined – and imagination is the gift of the creative artist – what we use to unveil, confront and portray reality, however strange, terrible and arcane. The dramatist David Hare once observed that journalism was ‘fact stripped of mystery’ and ‘art restores the mystery to fact’; he should know: domestic abuse has best been portrayed in literature and on the stage. What place then for poetry, the art of finding words where there are none? And how to find nerve and circumspection enough when the victim is themself struck dumb by their trauma?

Coinciding with such thoughts came a recent BBC television docudrama about serial killer Dennis Nilson, based on the biography by Brian Masters, who recommended the reflective viewer ‘count his humility, the limit of his understanding of the human heart, and the perils that face every man as he learns about himself.’ The relationship between biographer and Nilson had most emphatically not been one of warm friendship, he insisted, but rather a steely mutual attempt at objectivity. ‘But’, stated Masters, ‘I know who he is.’ To attain to, and write out of a state of calm self-awareness is an achievement in itself.

Every work of art faithfully mirrors its maker. Behind the line, visual or literary, lies the man or woman who formed it, and it is the depth of their self-knowledge which determines the stature of the (pen)portraiture. Raskolnikov is Dostoyevsky; Dorothea’s poor character judgement belongs to the youthful Mary Evans. In the poems of Louise Glück we encounter the sister and mother most viscerally through the poet’s pain and despair at her own shortcomings as mother and sibling. It is anguish at our own fallibility that directs us to our shared humanity and the possibility, however seemingly remote, of forgiveness and redemption.

Gerard Manley Hopkins has it:

My own heart let me have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.  

So the only appropriate attitude on the part of the artist is one of love. In any other than an open state of mind we risk producing work tainted with lazy commonplace and cliché, or even projection of our own unprocessed experience or emotion. The more flawed our subject, the more pronounced must be the effort to adopt a creative stance. The distinction to be made is between comprehension and understanding; both implying the capability of the mind to grasp an idea, but the former being a finite rational ability, the latter actively engaging the imagination and intuition in empathetic effort.

The aim is individual awareness of shared human culpability, leading to compassion; Dostoevkian responsibility for the world. To work at bringing to bear self-knowledge without moral judgement, leaving sanction to our reader. The result is a completely fresh and revelatory glimpse of the world through the eyes of the artist in chiaroscuro, by a melding of their own darkness and light with that of their subject. No wonder, perhaps, that the master of this technique was Caravaggio.

The more disturbing our subject material, the greater the challenge. In Welfare Handbook, the opening section of her new collection Deformations, Sasha Dugdale has set herself the extraordinary task of poeticising a contemporary pariah, the sculptor and letter-cutter Eric Gill (1882-1940), whose incest and sexual excesses were revealed in Fiona McCarthy’s1989 biography. Dugdale lights on this incendiary material to inform an uncompromising series describing Gill’s abuse of his daughters.

A particularly conscious effort was required on the part of the present reviewer in steering a straight course to meet these poems, my having grown up with the last of Gill’s communities, a couple of decades after his death, and written a memoir about it. Setting aside a lifetime of memories and reflection, I found in Welfare Handbook all Dugdale’s considerable flair and craftsmanship, but something more missing. It is poignant and somehow bewildering to encounter work from a fine lyric poet that ventures no deeper than superficial scandal. Lying flat and inert on the page, the poems simply proclaim protest:

 White poplars are green until they suddenly flip
into trees of tiny white flags in the breeze.
Like that doll, whose skirt, 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

There’s something crude and gauche here which neither persuades nor surprises the reader into fresh insight or response. The work hangs angrily on Roman Catholic vernacular, hinting at religious hypocrisy but ending up merely rehearsing received opinion on the effect on the art lover of the flawed artist, and toying with outrage:

O St Euph, patron saint of euphemism
for you the mysteries will be rewritten:
the mystery of the stolen virgin, or try
the mystery of the silent nights when
the mysteries of sex were illuminated
and they turned out to be the usual
mechanical insults…

In her endnotes Dugdale attributes the voice in these poems not to Eric Gill, whose archives she meticulously researched, but obscurely ‘to water which is good for recording disaster.’ Yet water also reflects and cleanses, and the reductivism of these poems disappoints not least because it seems wretchedly to diminish, even to trivialise the complex insult of sexual abuse, and is so much less than the slant and subtle wisdom of which poetry is capable.

We live in an age of cynicism, but what to do about its deforming effect on the arts? The fundamentalist secularity permeating this collection sometimes, as in “Rosaries in the Sand”, lapses into bad taste:

Come on says god, fingering his arse. I bought you people rosaries
and you drop them in the desert like losers. Gather them up
says god, picking his nose

In the collection’s final section, Pitysad, Dugdale retells the story of Odysseus employing vulgarities which vie with formal skill to produce another kind of enervation, a sort of calculated roll-call of perversion, as though the cardinal effects of war, separation, exile and abandonment all came down to sex; as though a siren voice sang, ‘like his mother combing his hair gently/like Penelope scratching his back with her small fingers/like Telemanchus squealing on his shoulders/like the mourners singing for his lost soul’.

In the final poem of the sequence, where free form and repetition of ‘yes’ riffs on the ending of Joyce’s Ulysses, the poet offers bitter-sweet rapprochement: ‘I’d chip away at the lying outer hero all the myth I’d chip and plane away at the lying outer form of him to expose the worthless soul inside yes worthless and if he could only bear it I would take that insignificant thing and I would love it with all my own insignificance’.

And entirely lost to us in this harsh landscape is the lyric voice of “The Last Day of Your Childhood,” from the collection’s penultimate section, Headland, with its moving associative evocation of a woman abandoning her child in the face of oncoming war, ‘I’m wondering about the imaginative difference/what would I be if the air was never still/And the horizon smoking’, then these lovely final lines to her daughter, ‘The only chance of life here…Your willingness to forgive/The loosening between us’.

The collection ends on a note of humility and reconciliation, on the South Downs where in “The Fall of the Rebel Angels”: they ‘fell from grace into mountain streams/forgive us our lack/of dreams, we have forgotten/how to rebel’.

There is no doubting the assurance of this collection, pervaded as it is with a strange aura of coldness and detachment.

In antithesis, Patricia McCarthy’s 2018 collection Rockabye presents a calm and deeply considered final reckoning with long silenced suffering. The book is dedicated to ‘battered women, whoever and wherever they are’ and it features poems based on the story of Philomela and her abuse at the hands of King Tereus. It is a powerful coming out. From beginning to end the poems sustain a mysterious movement from darkness into light, from oppression towards liberty, confinement to freedom. Mysterious, because it is never made explicit what has finally led to the opening of the door. Bookending the poems are sonnets which serve to contain the intense internal pressure of the collection.

The opening paired sonnets of “Prologue: Writer’s Block” describe a state of paralysis, ‘Decade after decade the nib hung/poised like a buzzard to attack the page’; an agonising state of suspended animation, dissociation during which the writer is ‘gagged, it seemed, by a tarred rope,/or caught in a stutter, without a tongue’. Eventually in “Epilogue: When All is Said and Done” the persona declares her ‘Privilege, now, to pick out the best of you’…’I return you – part-person, part-place – to myth’. Here is the silenced victim finding her voice, as did Cassandra, and in another way Andersen’s little mermaid.

The truth has been too terrible to be told and, worse, who would have believed it? The poet has existed in limbo, desiring neither direction, rescue, ‘nor for kind-hearted Memory to delete/the bad, and allow misremembering. Decade/after decade even silence was not itself /since there was no sound behind it to press/into syllables of witness.’ Nothing could rise to the surface of this ocean, ‘Blank notes,/in the glass bottle from Hades/…Inks splashed the waves’ white crests, scrimshawed drowned bones’ and still her nib hung, ‘still, when landlubbers/chorused O hear us when we cry to thee/For those in peril upon the sea.‘

So with all epiphany, slow or sudden. Once standing in the light, we can barely understand it or discern the process of arriving there. It has taken all our reserves of courage, strength and stamina, and now we must accommodate this stunning new reality in which beauty shows her face, ‘Sarola. Your name a song, my beauty-queen ayah./I remember the tinkle-tinkle of your ankle bells’, as life beckons once more and we must again confront the fearful dichotomy of happy and unhappy endings. From “Fairytale reversed” we learn: ‘At midnight, you don’t want the victim/to be yourself who tries to run on bound feet’. She must try to free herself into understanding what made him the way he was; break open the stony tomb of her Depersonalised self and dare openly face her trauma.

Judeo-Christian teaching stresses the humbling and redemptive role of human suffering. We have had to make sense of it, for we are a bloody bunch. But all myth and religions engage with emotional distress, and the kinship between them is illustrated in poems like “Plaint to Epona”, which begs for an explanation of the death of a foal: ‘Where were you?’ and the raped and muted “Philomel” whose voice becomes the nightingale’s. While chanting its way through the horrifying catalogue of abuse in “Even with a flower” is a Hindu imprecation:

Never hit a woman, even with a flower…
like an orchid whose vulva bees enter…

It was Seamus Heaney who summed up the paradoxical task of the imaginative arts, and poetry in particular: In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed. Words that suffice, bear witness, even offer solidarity, without reserve or discrimination. These poems are offered freely to all, from women’s refuge inmate to long-ago beloved abused ayah, for news of whom the poet still vainly searches,

Little do you realise

I search TV documentaries, newspaper magazines
on Nepal for you. Decades later, I hear still

the sizzle of your dahl, garlic, onion and potatoes
in the pan for your only noonday meal. I know

how to carry burdens – the way you showed me:
on my back, and band around my forehead...

Such limpid testimony and truth is deeply moving, and it permeates McCarthy’s collection. Distilled from long-ago experience, these poems breathe transcendence. The poet understands the need for self-exposure as much as for refinement, ‘Much as I want/to forgive you, I cannot help seeing/ – on the screen – a Bluebeard with all the keys/to my youth, my age, my childless future,’ and she has no time for self-pity. The story she has to tell is universal. She tells it on her own behalf and that of the millions of the voiceless, and she tells it humbly.

McCarthy’s voice is cosmopolitan; from Dublin to England to America to Kathmandu she shows us women subjected to myriad forms of neglect and anguish, often in almost unbelievably accepted and unseen ways; but central to the narrative is the courage of the poet attempting time and again to discern cause and find forgiveness for abuse suffered in an earlier marriage. No recourse here to the polemics of western radical feminism. The poet has shed all ballast. Absent from the work is anger, bitterness, raucous recrimination, instead, sisters in suffering are simply offered love: ‘whatever world you find yourself in; how, in my native landscapes, I think of you.’

For there is so much grief. Loneliness. Babies stripped from the womb. Childlessness. The beloved, dead father. Lost innocence, youthful hopes and dreams of marriage. How to come to terms? Here is a tortuous Facebook ‘befriending’ with ‘his second wife‘; precise but unembittered delineation, in the daughter-in-law’s voice, of the unmeant damage done to a son by an ex-mother-in-law…’unwitting choreographer of my buckled, spent heart.’ And wistful words for the ‘rockabye grandfather’, cradling the grandchild that might have been her own.

Content finds its own form. A closing sonnet is upturned in “Rest, Young Lady”, to evoke the boat from which the 21-year-old Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmit drowned in 1963 and to whom the poet has felt deeply drawn. This poem brings to lancing blue light the memorial stained-glass window in Tudeley All Saints Chapel, designed by Marc Chagall. In a pantoum the strict patterns of which like memory hesitatingly rehearse the past, the poet finds purchase for a difficult subject, tender recollections of her father’s wild recklessness and forgiveness for the remorseful young man who caused his death:

He held up buses like a pretend policeman,

danced the lanes in front of traffic.
Or sat me at the wheel of his Austin,
rules to the wind, flouting policemen,
egging me on to steer, steer –

and then,

penance done for the one-off coincidence.
Older than he was now, we share
sunlight's slow bleach of that black shadow.
More than sorry, not your fault at all.

And there is consolation. She is not alone, for the poets ‘dance around her, hands joined, talk/to her in different languages, one voice/over the other in polyphonic strands/of understanding in this hostile land.’ Rilke, Tennyson, and here in “Sonnets made of wood” is Pablo Neruda: ‘Carve me, then, into the smooth grain/of your sonnets – that I might be/your Matilde’. And Cicero presiding over the agonised attempts of the wife to bring to her abusive marriage the doomed lessons of silence and acceptance recorded by a young girl in her “Old retreat notebook”, ’And then the unwritten script of the willed hush,/urgent as a siren, of the woman she became’.

Consolation too in the love of creatures whose intelligence and ineffable beauty is timeless; past horses, her present brown mare, even “Rock Horses”:

From the battered women I round up
from the hillsides the herd that can never die:

white stallions from stone and bronze ages,
I exercise their stiffened limbs, take them

to smithies to be shod with the moon's crescents.

The equine theme used to most powerful effect in the final sequence, a reworking of the “The Erl King’s Shroud” in which a terrified boy-child tries to warn his disbelieving father of pursuit by the menacing Elf-king of Goethe’s ballad. If the child is fated to lose his life at the hands of the archetypal predator, the woman in this revived epic makes triumphant her escape to the rhythm of Schubert’s galloping piano, and a new fragment of song is born…

We belong still to the speed of Pegasus,
to the flow of his mane, the grace
of his gait. We belong to the kindliness
in his eyes. To the pounding of his hooves
that strike new springs of poetry.

Though beheaded, the Erl-king ‘will forever ride near,’ warns the poet, ‘Teasing man’s oldest fear of death with the fear of fear.’ But the woman who has faced her own shadow and his…

she stands and waits beyond bulwarks,

beyond tired viewpoints and safe beliefs,
beyond closed doors and full stops...

She is a series of questions never to be
answered, out of reach of the fugitive

and the stay-at-home. She alone knows
how to love entirely, without reserve...

This is an inspiriting, empowering and deeply compassionate collection, fully equal to its tragic subject.