it can feel wrong
that it never is doves
writing of doves …
– from alphabet by Inger Christensen, translated by Susanna Nied
The St Dominic’s Press, founded in Ditchling in the early years of the twentieth century by Douglas (Hilary) Pepler, produced a number of pamphlets and texts illustrated and written by the letter cutter and artist Eric Gill. This sequence of poems takes its name from the ‘Welfare Handbooks’, printed by the Press in the immediate post-war period. It uses material from Gill’s writings, his diaries and notes, as well as reflections on his life, his sexual experimentation and the abuse of his daughters. The voice in the sequence is not Gill’s – it is the voice of water ‘which is good for recording disaster’.
A female peacock would be a monstrosity
what shape would it assume? How hard it is
to envisage a building that goes up and up.
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 and the outgoings,
in discharge, in dirty things like cleaning cloths,
retreating onto the sands of flirtation
where masculinity is exhausted
prickled by marram and saltbush
dragging the long shaft of his cross.
Wondering about a sign here, shall I pick
a cross with four decorative dots to signify
face to face (on top) or a simple x, sideways,
generally from back. No sign is left now
every typographic glyph looks labial,
the asterisk may make a light shine
but nowadays I see only a/hole
for the obelus to cut and pierce.
Think of a utopian city
Think of its binding walls and its symmetry
The age of attack and repulse is past
but the sympathetic walls remain
purposeful (unlike those sprawling lines of slums
that rise like scales over the downs).
Think how all have a function in this city
And are dressed in different colours:
ultramarine, lead tin yellow, verdigris.
We work hard, but when we are not working
we congregate in profile against arcades
and fall in love with the truth.
Some are bakers, some butchers,
some are makers of shoes, or windows, or brushes.
The streets are harmonious, they smell of woodshavings
rising bread, and cake. Women assist the
slaughter of pigs, the curing of parts.
Every so often a prophet opens a top window
Or an angel lowers itself like a stagehand.
A baby is born at intervals and placed in a trough
At the same time (I learn on a walk)
men on battle cruisers, serving in the gun turrets
often died of burns that were
invisible. Their white bodies were spared:
the nobility of the unflawed body
(especially when poverty had clothed it vulgarly)
on the morgue table
combusting rather than decomposing,
a clearness clouded over with flame
a flickering along the uncharred bough.
Measure limbs with a footrule
measure all parts. Measure member.
Why add to the shimmering slithering mess in the warehouse? Why scrape the plate? Throw away nothing. Wear clothes until they become clots of felt in the soil. Say nothing. Never cut a hair on your head. Never shave. Welcome the emission, the fluorescence, the excrescence. Shuffle on your knees, like the old women climbing the stones to the Weeping Madonna. Prostrate yourself in front of the sun and the sun’s son. As many stinking binbags as there are grains of sand on the shore at Cyrene, between the oracle of sultry Jupiter and the Tomb of Old Battus, perhaps a private beach now, or maybe a launch point for inflatable dinghies? As many cotton buds as there are stars in the sky to behold the illicit fumblings of men in railway carriages.
a chapel in the house
a place for the loom
a black slate shelf for butter
a basket for pine cones
a vase of foxgloves
a measuring rule
a pile of stones
a railway bank
a handful of daughters
a kettle for tea
a sheep-coloured coat
a whetstone a snath
a pony and trap
a young woman
a young woman
an old woman
skivvies are always open to sex
but are inordinately modest about their bodies
their nipples their sexes always wrapped in membranes
in sackcloth in ashes in integuments
their billowing pubic hair
curling like a signature behind drawers drawstrings
undrawn but dreamed of
they grab your hand with their dirty fingers and lead it
up into the warm space
the stink of those scrubbers and their sex saliva
if you rip them open they black your eye
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, it’s never a one-off.
At the assizes, name in the papers,
three youths, no more than kids,
threw eggs and tomatoes so the jelly
slid down your lapel. The prohibition
is like a seawall in the adult mind, but back then
the waters slopped in and out the harbour.
Slamming the steering wheel he said well what the
fuck do you want me to do about it? Punch his face?
Sullen are the righteous, the attentive fingers of luminaries
are never seen by them, those lonely exquisite pickings:
at most risk the anxious child who fears not pleasing
who says, yes yes I love you, who learns pleasure
is a structure like a tent, erected on sand
pack it up take it with you
it will never catch you unawares.
angelus at 6 but before that the fire is lit
and he brings up a cup of tea
and perhaps he kisses her brow or strokes it
I am surprised at your vehemence when you say
this act is the most evil of all
but I understand now,
because in that offering of tea and the chaste kiss
he makes the unthinkable consistent with the thinkable.
Love, that slippery snake, is like the law
it eats its nether eye with its morning mouth.
Don’t think of the nights and they will be slotted
neatly into stacks of cups on planed shelves.
If he entered you and it hurt then it was done
gently, with the best intentions
A whole procession of us, white-robed,
even white shoes and socks.
I wore my mother’s wedding veil, studded with pearls
for Corpus Christi Day. A day like today
a hayfever day, the meadows’ first cut
and the bees, the roses out, everything ripe.
The priest, noticing our bad habits,
said we must never keep the wafer in our mouth
as it is the body of Christ, but we vied
for who could suck the longest.
My grandmother took photos on a polaroid
and in all of them our heads cut off
just our young torsos bobbing towards the chapel.
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. The mystery of the shift
diaphanous and yet chaste, the plaits, oh
the mystery of hair and the mystery (for some)
of why two sisters might have begged the youngest
to marry without delay, to do secretarial, to become
a governess, or to drown herself perhaps,
when they left home with their husbands.
mental breakdown is often pictured as a wasteland
but this is a false analogy. Just picture the deserts
of Mexico, blooming with cactuses like prosthetic limbs.
A wasteland is what we have been taught to fear,
unhusbanded, without the city walls, infertile
cracking up, seams undoing themselves in the dry earth.
the hotel mirror
caught a shape brief
in its oblong
before it settled
Of a woman dirty white
stone thigh up
on the bed
Heavy right angle
of marbled planes
the light of a gallery
on her crown
She was bent her shoulders
rounded breasts rounded
She was applying
cream glinting on the scar
of her tibia her hands
seemed to clasp her calf
She radiated no light
a cold star burnt
in her uterus
Then I recognised her
I’d seen her before but
didn’t know her name
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
Lawks high jinks right and proper naughtiness
a get-up nooks and crannies four square
the line to take in this business india rubber
buttons am I mad little by little
cut a tombstone went with a woman
cold as fishes this must stop
One x for Mary and xx for May
=xx x xx x xx x
=x xx x xx x xx
=xx x xx x xx x xx x
=x xx x xx x xx x xx
=xx x xx x xx x xx x
=x xx x xx x xx
=xx x xx x xx x
We spoke at length about the beast
How in the wild he would have been destroyed
By predators, alternatively
Might have starved, become susceptible to small infections
Open wounds in his fine hide.
Truly the maker of this beast is a genius
He burned so bright on the fields and in the valleys.
If it is possible to say of a beast: he had imagination
He had vitality. Even in his cage he is proud.
There is no shortage of admirers.
But, says his keeper, I can’t help looking into the flaming
Depths. I glance in, then away. I bring him food
But I can hardly bear to look him in the face.
Behold him, then shrivel. Shrivel, stretch and weep.
Look and look away. This is the pattern of my guardianship.
I turn my pictures to the wall. I have no mirrors.
I talk into the night about my Janus neck,
Supporting two heads, two sets of eyes,
My conjoined sensibilities, the heavy key of the cage.
Sometimes, I continued, I feel that I am the beast
And I am confined. Sometimes, I finished, I feel
The seaspray of spittle on my neck as I shovel,
And it is me spitting.
Eyes averted always, best in profile
shackled in flatness, every image a removal,
taken from her, denied her, peeled off
like dead skin, transparent, but ribbed with her features.
She helped him by divesting herself of an image
he helped her by pulling it down her legs
Come into my hands, come in my hand
He makes a rose of his fingers, in the centre a rasp.
A garden enclosed is my sister
A locked rock garden and a sealed spring
My sister is a garden that is locked
My sweetheart is a closed garden
A Fountain closed off to all others
A garden inclosed is my sister
A Spring shut up a fountain sealed
Why do perpetual motion machines never work?
Because history only travels in one direction.
And here we are, considering how the purity of an image makes one think
of a great civilisation where frightening technical skill
for a rare moment is the free instrument
of the highest sensitivity. So embraces, contortions,
lascivious women, members erect and flaccid
emerge like Pompeii’s walls from the rubble of a disaster
and are cleansed by water. For English is a language of water
and good for recording disaster.
(quotes from David Jones’s obituary of Eric Gill in Tablet, 30 November 1940, and Valerie Meyer Caso’s The Blue Novel, translated by Michelle Gil-Montero)
Sasha Dugdale has published four collections of poetry, most recently Joy, which was a PBS Choice. Her translation of Russian poet Maria Stepanova’s War of the Beasts and the Animals is published by Bloodaxe in 2020.