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”.