Besides her work as a translator, Sasha Dugdale is a playwright, and editor of Modern Poetry in Translation; her three books of verse, Notebook (2003), The Estate (2007) and Red House (2011) are all published by Carcanet. Dugdale was born in Sussex, not far from her current home. Travelling to meet her, my train wound through towns that usually register only as momentary irritations on the London to Brighton stopping service. The urban grew muted, gave way to fields and finally mutated into the uncanny inland cliffs of the Downs. On greeting me Dugdale held out a pair of slippers; a courtesy adopted from Russia, where she lived and worked for five years – a nation whose verse and drama she continues to translate. I accepted the slippers – Bonfire Night had brought with it a vicious cold snap. A few days late, but the exact weather of her poem ‘All Souls’:
Autumn’s lovely cells
Are collapsing and the yellow pears are underfoot
Call it mellow call it rotten, until the frost comes
And stops the rot like a knife . . .
Yet we were here to talk about another fascinating poem, or attempt-at-a-poem, ‘Les Énervés de Jumièges’ – based on the eponymous painting of 1880, by Évariste Luminais.
So I thought we would start at the end… or rather with the fact you feel that you’re not finished with this poem. Do you want to talk about why that is?
I need to start from the beginning to answer that. It was intended to be a much longer poem, and I always thought a much longer poem was living inside this short fragment. But when I stopped working on these few stanzas I couldn’t somehow bring myself to carry on. A little while after that it dawned on me what I was writing ‘about’ – I probably couldn’t have said while I was still working on the poem, but I realised after I had put it away from myself and considered it: that the felt life is really, really important, for better or for worse. It was about my own yearning for a ‘felt’ life. In fact now I think about it the fragment ends with this being made explicit. The two characters in the poem are denied such a life, a life of sensation. Perhaps I should talk a little bit about that?
Yes, please do. This was set off by seeing the painting of the same name, I believe?
Finding the subject of the painting was like a thriller! Very briefly: the picture is of two sallow-looking, almost corpse-like young men, in a barque sailing on a river, with a lit candle at their feet, and some rather plastic flowers, like you might see on graves. They’re covered in a piece of cloth and bound up in bandages. It’s such a peculiar, Pre-Raphaelite sort of picture, late nineteenth century – in fact their faces are very Pre-Raphaelite with the dark red hair and the pale skin, the cheekbones of the one of the left, the satins and the velvet cushions… The painting of the men and the barque is very detailed but the river landscape in the background is vague and filled with light. So enigmatic. I had no idea what it depicted, what story.
I saw it quite by chance, in Rouen, in the picture gallery. I was travelling through on holiday. And it fascinated me. I saw that it was called Les Énervés de Jumièges and then I saw that Jumièges was an abbey not far from Rouen and we decided to go and visit it, on an off-chance. So we drove off on a whim, following the Seine out of Rouen, and spent the afternoon looking round this ancient place. It’s on the Seine where it loops round and round – what they call ‘les Boucles’ – so the river is meandering in the most beautiful way, and the abbey stands by the side of the river in a green and shadowy park. It is just ruins now, although it must have been very impressive. And there’s two graves – a double grave; they’re very small. Nobody knows who the graves belong to and there’s a story, a myth which is almost certainly apocryphal: in fact I’m sure it is! The story goes that these are the graves of two young princes, who rebelled against their father, against authority, and as a result suffered this punishment of being enervated.
There are no real details about what being enervated might mean, so I imagined you were stripped of your nervous system, the opposite of being flayed, which is a really horrible thought. This idea really captivated me, because if you were alive but you had no nervous system then you would feel absolutely nothing…
It’s a really gruesome tale. I believe the story goes that it was their mother’s idea – that they should take the nerves out of their legs, because that’s what drove them forward: if you don’t have that nerve then you won’t rebel.
The idea is so full of possibilities. When you think about it, it is quite nauseating, but actually in the abstract it’s just extraordinary as a concept. To be ‘enervated’ is also to be exhausted, or exhausted to the point of hypersensitivity – there’s also that in there.
The poem starts off as a dramatic monologue in the voice of one of the brothers, and then is broken by an intrusion; the poet speaking about hearing these voices. I was very interested in those choices you made.
I’m not sure I made an awful lot of choices, because to some extent the poem chose its own form. The thing that was striking, and in some senses uncomfortable for me, was not the narrative voice but the formal structure. I had imagined something much more loose-limbed – free verse – but the poem didn’t want to do that particularly, and ended up organising itself into something that was, at the end at least, a Keatsian ode structure.
You can see those patterns – you look at it on the page and you instantly think it’s in some sort of stanza form, particularly those Keatsian odes and narratives that the Pre-Raphaelites loved so much. And it gets tighter and tighter as it goes through…
Which might be why I had to eventually stop writing. Because in fact what I needed was a form that would loosen and loosen and allow me to throw it off. And you’re quite right, it closed like a fist – which is very hard. And when I talk about the poem writing itself… I don’t know how you feel about this, but I don’t sit there thinking ‘my next line’s going to be…’ I’m not abdicating responsibility when I say ‘the poem’, because it is always the case that the poem’s form arises from the preoccupations of the poem. There is some odd moment about creating a poem which isn’t about your own agency really, is it?
I know, and I love the way when you’re talking about that form it sounds like the form of the river Seine, which you describe in the poem with that looping you mentioned earlier: ‘Where it folds itself like a ribbon to appear again and again’. I think we’re much less in control… we think that we write spontaneously when we write without form, but actually form is much more forceful than we think it is. And I think we’re much more likely to drift into form than drift out of it, because it plays on expectations; you hear one sound and so you hear the echo of it in another.
The other thing I was interested about were the references you have in there. All very fitting for the period feel, all that myth and sainthood. So you’ve got St Erasmus. I love the fact he’s the patron saint of sailors and here we have these two very strange sailors who have no control over their vessel whatsoever.
Yes, that’s true, and I suppose there is also the fact that St Erasmus and Marsyas are distinctly visual – they’re from that set range of medieval martyrs and classical ‘punishment’ pictures that you see in every collection of Old Masters. The énervés aren’t in that league at all, they’re not the stock early Christian martyrs, they’re a tributary, a copy of an idea of martyrdom, without really having existed at all.
And I suppose they’re being punished for something they have done and there’s no sense their rebellion was for a greater cause. So, although we might sympathise or pity, it feels OK to have this voyeuristic experience of their weird, fantastical suffering.
In fact, negotiating the punishment was quite hard for me, because I’m not interested in grotesque images for the sake of it. So that writing was quite tricky, and repellent – although there didn’t seem to be any way of avoiding it. I find all violence horrific to consider: it enervates me, has a physical effect on me. So when I write about violence (and I find I have done often) I have to write against myself. I write about it as a protest against it, and it costs me a lot to do it.
Although I think what I really am interested in is feeling and experience, there is again another side-line, which is parent-child relationships, and the nature of rebellion, which is not something that I have explored particularly in this, but might have done given the space.
Are you aware of the voice as being of one of the brothers or speaking for both of them? Do you think of them as one character in two bodies?
Yes, probably. One character. And it’s worth saying that I didn’t have this image in front of me. Although I did buy the postcard and kept it, I wasn’t looking at it when I was writing. I was trying to remember, roughly, what it looked like. And I don’t think I saw them really at this stage as each having a distinct character. In fact, again, one of the things I was thinking I might do later on in the poem is have a dialogue between them… it simply didn’t happen.
I guess that makes sense because the thing they lose as well as sensation is personhood, or character. They’re very much a vessel, a conduit through which other things around them seem to flow – which goes only where it’s taken and sees only what it’s given to see, as the barque passes along.
It also struck me that at the same time they would see more than everybody else, because they weren’t involved in the petty business of living – they’d be right out of ordinary life and in this space which is quite abstract and they’d be able to look back at it, at all the stuff that was going on around them.
Presumably the alternative punishment would have been execution, and instead they’re somehow forced to live an immortal but pointless life, they can’t do anything but they also seem to be able to go without food or anything else that humans need to exist. And all they can do is drift along until the monks find them. So the things like the stumps and snags, otters and the ribbons of fish, are the detail they see that would usually be missed.
Yes, and I suppose in that way they’re very similar to the river itself. It moves through and isn’t touched by what’s going on around it. I’m intrigued by the way that rivers were used as transport arteries in the middle ages and up until very recently. The whole idea of secret watery roads that pass silently through the landscape, outside of us somehow, independent of our world, although still in themselves a functioning and coherent nervous system – that fascinates me.
In some ways they seem to force their route through but they also, in places, have to take the direction the landscape allows them, to meander… Were there people or texts you were thinking about when writing this?
The poet who influenced this poem is Keats, although I didn’t fully realise this until quite late on. I had done quite a lot of work on Keats for a talk on his idea of negative capability which is a very important concept in my understanding of poetry. So I was writing about that and how Keats came to the idea of negative capability through watching a famous actor play Hamlet on stage; it’s really linked to the theatre and the idea of being a feeling vessel for somebody else’s words and instincts:
I was very, very influenced by Keats’s thinking in the letters. I then set about reading all the poems. On the whole it isn’t an easy read for a contemporary reader, and it is tragic. So you get to the sonnets and Odes finally and you think: this is amazing, this is it, and then that’s almost the end of the book because he doesn’t write much more, his life is so short. I was quite involved with Keats’s work for a while and it ended up affecting several of my poems, including this one – the idea of negative capability and being a vessel for the feelings of others, all of that no doubt influenced the shape and approach of the poem. The idea that these brothers can only be a conduit, they have no certainty, seems like a really good metaphor for a way of being in poetry. But also of course Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, the idea of the lovers who are stuck, who are fixed in their embrace, and the heifer who’s fixed on the way to the slaughter, I find that a really powerful, extraordinary poem, full of that yearning for a felt life. And that poem came in at the end; it did actually introduce itself, in a way, bodily, but I was quite glad to see it there.
What we might usually think of as a negative thing becomes a powerful thing, to be unaffected and see but not react, reflect – it may be the ideal state for a poet but it’s certainly not the ideal state for a human being. And the brothers themselves, they have this sort of excuse, for just existing rather than acting.
I suppose you could say that as a poet your role is to be like that. It is a generosity of imagination. It admits many ways of being, but doesn’t press them on others. Keats said, didn’t he, that we don’t like poetry that ‘has a palpable design on us – and if we do not agree seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket’.
It’s why the Pre-Raphaelites loved him so much – what is it – ‘a life of Sensations rather than Thoughts’? That that’s the way poetry should work on you, at least on a primary level: it might teach you something intellectually or show you something morally but its actual power is that it’s sensual.
I suppose the Pre-Raphaelites are quite a good way of thinking about it, because they loved that sensual detail but they believed that behind it should be some sort of thought or idea that you’re trying to get across.
It’s really funny that, because I don’t really like the Pre-Raphaelites very much. And it is not even the case that I liked the picture of Les Énervés de Jumièges itself, it’s not like I rushed up to it and felt, you know, as you might with a really great picture, this has made my life better. I was intrigued by it. It was a sort of mystery that needed solving. There’s something about the combination of the specific and the abstract in it that I particularly liked – the opening up of the river and the sun and this light, and then this really highly-detailed, rather nauseating picture. So I have generally a very ambivalent attitude towards the Pre-Raphaelites and what they were doing.
Any other influences for this poem that you knew about at the time, or that you realised thereafter?
No. I can’t think of any other particular influences in the poem. But to return to the matter of form, which still preoccupies me: I like using form but I don’t like using it perfectly, I like upsetting it a bit. So I’ve written quite a few poems that are rhymed, but they’re not particularly tightly rhymed, or I rhyme them in a way that is not quite right, that unsettles me. And I like messing up formal things, or apparently doing them and then doing something different. But in fact I would deeply love to be a poet who wrote in a far less ‘traditional’ manner. I love, for example, the Polish poet Krystyna Miłobędzka, and I would love to write like Miłobędzka. I’m very intrigued and excited by her poetry, I’m inspired by it, and I always feel a need to write after reading her poems. But it would be impossible for me to write like her – I haven’t tried, to be honest, it wouldn’t be right; it would be fake really. Because I think to some extent you have to sit down and write the poem that’s there. Maybe what I’m actually saying is that I need to be different, I need to move on. And then the poems will of their own accord be different.
I noticed the rhyme in this is similar to the way you use rhyme in other poems – it’s there but it’s not got purchase on the poem. It comes and goes. Here it creates this beautiful sort of improvised singing; I imagined the way the brothers talk to be a sort of song that they’re singing themselves as they wander along the river.
That’s a lovely idea. I’m very glad you said that.
Even in Keats you can find bits where you think if he hadn’t stuck to this rhyme scheme he could have cut that bit out and it wouldn’t do any damage. Because the form as an overbearing structure shouldn’t matter, it is how that works within individual lines and images…
That’s quite right, because I think if you use an ode structure, or a long poem structure, you could get to the point where you are actually just padding, because you knew you needed a triple-rhymer, and I think that must have been a real pain – poets must quite often have come to the end of their poetic thought and still had a few lines to fill out. I’ve worked a lot with Russian translators who were translating eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poetry, the Pre-Raphaelites and William Blake most recently, and I loved hearing their discussions on translating formal poetry. They were always very hot on each other’s rhyme schemes, very critical if anyone put a foot wrong, or failed to fulfil all the stresses in a line – they thought that was not quite the thing. It occurred to me whilst I was listening that Keats and his contemporaries, or Coleridge, they must have had similar conversations, quite objective and technical discussions of each other’s poems. I remember Coleridge and the poetic compositions that he did as a schoolboy in Greek and Latin. In some ways what they were doing was much more like a musical improvisation. They’d learnt the piano for eighteen years and they could play it in their sleep. But it’s not like that any more. I’m not saying it’s any less of an apprenticeship and that you have to work any less hard, but that technical training has been disrupted.
It seems such a masculine, competitive thing. I guess it’s mastery, to be able to force words and ideas to a pattern.
I think the macho, masculine stuff carries on, but it’s expressed in different ways – interesting to think what ways… And that’s one of many reasons why I find Miłobędzka so compelling, because she’s so out of all of that stuff and it is just about very pure expression.
I guess those Romantics are living on the cusp. There’s that very formal, technical, apprenticeship stuff, but they’re also trying to break free.
There’s a great cult of the subjective and a breaking loose of the I, the lyrical I. I suppose that’s the starting point for what a lot of us are still doing. They were working in really interesting times of revolution and social instability – it’s quite interesting to think about the parallels now. We certainly aren’t living in comfortable times.
I always think the Romantics are to blame for the common perception of what a poet is. The idea that a poet is a person who feels poetically, and experiences poetically, and then vomits that feeling straight onto a page, because that’s very much the image they gave themselves and I think it’s interesting how successful they’ve been in that respect, that they’ve colonized the idea of what it is to be a poet.
It’s an extraordinary kind of myth really, and the hardest myth to dismiss. I think it’s not just poetry; every part in history is so blurred by Romantic notions of great people and the importance of individual biography. It’s a very persuasive thing. Perhaps it’s persuasive because everyone would like to think they count as an individual and they’re not just part of some faceless, feudal mass. And that’s not a bad thing, it’s just how to balance that with the many other truths.
We’ve come quite far from the poem haven’t we…?
I’m not sure we have, it’s all…
We’re still on the same river?
So, you sort of put this poem aside because it… bumped up against the edge of the river, as it were, and came to a stop of its own accord. Do you think that you’ll go back to it? It’s really interesting because it does have what feels very much like an ending, a definite beginning, a structure…
I don’t know. If you’re working from the point of view that it could be longer, then it’s probably better that it isn’t. I had another experience with this, a poem about the Battle of Maldon. We went to visit Maldon and we had a wander round in that way that you do – get out of the car and look for the place where the battle happened, tramp around a field and the children get bored and it gets dark and eventually someone says: I think it was probably here somewhere, and we all get back in the car and drive off. We had just been to Orford Ness and I thought what I wanted to do was write a series of poems which would be about the Cold War and the East and looking out towards Russia; and about the nature of battle and war. And the first poem in this sequence of poems was ‘Maldon’, the Viking battle, and I wrote that and that was fine, I finished it – in fact it’s the first poem in Red House. But I got to the end of it and I was sitting around waiting for these other poems that were going to just about sum up the nature of the Cold War or something… obviously I had great expectations! And nothing happened. It ended up just being one really short poem.
I sometimes go back to make a specific change to a poem and discover I have already done exactly so. Then I’m surprised that I’m not as unpredictable as I think I am.
That’s right, and that happens quite a lot. And with translation that happens quite a lot. I think about it and I think about it and I’ll think: oh it should be like this – and I’ll open up the file and realize that it is like that. And it is quite reassuring. I often think I’m something more vague than I actually am and I look at it and I think, oh, I did make decisions here! I am capable of decisive negative capability!
I think you get so used to shifting things about that you don’t realise you’re doing it.
It’s a good thing like that, a much more physical thing than prose, because you have these building blocks and you are… playing with them, sorting them out. I like that about it. I like the total immersion, a bit like painting – but perhaps prose is the same. I’m sure it must be. Hours pass and you have moved three words along the line slightly. And yet it feels very practical.
You said earlier about not wanting to deal with the punishment itself, the grotesquerie – and because this starts as they’ve already been pushed off, they remember back to the point of punishment but you don’t actually have to narrate it. It feels like a narrative, but actually there is no real narrative here. They’re moving along but the whole point is nothing progresses or changes as they move. And I wonder if that’s why it ended up being shorter.
That’s a really good point. I’m quite interested in narratives, particularly historical narratives – because they so often prove to be mythical or non-narratives. And I do also, in my poems, increasingly want to think about history, and how events looked at the time and how they look now, from our perspective, and in fact the sort of chaos that it really was. In some ways this is what I was trying to examine in another poem I wrote quite recently, a long poem written over a long time, but more openly a poem of concept. The poem’s called ‘The Canoe’ [published in PN Review 213] and is in twelve sections, each of which represents one hour. It’s about some men who set sail in a canoe and what happened after they’d gone. So there was an element of narrative in it – and another boat! – but when I was writing it I was quite conscious of the fact that I wanted it to be about the process of history, about our reconstruction of events, and the various investments that people have in how events are portrayed, and how we mustn’t forget these investments, or trust blindly in narrative. But when a story is so obviously false as that of the énervés is, it has its own interest. Because then the investments are the whole story, and there never were any actual events. The mythmaking is the history itself. All these ideas have been uppermost in my mind because we are living in such difficult times and over the last year I have been following the various propaganda narratives of the war between Russia and Ukraine: all is lies and contradictions and words ‘with designs on us’, and the narrative is being dragged into the service of some powerful people. One day in the far future it may be possible for historians to attempt some kind of proper research into what happened in 2014, but for now all we can do is be careful about what we believe and understand what the power of narrative is.
‘If it had been told to me I should not have believed it.
The night had burnt itself out and the morning was a miniscule new flame
Over the sifting waters of the river. Where were the angels
Attending like apothecaries to St Erasmus? None of them came.
That place was beautiful till then. My brother whispered, try
To outwit the executioner! Die!
And yet we live. Stumps and snags are dead and black,
And yet we live – but what is this life?
Coarser than wood, empty to wound and shock
Cold, rotten fibres, damp as river rock.
The shore was long deserted. The trees were spires
Some instruments, bound in a leather strip,
Left at the river’s edge. A cauterising fire,
And the stones vomit-slick.
Live? It makes no sense. Living is the worse torment.
Our barque was simple as a grave. We lay upon it
Dressed and bound, like newborns in a morgue:
Neither and both. It was our first and last day
And on either side of us stretched the same void
That went before and behind. We were nothing ourselves
All the quickness gone, we were stones, sexless, faithful:
Arms folded upon our breasts, like knights slain,
Two guttering candles at our feet to light us to our end.
The boat is moved by a current, but at first
It noses at the edge of the river, caught and caught again
By branch and weed, and rasps on stone like something hurt
Who knows how long has passed before we are tugged
Feet-first into the river’s flow, the sun is morning sore
Birds shake themselves, and plunge into the river –
A thousand small courtiers’ coughs – and they withdraw
With ribbons of fish, they have seen men before
But this is not like men: they see us and shiver.’
I haven’t heard their voice for at least three months now
At first they lay beside me in bed as in the longboat, the barrow
Arms to their sides, their bodies obscured
By some instinct in me, adept at horror
Although whether they really existed, no one knew
Still a myth makes a truer sound than the true.
And they spoke the whole time in a nerveless sighing
Asking me to imagine how it might be
To be flayed like Marsyas, but from the inside
And put to sail, their nervous systems hung out on a tree
They floated, my nerveless observers, up and down the Seine
Where it folds itself like ribbon to appear again and again.
‘The Seine is wide, wide and full of the ocean’s water,
Far off otters, other innocents, watch the little boat
The river slaps and drags, the candles flicker, gutter
But the winds cannot snap them entirely out
The wick holds the light in its greasy finger
And mocks the wind and lets its tongue dwindle
Then throws it up, a bleached and righteous pillar
Like slow flares sent to light a ruined town.
Around them, silent in their midday sepulchre,
The world roars and scratches arse and crown
And begs pardon, beggars reason, bays
And whines, unhappy and slothful,
Short on its luck, long in the tooth.
Still all this is nothing to the Énervés
Hulls of life, heart-whole but hardly hopeful:
Congealed to urns, beauty made to untruth.
Much like those lovers who leaning never embrace
Or who sleep side by side in unwanted chastity
And as they do not feel, they will never change
Since contact is the catalyst of human chemistry
And no one will ever touch them again
Nor hurt them or caress them, waxy orphans
Loosened and let go, un-fostered, un-claimed
Un-aged, sans taste sans smell, sans touch sans
Everything that makes a human hue
His own body in growing decrepitude.
First Published by Prac Crit.