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 hay fever day, the neadow’s first cut/ and the bees, the roses out, everything ripe. / The priest, noticing our bad habits, / said we should 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 toward the chapel.
from DEFORMATIONS (Carcanet 2020)
FRAME OF REFERENCE One might say that art gives us neither an image nor an original but an original image or an imagistic original. There is doubleness in its relativity: both an immanent self-reference and a transcendent other reference; something deeply intimate, something intimating superior otherness (altus, above and below). WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal, p. 76.
There is almost too much going on in this short text. The notes indicate the source of the material as the writings of Eric Gill, and adds: “The voice in the sequence is not Gill’s—it is the voice of water which is good for recording disaster.”
Dugdale’s mode here involves foregrounding to an almost distracting degree the theory of the case. Starting with the Marvellian echo in the title’s analogy — Me AS — we have what we take at first as an anecdotal lyric, one of the most popular forms of poetry. Line-by-line it follows what we have called the lyric narrative, or the chiasm from outer to inner/from lower to higher (to put it bluntly paraphrasing St. Augustine of all people). Opening with the facts behind a photo, we move through the topics of the genre, gradually going from description to dialects of the occasion— time of year, the priest, a bit of conversation, charged with double meanings. Then a kind of wrap up that in fact delivers the final destruction of the original image, the seemingly “innocent” Polaroid.
So there’s that. There’s more. Starting with the fourth line — a day like today— there’s a universalizing pattern of analogy. Not only ambiguity — the play on habits— but that cultural sign that governs our social understanding. The wafer “is” the body of Christ. The signal of the analogy is “as.” The open placement of this analogy suggests that this figure of speech, so promiscuously fond of difference, is “behind” the poem as a whole. It is, after all, a day like today.
The energy of the final lines draws on the deepest awarenesses. See the FRAME OF REFERENCE. This “transcendent” other reference is the ultimate indeterminable side of the analogy. The event described, already pluralized by its sources, points to something greater than can be thought, a kind of dark light. The power of the poem, which is, as it were, just a taste of the book “as a whole” (e.g. the thing up for the TS Eliot Prize), is considerable, and considerable in light of both social and artistic dimensions. We shouldn’t really say “as a whole,” since that whole, under the sign of analogy, is an open whole. Now the “note”— the voice of the poem is that of water— can become part of our way of understanding the poem.
One final thing, Sasha Dugdale’s new book reinforces our awareness of the profound possibilities— formal, historical, personal, ontological, etcetera — of lyric.