Issue 24: Adam Piette reviews Lauren Alleyne and Sasha Dugdale

Lauren K. Alleyne, Honeyfish (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2019)

Sasha Dugdale, Deformations (Manchester: Carcanet, 2020)

In lockdown the world shrinks for many to domestic space; walled-in, den-like, cell-like, monastic: an observer’s subject position familiar to poets, englued still within the role of dreaming thing, ‘fever of thyself’, a castaway islanding. But other worlds press in, shaming the dreamy seclusive virtuality: the world of climate disaster, root cause of the virus, animal merchandizing at the borders of remaining wilderness under destruction. And then there is the world as revealed by Black Lives Matter, after the murder of George Floyd: public space scened as virtual zone screening lynching.

Normalization of police brutality is a feature of the recrudescence of racist violence in the words and deeds of state actors, as well as a recycling of the racism that has scarred history for hundreds of years of colonial and white supremacist ideology, overt and covert: lethal aggression masked as security and public protection. And that has its own filiation with the drive to destroy and master environments and resources for the petty capital invested, and for the major psychic kick the control systems give the investor, especially if the system surveys the Global South: for this gives the kick a colonizing pioneer edge of brutality masked as development.

Art’s relationship to these other worlds risks presenting as a species of lockdown aesthetic, spectatorial, dreaming the spatio-temporal gaps and frames within and around the events, betraying symptoms of the fever of itself that scars and obscures the representations through false reflex, a viral feedback loop; unless of course more militantly activist and engaged. Short of that, poetry at this limit is as redundant as its act of witness is belated or ill seen ill said. Yet such contexts of poetry as these other worlds present, acting as immediate, compulsive history of violence and resistance to violence, necessarily shape compositional practice, and will be read in to an artwork whether it will have it or no.

The poets I review here have shaped their own contexts, as language spaces acting as models in little of the other worlds pressing down on the dreaming thing: and that contextual environment is often the collection as word-construct, within which the poems settle into patterns sequential or serial, and in which the violences and resistant protests of affective-phenomenological experiencing of history can be enacted in miniature.

Lauren Alleyne’s collection, Honeyfish, predates Covid-19 and the Floyd murder; yet its project has the prescience of embodied political art. Alleyne structures her collection round Black Lives Matter with elegies for the victim of security violence, Trayvon Martin, the 17 year old shot in Sanford, Florida in February 2012, by an armed community watch member, George Zimmerman, his action enabled by the state’s stand your ground law. The acquittal of his killer in Florida in July 2013 triggered the huge protests that led to the creation of BLM by the co-founders, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, all three activists and artists, conjoining campaigning genius with the creative-activist energy that Alleyne identifies with as poet.

Garza has helped expand the BLM movement to ‘[affirm] the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum’,[1] and it is her critique of state violence and the manifold ways even allies fall into patterns of anti-Black racism in America that has helped shape the movement’s radicalism as it came into prominence with the Ferguson Protests in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in August 2014.

Alleyne’s collection opens with a poem staging her own experiencing of the shock of the Sanford verdict, just at the time she prepares for a poetry workshop. It registers the radical ways the event transforms her manner of embodying the world (‘everything already packed / inside your skin – a dead brown boy and his free killer’), and therefore everything she sees and writes, even what she writes upon: ‘Your white journal pages, ruled’. Dedicated to the dead brown boy (‘For Trayvon’), the poem bears witness to the world revealed by the violence of the murder and the judicial violence of the acquittal:

                        You follow the wind,

ripe with salt and already-sweaty bodies.

You see a pile of beached boats lumped

like bodies in a mass grave: a stone wall drowning

while sleepy dories drift by; sun-bleached

stumps, slowly going to rot.

What is readable as mere descriptive passage-work, environment by numbers, is second-sighted by the fact of the Trayvon killing and acquittal: revealing intimations of the Middle Passage, of the state murders of mass death, as well as responding to the lazy corrupt indifference of white culture to the violence done in its name. Alleyne tracks a Romantic trope, the poet following the wind of inspiration as breeze prelude to nature’s revelation, and takes it in its political sense, as the wind of change blown into being by Black Lives Matter.

The rival traditions of poetry of loco-descriptive inspiration and of political work that registers the lineaments of violent history in the occasions of white-ruled America, these clash in Alleyne’s lines: but come together as radical utterance, as if to say: this is the true poetry of the post-Romantic imagination in contemporary America, the political poetics of ‘dark already memory’. And what is recuperated and redefined along the way is the spectatorial subject position of the poet, given a task to do that connects to and transforms the elegiac function of poetry: the very belatedness of writing becomes the means of emotional and visionary solidarity as well as a reinscribed mode of political elegy.

Alleyne’s collection gathers together in the opening section, as complements to the poetry workshop elegy, poems that empathise with Trayvon’s mother, ‘How to Watch Your Son Die’, elegies for other victims of police violence, Aaron Campbell (shot in Portland, Oregon, in January 2012 by a police officer later acquitted),[2] Tamir Rice (12 year-old boy shot by police in Cleveland, Ohio, also acquitted), the multiple victims in the Charleston shootings (nine African Americans shot by a white supremacist in their church in South Carolina in June 2015).[3]

These public elegies are correlated to the story of a friend she lost, Anton, his coffin ‘a strange tree / we plant’, summoning the ‘strange fruit’ of the great anti-lynching song, but also the estrangement of grief, its pain and loss – which the poem dwells on as an act of will, ‘trying to keep you real, // keep the living memories / unburied’. In interview, Alleyne connects the public elegies of victims of state and white supremacist violence to this more private pain at the loss of her friend. The elegy is close to the love poem, she says, citing Anne Carson’s essay Eros the Bittersweet as example (where Carson defines eros as lack):

I think the ability to stay in [the pain and loss of grief] for a minute and to really feel it is not a thing we get to do. I think, even with public elegies, it’s a moment, it’s a sensation, it’s a headline. I would move so quickly into outrage. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice. They are based in grief, yes, but we then use that grief; it becomes utility immediately. For me, the loss, the anguish, the anger, the hurt, the desire, the longing need a space to live—that’s what the elegy offers.[4]

The dwelling with the lack can be preserved as a phenomenological space as elegy on the page, a textual dwelling-place for the grief as lack, but also a zone were the dead friend can be mourned as voice (Alleyne’s elegy imagines Anton saying to her ‘Doh take it so hard’), as absence (the strange coffin), as non-utilitarian expression of feeling. The Anton elegies in the collection connect feelingly to the public elegies and make them more at home within the book as grieving texts.

The three sections of Honeyfish enact the constraints and expectations of the forms and genres of poetry as public and private spaces and modes of voice, and modulate between the elegies and poems about her Trinidad childhood, her family. These nostalgic pieces and the elegies come together in the final section to blend, as an act of will, the different lacks: and the collection ends with elegies for Tamir Rice and Anton side by side, the Tamir lyric moving from the genre of the curse poem to the more intimate wishing into being of a dwelling place for the dead boy, which is the very text we read: ‘let me build you here / a new body, radiantly black’. This act of will is enabled by the Anton elegy that follows which conjoins the pain of his loss to the nostalgia theme of her lost Trinidad home (‘In the rasp of your voice / scratching against the distance / between us ­– oceans, cornfields, / years of never enough time’).

Anton becomes a spatio-temporal being ‘marking the place / where home began’, and thus a memory guardian connecting Alleyne to the past and to the past of others in the BLM-inspired retranscription of elegiac practice. This is emotion-generative work of affective and angry grace, spiralling back and forth from lost home and body to the black textuality of its witness poetics.

Sasha Dugdale’s collection, Deformations, has three sections, ‘Welfare Handbook’, a sequence dissecting the violence and art of Eric Gill, specifically the abuse of his daughters; ‘Headland’, the title poem of which was written as part of ‘The Blue Crevasse Project’ marking the centenary of W.S. Graham in 2018,[5] and ‘Pitysad’, a reimagining of the Odyssey: these three sequences are bookended by prefatory and postface lyrics, ‘Girl and Hare’ and ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’, which give definitional entry and exit points to the collection as a whole.

‘Girl and Hare’ dwells on what reads as a childhood memory of a pet hare, and is written in a young girl’s idiom streaked through with more menacing language: the girl holds her hare ‘as a poacher might but tenderly’, and peers at its flesh that has the ‘tautness of game’ as though with hunger for its detail and beauty and imagined interiority (the hare is caught lowering its eyelids as if ‘sly, knowing’).

The last poem figures the fallen angels not as Milton’s rebels but as migrant refugees, vilified as ‘trespassing / angels’ , captured at a distance by the poem: ‘snaking over passes / shining tracks, visible to the naked / eye, the man in glasses, the woman / holding a map’. the language reduces them to snails or snakes, uses the techniques of security forces, their surveillance and tracking records, and micro-manages its line-breaks with the assurance of modernist powers of observation and language-consciousness.

The header and footer lyrics intimate the collection’s ethical stance and manner. These will be lyrics hyper-aware of the speaker’s involvement in the story of possession and control of the vulnerable, and will link the poet’s own gifts and Romantic language-consciousness (hypostasised as a plain poetics close to what one might call translated style, an international English generated as if translated from another tongue, historical period and culture) to the forms of violence and aesthetic rage to possess that characterise the stories told within the sequences.

The collection as a whole indicts poetry and writing more broadly as one of the arts of observation and aestheticization, and offers up its own artfulness as evidence for the charges ranged against Gill’s abuse, the patriarchal systems of representation reproduced by art, the gendered predicament of refugee men and vulnerable women in contemporary war zones.

‘Welfare Handbook’ opens with a poem which is difficult to parse as either written by a Dugdale alter-ego compositional voice, or by the Gill persona: it starts with the ideas of a female peacock as monstrosity and a ‘building that goes up and up’ as hard to envisage, and then moves, as if laterally, with the rhetorical question:

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 and the outgoings,

in discharge, in dirty things like cleaning cloths,

retreating onto the sands of flirtation

The sands are, as mysteriously, identified as the place where Christ as ‘masculinity’ is exhausted. The writing presents itself as about patriarchy as art-making: but that ‘about’ conceals a multitude of sins (if sins are taken as signs of ethical short-coming), for what is skirted around and evaded in the lyric is the identity-generating powers of just such a surrealist and modernist paratactic style as we are trying to parse here.

If the poem is ‘about this’, ie is about art-making as gender-transformational and Babelian, what exactly does that ‘about’ mean? Is it critique or act of possession? Is the poem we are reading here written in a Dugdale voice that has the analytic powers of 21st century feminism, both puncturing patriarchal art-premises and displaying them as symptoms; or is it in a Gill voice, a dramatic monologue that plays out Gill’s own fusion of violent sculpture of material and sexual violence that seeks to rob women of their ‘shameful’ interiority?

The question is made more difficult by the very means of expression, the creepy and insinuating plainstyle, that finds relish in its own release of verbal beauties (for instance, the light play of vowel-repetition across ‘it is’ – ‘envisage’– ‘about this’ – ‘my fist’ – ‘puncture it’; the graphemic pleasure in noting how ‘pound of paper to puncture’ reproduces and rewrites ‘up and up’).

The collection ends with a tremendously powerful retelling of the Ulysses-Penelope relationship as modern migrant and refugee separation, as though Odysseus were a Syrian exile and Penelope his wife surviving as best she can left behind in the war-torn city . It is writing that is instinct with compassion for both plights, and yet rises to heights of outrage too at the ways the Odysseus figure tolerates his own misogyny:

I entered a city at night, Penelope

I couldn’t tell whether it was half-built or half-destroyed

I ordered you killed, Penelope

as I felt your hips in my hands

your head under mine

as I stroked your hair

and wondered if you were still alive

The translated idiom here is carefully constructed: this is written as if Englished from another tongue, registrable in the slight oddities of phrase (‘I couldn’t tell whether it was half-built or half-destroyed’ has a heavy awkwardness to it’ ; ‘your head under mine’ is not quite idiomatic English), and also the casualness of the confession, its weaving together of war crime against civilians with sexual nostalgia.

The plainstyle allows for surrealist conjoinings, so Penelope becomes the city entered at night, and the dream Penelope he imagines loving in his head becomes the dead woman he has ordered killed, with something of the vicious confusion of aesthetics and power of a Browning dramatic monologue. This is his last Penelope, and we are addressed as if by way of a comparably compromised blending of traditional and modernist rhetorical forms.

Joyce’s Ulysses comes under judgement in the Penelope dramatic monologues in the sequence, particularly the extraordinary prose poem ‘sweating in my nightrobe’, with its intimate inhabiting of her ‘strange fierce hot body’, its Joycean language-consciousness (the sea’s ebb and flow is captured as ‘ssshh haaaf’), its defence of anti-heroic ordinary life:

if he could only bear it I would take that insignificant thing and I would love it with all my own insignificance I’m insignificant but I’ve kept going I’m insignificant but I am not a myth

The defence of the insignificant had been heralded in the epigraph to the collection (‘for the insignificant’): signifying both the marginal and migrant bodies and beings the sequences defend and give voice to, but also the target of the collection’s own making practice: the signifying systems of representation that are the channels of oppression and violence, including the traditions, genres and ontological networks of art. This is writing that flows with many voices, with uncompromising acts of ethical energy, with writing that turns on itself and offers up for display its own protocols, gifts and virtù with astonishing and intricate candour and difficulty, and yet communicated in this tour de force plainstyle that judges its signifying powers to represent at the same time as breaking through, by way of its very deformation of tradition and assumption, to a moving communicableness of shared witness.


Adam Piette is co-editor of Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen. He is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sheffield, and the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett, Imagination at War: British Fiction and Poetry, 1939-1945, The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam. He co-edits Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen.

Copyright © 2020 by Adam Piette, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.