Book Review: The Strongbox // Sasha Dugdale

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There is something of an elegant neatness to Sasha Dugdale’s most recent collection of poetry, The Strongbox. It is a slender book, in which not a word feels extraneous and internal characterisation is given priority over epic drama.

To meld together descriptions of “spindly frigates in airfix grey” and heroic statues that “sometimes [have] a cone” on their heads, with classical myths without the description seeming at all out of place, is no mean feat. That is the sort of skill which Dugdale uses to create a work that feels as finely wrought as a regal strongbox or the aesthetic perfection of an egg.

That sense of enjoyment and careful choice of words, even if they might seem counterintuitive, perhaps owes something to Dugdale’s experience as a translator for she seems equally comfortable bridging images as she does with languages. The text’s link to the ancient world is strengthened by a peppering of allusions that have been carried over from other texts, including some brilliantly bedded in fragments of Heraclitus.

It is a series of 14 poems, yet it reads much the same as snatches of one long conversation, mutating over time as the interlocutor’s age and circumstances change. There is un underlying topic of conflict that cannot be bound by a single poem, a single view point, or even a single progression through time. It is both grounded in the mythologies of ancient Greece, and the ever too present modern realties of needing to seek shelter from violence.

In that way, there is something multiformed and chimeric about The Strongbox, for each time I think I have it in my mental grasp I realise it is not quite what I thought it was, but at the same time there is a sense of understanding on a more basic level. Perhaps it is the shifts from story to story, from image to image, that create its complex nature. Like a dream it is both fixed and absolute in its meaning, yet almost impossible to pin down the individual details.

That dreamlike sense is amplified by direct mention. Poems seven, nine, and 12 form a series of four dreams of Helen of Sparta and, like dreams, are fragmentary in their recollection, with the first two dreams being presented as one poem, then the last two dreams each getting a poem of their own. It is also of note that the first two dreams are recounted in fragments to Paris, and so form a conversation, whereas the last two are unbroken without interruptions. Helen has been given a voice to directly address the reader and herself without interference from men, and so is freed from the all to frequent male centring of these stories.

That is not to say there is no humour or lightness to the work. Helen pointing out the inconvenient truth of mathematics to an insistent Menelaus who seemingly just wants figures that fit his world view, is wryly done with stage direction like descriptions of Helen’s actions, and apt punctuation that makes her frustration almost audible.

This is poetry as a form of magic, which can bring together the disparate and give waking reality to fleeting dreamlike remembrances and unspoken, yet ubiquitous, fears in a fluid narrative. In other words, it is poetic myth at its best.

Words by Ed Bedford

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