New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Jane Simmons reviews Joy by Sasha Dugdale

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Jane Simmons is a retired teacher/lecturer who is now studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She has written several short stories and is currently working on her second novel and a collection of poetry. She is a member of the Lincoln-based Pimento poets and Outspoken Poets and regularly reads/performs her work in the Lincoln area. Although her main interests are poetry and prose fiction, she has written a short play which is to be published and performed in summer 2018.  Jane says she does not know how she ever found the time to go to work. Jane lives with her husband in a village outside Lincoln. They have one daughter – who is a vet, and Jane’s number one reader.



Sasha Dugdale: Joy

Carcanet Press

ISBN: 9 781784 105037


Winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Winter Choice Award. 
Contains the poem ‘Joy’ – Winner of the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. 


Poet, playwright, and translator Sasha Dugdale was born in Sussex, England. She has worked as a consultant for theatre companies in addition to writing her own plays. From 1995 to 2000, she worked for the British Council in Russia. She is author of the poetry collections The Estate (2007), Notebook (2003), and Red House (2011) and has translated Russian poetry and drama, including Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Between 2012 and 2017 she was editor of Modern Poetry in Translation. She is co-director of the Winchester Poetry Festival


Awards won by Sasha Dugdale:

 Winner, 2017 The Poetry Book Society Winter Choice Award (Joy)

Winner, 2017 SOA Cholmondeley Award

Winner, 2016 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem (for ‘Joy’)

Winner, 2003 Eric Gregory Award

Joy features the poem of that title which received the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, described by the judges as an extraordinarily sustained visionary piece of writing. Joy is a monologue in the voice of William Blake’s wife Catherine, exploring the creative partnership between the artist and his wife.

Dugdale has spoken in a number of interviews about the genesis and drafting process of the poem and what it was that drew her to adopt Catherine Blake’s voice.Joy’ began as a sort of commission. Anna Genina a friend of the poet, was working on a William Blake exhibition in Russia and she invited Dugdale to write something on Blake.

Originally, Dugdale had wanted to write about a particular situation in William Blake’s life: Blake lived in neglect and poverty, but he had great pride. At some point, he held an exhibition of his work in his brother’s haberdashery in Soho. His brother wasn’t too pleased by Blake’s canvases – complaining that they got in the way of his stockings and gloves. The poet tells that she was drawn originally to this episode because it’s funny and poignant, but she soon experienced difficulties with this choice Blake is so fiercely unbendingly present in his own work it is hard to give him voice as a fictional character.

However, Blake’s wife Catherine attracted the poet more and more. Catherine was there with Blake every day, working at his side, where she learnt all the skills needed for the physically exhausting cottage industry of engraving. They were very close, psychically and physically and that alone seemed strange and radical at that point in history.

I should be your equal

We were instruments and equal in our apprenticeship

Dugdale concedes that there is no way of knowing exactly what Catherine did, what she coloured, or perhaps even drew and so it is impossible to determine the extent to which she affected Blake’s art and poetry, so there is a great deal of space for creating her voice. Once I had found it I wrote Joy very quickly, and, in doing so, used a great deal of the research I had done to prepare the piece. The result is a long monologue, spoken by Catherine after Blake’s death.

William Blake married Catherine when he was 24 and, after their marriage, he set about teaching his wife to read and write and to help him in his craft, He made me/Blew the world into me. She continues I understood nothing (he chose me well/From the beginning I believed and he breathed/Belief belief belief into me/And he gave my lungs air to breathe. William Blake was a craftsman – an engraver – and he lived in total, passionate dedication to his work in spite of poverty and the lack of any recognition. Catherine was involved in all his work – colouring, making up chemicals, and perhaps even drawing. They lived and worked side by side – inseparable – until Blake’s death.

In her monologue, Catherine looks back on the life they shared. Part of her grief is the grief of losing her husband how I achethe words are repeated again and again and the repetition communicates the pain which will not go away. Her loss is also communicated through imagery in which the domestic – homely, everyday items such as clothing – are destroyed. Without Blake, Catherine is naked, exposed, vulnerable and destroyed I am a rent shirt/I am the noise of cutting cloth. However, the poet also invites the reader to consider what it would be like to lose a partner in creativity, in poetry I am colour in reverse and poetry backwards. This last, powerful image paints a picture of Catherine’s life, and her actual self, unravelling after her husband’s death. He taught her – he made her – and so, without her maker, she is unmade. All the parts of Blake’s life were so integrated, that Catherine – in losing Blake – lost everything.



He wanted me. And his want is gone with him

He made my terrible widowing his life’s business

Without him, she becomes A nothing left in darkness

Joy is by far the longest poem in the collection – it takes up well over a third of the volume. It would be all too easy for the poem to overwhelm the collection as a whole but Dugdale is too skilled to allow this. Although the other poems are very much shorter than the eponymous ‘Joy’, they connect to it through their subject matter. Dugdale combines two interests in the remaining poems. The first of these is her interest in the historical fate of women, and the second is in the treacherous fictional shaping of history. The poems are spoken in the many and various voices of a range of female characters – characters she uses to explore the fate of women, to address and redress the nature of remembrance and history, and to attempt to acknowledge these forgotten women and place them back at the centre of their own stories.

Dugdale returns to the subject of widowhood and its impact on the lives of women in the short poem The Widow and the Kaleidoscope. Elsewhere, she considers how girls’ and women’s lives are restricted or circumscribed by other circumstances and the events of the wider world. In The Ballad of Mabel a child’s life is blighted by poverty, neglect and abuse almost before it has started. Mabel’s bed is as narrow as a coffin and it is only by walking into a river that she can become free here she can lie in her spreading skirt/And dream her own dream

In other poems, Dugdale examines the impact on women’s lives when men are absent.

Watching them leave

I supposed we were the past, we stood stock-still

And gradually slipped backwards, out of sight and mind

And turned away from the shore

And resumed our thin lives

Men play a part in the affairs of the wider world – a world which will be recorded in history – but

History is a black night and only fools

Think they can escape its oncoming

In Days, a twelve-part poem subtitled ‘On Svetlana Aleksievich’s book on women’s experiences in the Second World War, ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’, Dugdale shows in stark detail the effects which war – and its making of history – has on the lives of the ordinary women who have to live through it.  It is a subject which she returns to in the following poem The Daughter of a Widow.

Dugdale completes the collection with For Edward Thomas; she gives no explanation but relies on the reader to know who Thomas was and to consider the significance of the dedication

Not a cloud in the sky and the pier hangs in mist

No swiftness and not a cloud to mark this soul

But brightness all around so fiercely torpid

Nothing can be seen at all.


The front is so wide I walk with my eyes closed

And the sea breathes shallow as a roosting dove

My unblemished soul goes shapeless through the light:

Pale calf-hide, it has need of the cloud’s love.


There you stand, like the fish upon its tail,

Who tasted all the various hells upon the earth

And was marked forever by the passing of a cloud

And the rain, and the birds, and all such things of worth.




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