Sasha Dugdale & Olivia McCannon at Woodstock

Last night I got to hear two of my favourite poets for the first time, reading alongside the excellent David Constantine at the Woodstock Poetry Festival. When you first hear someone whose work you really admire there’s always a nagging worry. What if they blurt out their lines like chopped up prose or chant them like Yeats at a séance? What if their delivery is rushed or broken or just plain bad?

In this case the what-ifs were unfounded. Dugdale and McCannon were both excellent, reading in ways that were understated and powerful at the same time, each of them very different and each perfectly adapted to their own poems.

Olivia McCannon’s Exactly My Own Length was one of my favourite books of 2011 (coincidentally, Sasha Dugdale’s Red House was another). Re-reading it makes me think of Scarlatti in Bunting’s Briggflatts, who “condensed so much music into so few bars / with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence, / never a boast or a see-here”. What’s remarkable about McCannon’s poems is how much poetry they compress into so few lines (with never a surplus adjective or indulgent simile, and nothing remotely showy).

Here are the opening lines of the title poem:

If I’m allowed hope… No.
Hope is allowed – while we talk –
I hope for you one of those coffins
Found in evening light on a summer walk

There’s so much to like here. The balance and twist of the one-sided dialogue; the perfectly-judged repetition (that allowed hope…Hope…allowed chiasmus with the ow-o-o-ow pivoting around the central o of No – precisely none of which intrudes consciously until you go back to look for it); the familiarity of oddness (one of those coffins); even the punctuation (the shift from ellipsis to parenthetic en-dash, neither of them exactly Received Punctuation but both exactly what’s needed). And this is just the set-up. Later in the same poem we find:

One of those coffins that makes you think:
Here I’d be happy to stop a while
Here I’ve found the measure of my life
What else is there but sun and heather and bees?
What else could I be but a part of This?

The book looks mortality in the eye throughout, but is also filled with a warm humour (that comes across wonderfully in McCannon’s reading). “Hope Street, 1966” raised some spontaneous laughs last night:

She asked him where he came from
And he said – Over the Water –
Which she thought meant Poland (she told me)

Because of the black polo neck, the bag
Of herrings and rye bread from Poppa Volensky’s –
How could she know he meant Rock Ferry?

Sasha Dugdale’s poems would likely be expelled from many creative writing courses: they’re unafraid of being oblique (but only when it’s necessary); they credit the reader’s intelligence and breadth of reference (without ever showing off); and they’ve so patiently absorbed and learned from so much of the European tradition (and beyond) that they make much of what’s published today look parochial.

Oh, and they sound fantastic. Here’s the final stanza of “Agora”:

Now he slips into the crowd, for the crowd is sweet
Unfettered, desiring pleasure, bearing its own cheap goods
Constant, like the tide, it swells to fill the street
And those borne in it have no past and no roots:
They have forgotten the enterprise of migration
And believe again in the hibernation
Of swallows in the water’s deep.

I can’t think of many other poets writing today who could risk a line like “They have forgotten the enterprise of migration” and make it not only sound congruent but unify the whole stanza.

Many of Dugdale’s poems (to my ear, at least) skirt around a kind of folk music, almost-song but never-quite-song, setting up simple forms then disrupting them subtly. This was especially evident last night in her reading of “Wolstonbury”:

I saw a crow and her damp children once
They squatted and watched the cows from a fence
The calves trailed bloody umbilical cords
I never thought crows to be tender before –

Wind-kicked, the hawthorn’s a stumbling boy –
But a blossoming hawthorn once witnessed joy
I have not breathed enough of the steep of the hill
But none of our kind ever quite had their fill.

That almost imperceptible slip just-to-the-side of idiom is heart-breaking: “I never thought crows to be tender before” (instead of “I never thought of crows as tender before” or “I never though that crows were tender before” – neither of which could possible convey the same mix of tenderness and unease).

Dugdale is a professional translator (as well as the newly-energizing editor of Modern Poetry in Translation), and it’s tempting to look for links between a thorough immersion in another language and this kind of thrilling objectivity with one’s own. I went to last night’s reading with the poet James Methven (whose award-winning Catullus translations I’ve discussed in a previous post), and we spent the bus journey back to Oxford debating this, in between marvelling at Chun Ye’s translations of Hai Zi in the latest MPT.

Having looked at the list of poets reading at the Woodstock festival throughout the weekend I found myself wishing I’d made it to more of the events (and impressed by the quality of the line-up that the Woodstock Bookshop had assembled). Next year I’ll plan ahead.

Red House, Sasha Dugdale, Carcanet, 2011
Exactly My Own Length, Olivia McCannon, Carcanet, 2011