Sunday 7 April 2024

Review by Jane Simmons of "The Strongbox" by Sasha Dugdale

In her new collection The Strongbox, Sasha Dugdale draws on elements of Greek mythology and classical epic literature, exploring and reinventing narratives and characters from Homer’s Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses and incorporating distorted fragments of Heraclitus, to create fourteen new, long poems which come together as a cry of distress for the modern world. 

The dialogue within and between these powerful poems shapes our understanding of our troubled times, the conflicts between states, between political and religious ideologies, and between male power and female strength. In "I. Anatomy of an Abduction," Dugdale presents the reader with an unnamed girl who has somehow been abducted or persuaded to leave behind her country, family and childhood to travel to a war-zone.

          It began with the sun
          appearing over the plane wing
          supernatural orange
                                          but no light

It is impossible to read on without thinking of the London schoolgirls travelling to join Isis in Syria. Then, when Helen - the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta - is introduced, "trapped behind the walls of Ilium" and "plagued by dreams about the coming war," the familiar Homeric narrative of the Trojan War makes clear the parallels of lured brides, political conflicts in the Middle East, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These connections are ready to be explored in poems which offer the reader a lens through which to analyse both love and war.

The title of the collection, The Strongbox, is a good introduction to Sasha Dugdale’s use of the recurring metaphor, a technique which is key to an understanding of the collection. In one sense, this example serves as a metaphor for poetic form: the sonnet form is often described as a "box" and, although the poems are not sonnets - and some of the pieces are prose or drama-script - there are fourteen pieces here for the reader to unpack. These experiments with genre, along with the intertextuality, are part of Dugdale’s distinctive poetics.

If a strongbox is a secure place for storing valuable goods or valuable stolen goods, then it can be read as a metaphor for the abducted or lured brides, a judgement of male-female relationships, and of political and ideological conflicts as is made clear by the further metaphor of "a golden crown" for the city. Helen herself was famously born from an egg, the result of the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan. In "XI: Gods & Men," a precious egg is stored in a locket kept inside the secret drawer of a campaign chest, in a Greek king’s gold-painted canvas tent in the encampment on the Trojan plain. Then in "XIV: The Ticket Booth," Dugdale reworks the story of Europa whose beauty attracted the attentions of Zeus who then approached her in the form of a white bull and abducted her. "The Rape of Europa" is also a term used to refer to the fate of European art and treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. In the poem, the lines "[I] found no words / And little hope" invite the reader to consider the strongbox and its contents as a possible representation of Pandora’s box, containing all the troubles of the world - and finally a small hope. Perhaps language – the power of words – offers that hope. 

About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a PhD student at the University of Leicester where she has won the G. S. Fraser poetry prize. Her poems have appeared in various magazines, won the Seren Christmas poetry prize (2020), been long-listed in the Mslexia poetry competition and The National Poetry Competition (2022), shortlisted for a Candlestick Press prize (2023) and placed third in the Mslexia poetry competition (2023).

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