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Isabelle Baafi Reviews Gregory Leadbetter, Sasha Dugdale and Phoebe Stuckes

Gregory Leadbetter
Nine Arches Press, £9.99

Sasha Dugdale
Carcanet, £11.99

Platinum Blonde
Phoebe Stuckes
Bloodaxe, £9.95

Gregory Leadbetter’s Maskwork is a theatre of transformation and ritual, in which forms constantly shift, and the convolutions of the natural world resist articulation. In this web of being, masks take on many guises and elicit questions of ontology and origin; phraseologies struggle with themselves, prying open the crack between silence and speech; and ecological forces are interwoven with human precepts and preternatural truths.

Across several of Leadbetter’s poems, masks facilitate confrontations with the unfamiliar or subconscious aspects of humanity. In Europa, written the day after the Brexit referendum, the speaker’s shock at the outcome is tinged with recognition of the underlying impulses that existed all along:

Who are these figures
behind our faces
and whose faces
are these our own?

Furthermore, as shown in the eponymous poem, the true mask is the lifelong enactment of ourselves; so long worn that it acquires our façade even when death removes it:

Only when my life has done its work
and the mask knows more than I could say
without its visage – then
I take it off. It wears my voice:
the mask speaks.


Yet across the collection, masks are also a portal of transfiguration, shrinking the gap between human and nonhuman forms. In Labels for the Exhibition of an Hitherto Private Cabinet of Masks, we find a mask “taken from a witch in the likeness of a wren/ (said to have revealed her human form)”.

For Leadbetter – who has suggested in interviews that affect supersedes logic in his work – language is most effective when it roams without rational constraints:

I met that world’s musician:
a white moth alight within
its whisper. One of us said
      play, and I did, and what it spoke
I learned, even as it danced me
to the bone in sound that shivered
to a mute dawn.



By entangling his syntax, and allowing his lines to deconstruct each other’s logic, Leadbetter follows ideas beyond the reach of expression, and posits language as a means of searching but not necessarily finding: “What else is a word/ but a ghost sent feeling its way,/ the centuries passed on your breath?” (Consistori del Gai Saber). In such a world, language ripples time. During a visit to the Natural History Museum, the speaker in Archaeopteryx hears the cry of the world’s first bird. In hearing that “fossil angel/ echo splitting open that first syllable” and in perceiving the “tongue in stone, elastic and audible”, he marvels at this guttural seed of contemporary human language, tracing it back to its prelinguistic origins.

Pulsating between these two major themes lies a preoccupation with rituals as a form of animation and creation. In Sakadas at Delphi – inspired by the life of Sakadas of Argos, a composer and musician from ancient Greece – performance is “a touch at the hollows of our bones/ that moves a roomful of statues to life/ in hearing”. As in several of Maskwork’s poems, such rituals unify the dynamics of the natural world, situating humanity at the core of its “blur/ [between] creature and creator”:

What I heard was older than fear and pleasure –
true before the breaking of the world
into question and answer.
We are its theatre.

The ethics of creation and war take centre stage in Sasha Dugdale’s fifth collection, Deformations. An ambitious and soliloquising work, it consists of two major sections: the first, Welfare Handbook, explores the work and life of Eric Gill, an English sculptor and typeface designer who also sexually abused his daughters; the second, Pitysad, modernises scenes and themes from The Odyssey. At the centre of the collection lies a series of lyric poems exploring trauma and memory, and bookending these sequences are standalone poems which establish and cohere the book’s tone and themes.

Throughout Welfare Handbook, Dugdale questions the ethics of aesthetics, examining beauty as a unifying principle that connects creation and destruction. Written from the perspective of a Gill-type speaker (and not necessarily Gill, Dugdale has stressed), creation is scrutinised as a means of either attack or seduction:

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

Such questions unfurl across numerous poems, where creation, desire and distortion define each other; where “every typographic glyph looks labial” (Wondering about a sign…); where the pubic hair of “skivvies” “[curls] like a signature” (skivvies are always open…); where the internal burns of soldiers preserve, outwardly, “the nobility of the unflawed body” (At the same time…); and where even the proportions of their corpses are fetishized through a Golden Ratio lens: “Measure limbs with a footrule/ measure all parts. Measure member.”

Another major theme in Deformations is memory and trauma. Following Welfare Handbook are poems which can, in some cases, be interpreted as the words and reflections of Gill’s daughters. In Headland, the speaker confides, “The whole place reeks of him”, and that “a few elderly tools revived/ with rags and oily fingers to massage working parts”. Here, as elsewhere in the collection, nostalgia “burns/ with an acrid smell”, and the spectre from the speaker’s past remains with them forever: “my fingers smell like his.”

The second major series of the collection, Pitysad, modernises the thoughts and experiences of characters from The Odyssey, including Penelope and Nausicaa, but mostly a traumatised Odysseus (often called Pitysad here: a portmanteau of “pity” and “sad”, and an expansion of “PTSD”). By setting the Trojan War in the 21st century, exploring the dynamics of political power during a siege (War Crimes), and dramatising connections with strangers on foreign land, including pangs of pity for “malnourished little bodies” (R&R), Dugdale weaves in strands of contemporary concern about neo-colonialism and the refugee crisis. Additionally, this section captures the toll of war on those who have conducted a 10-year siege – “I desired to sleep/ my body to become a breath of air” (behind enemy lines) – and also the emotional suspension of those left behind, evoked through the loss of identity:

does it matter where
I am on life’s journey except that if I knew I might
try harder but how can I in this strange fierce hot
tent of a body that does not belong to me

(sweating in my nightrobe…)

Frivolity and heartache blend in the cocktail shaker that is Phoebe Stuckes’s debut collection, Platinum Blonde, a charming, wistful, and disquieting exploration of womanhood, desire, destruction and reclamation. Throughout these playful escapades, filled with lost loves, troublesome exes, and indomitable party girls, the reader is propelled by the steady pulse of Stuckes’s witty and confident voice, probing the artifices of beauty and the realities of youth.  The very title, Platinum Blonde, signals a preoccupation with peeling back the aesthetic pretences and expectations placed on women. Across poems that examine relationships, identity and trauma, beauty is presented as a costume, a mask with which young women learn to become more palatable versions of themselves: “I tell myself that crying in cabs// could be glamorous/ if I did it correctly” (Fox). Elsewhere, we see the mask’s inextricable bearing on self-esteem: “I don’t feel worthy of love/ when my false eyelash starts to come off” (Hell is a bus full of men I have unsuccessfully tried to love –). But in some cases, that artifice is eschewed entirely: “I could never/ have a sugar daddy because I don’t/ look after myself” (Sugar). In Bleach, the foregrounding of societal expectations magnifies the gulf between the actual and the perceived: “I wasn’t wearing stilettos// but I think you will imagine that I was.” And the very first line of the collection, while invoking the adage that blondes have more fun, simultaneously hints that the forthcoming narrative will sour that expectation: “I liked the blonde but it was too powerful,” we’re told, suggesting that any ‘fun’ may be more than the speaker bargained for.

Indeed, throughout, Stuckes rigs a tightrope between desire and violence, along which the reader and speaker must walk. Relationships are a double-sided coin of violence and tenderness – “I have to leave London, everyone// is trying to kill me or get me pregnant” ($$$) – and romance often vacillates between admiration and ownership: “He doesn’t want me,// he wants to look at me, behind glass” (Blood). In the world of this collection, “men are angry because/ they don’t know which room in the house/ to lock you in” (Why does he do that). But rather than applying easy dichotomies of perpetrator and victim, when exploring the impact of assault, Stuckes leans into the complexity of violation at the hands of a partner: “I want to tell you this story without saying I liked him.” (Sext)

Stuckes’s keen observations and dry wit – “when Death gets here do you think he will pay for drinks” (Romance) – act as mood gauges and ideological pushbacks; maintaining buoyancy and undermining classical Hollywood concepts of both beauty and romance: “If you’re a bird,/ then I’m one too, we can either mate for life/ or get sucked into a wind turbine.” (Poem in which I leave and don’t come back).

Isabelle Baafi

Isabelle Baafi is a writer and poet from London. She was the winner of the 2019 Vincent Cooper Literary Prize. Her debut pamphlet Ripe (2020) was recently published by ignitionpress.

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