‘Joy’ Reading & Film: Sasha Dugdale on Catherine Blake

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces a special public event and an exclusive film for our project, courtesy of award-winning poet Sasha Dugdale. Sasha’s recent poem Joy brings us the voice of Catherine Blake, wife to William Blake and ‘vital presence and assistant throughout his life’. 


And he is gone, fled singing to some place I cannot reach. His angels came and he sang to them and they told him they needed him more than I did… Merciless, merciless angels… Merciless angels who know nothing of human despair. And he went with them. He nodded and spoke mild words and was soon gone… And he left a shadow of grime on his collar and a warm bed. And the angels had tall wings, like steeples, or like sails and spread white like the King’s ship in dock, and they took him, only I couldn’t see them, but I know how they looked, for hadn’t he spent all his life in their company and mine? And didn’t they sometimes appear in white like good children, and sometimes like ladies but barefoot, with rosy pink staining their necks and hands and ringlets in their hair? Their sighs were angel swords and their smiles were beams of light. He smiled at me, as if to say can’t you see how bonny they are today, on this, my death day, and there’s the whole pity of it, for I couldn’t see, and I never could.

— from Joy, by Sasha Dugdale

And so spake Catherine Blake, reflecting back upon the life and death of her life-long husband William in 1827; or so writes Sasha Dugdale, poet and translator, who in this wondrous monologue gives voice to one of the most silent muses the world has known — who inspired steadily her vacillating husband-genius, is known to have helped him print and paint his masterpieces, and to whom he dedicated much of his writings.

Catherine Blake, by William Blake
Catherine Blake, by William Blake c1805

The monologue and its volume of other poems, Joy, won the Forward Prize for best single poem in 2016, and was described by the judges as “an extraordinarily sustained visionary piece of writing”. Sasha has written three other collections of poetry, is known for her promotion and translation of Russian literature, and is co-director of the Winchester Poetry Festival. She is currently poet-in-residence at St John’s College, Cambridge.

'Joy', by Sasha Dugdale
‘Joy’, by Sasha Dugdale

We at Finding Blake are delighted to announce that we will be exclusively filming Sasha reading her monologue, to be premiered here on our website and in the final Finding Blake film to be released later this year. On the same day — 11th April, at 7pm — Sasha will be giving a public reading of some of Joy and other work. The venue is a wonderful Victorian engineer’s house, undergoing restoration in the grounds of the Cambridge Museum of Technology by the River Cam. The house — now named ‘Othersyde’, with its lovely gardens and outdoor bar with views across the river onto a nature reserve in the heart of the city — is a new arts and escape rooms venue that I’ve been involved with for some time. This event is the finale of a winter series of literary & musical salons. 


Notes

The event is on Thursday April 11th at 7pm. All welcome, though early booking essential as it’s a cosy intimate venue — with only 25 seats! Booking info is here, and then please email me for a Paypal link to secure your ticket.

For further information on Catherine Blake, see Wikipedia, and there is an essay on her by Angus Whitehead at the Blake Archive.

For further information about Sasha Dugdale, see her Wikipedia page. You can enjoy another excerpt from Joy at the Forward Arts Foundation, (where there is also an interview with her), and here is a review from the Poetry School. The collection Joy (2017) is published by Carcanet Press, and was Winner of the 2017 Poetry Book Society Winter Choice Award; the poem Joy was Winner of the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.

To find out more about Othersyde, visit their Facebook page.

William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 4 – Path and Goal

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa EspinasaIn her previous posts, Adriana Díaz Enciso recalled how finding Blake on a family shopping trip out of Mexico sparked a series of puzzling encounters with the poet and artist and eventually caused her to embark on her own Blakean novel. Ciudad doliente de Dios would take her from horrific events in Mexico and a writing residency in the USA to Blake’s London. Here, Adriana completes the series, discussing her role in the work of the Blake Society, the publication of her novel and the meaning of Blake’s art as both path and goal. 


Around the time I started rewriting the novel, I finally decided to get close to the Blake Society. So close in fact, that I became a Trustee for several years, then its Secretary. This is not the space to say what went wrong, which is documented elsewhere. I’d rather focus here on what nurtured me, what I learnt and what I enjoyed.

It was a joy and a source of renewed inspiration to see how Blake’s work and spirit are still alive for many people, including younger generations. I’ve found amazing, amusing or even daunting the passions that he can still stir — and I am fully aware that some might make similar comments regarding my own passion for Blake. Wondering who he really was in his homeland is very different from doing so in Mexico. The approach back there is by necessity more sober, focusing mainly on his work. Here in Britain, there are layers upon layers of symbolic dimensions touching on the aesthetic, the religious, the philosophical, the metaphysical, the social and the political.

Of course, all these were issues Blake touched upon through his life and work. And it says much about the power with which he did so that so many years after his death, throngs of people are still seeking his meaning, finding new interpretations… sometimes with such a fierce feeling of appropriation of Blake that it borders on worship. I’ll get there later.

Blakean encounters and wounds

In the Blake Society I got to hear the most wonderful talks … and the most bizarre as well. Involved in organising several events, I’ll always be grateful for the chance to channel through them my wholehearted enthusiasm. There was a walk I led in Peckham Rye looking for Blake’s angels on trees; a midnight vigil in Blake’s surviving home in South Molton Street, waiting for our own Visionary Heads to appear as we echoed Blake’s gatherings with artist and astrologer John Varley; then there was the spirit of Orc, embodied in poet Jeremy Reed at the Occupy London encampment on a freezing December evening outside St Paul’s Cathedral; or taking children from Kids Company to read The Tyger to the tigers in London Zoo, the nonstop rain never dampening the children’s zeal.

There were also projects which met failure, such as that of founding Golgonooza, the City of Imagination built by Los, in the streets of London. I had envisaged having Blake’s images projected on buildings all over the city, making true his never materialised dream of being commissioned to paint murals. Then London would be, albeit briefly, a true visionary city. A completely unaffordable project, it was transformed into an illuminated talk at King’s College Arts and Humanities Festival: Golgonooza as the sacred city of the imagination; as the human body; as a reflection on failure. I said goodbye to the Blake Society, inviting Maitreyabandhu, a Buddhist poet of great insight, to talk about Blake and about the imagination as the supreme human faculty.

To be involved in all these projects in Blake’s London was a joy, and a privilege — something I would have never imagined possible when I bought that Penguin edition in a noisy shopping mall. And for that, I am grateful.

Peckham Rye
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

It’s impossible not to mention here as well the 2014 Blake Cottage appeal. Part of its leadership, I gave myself to it with full devotion and hope. It was a beautiful project; the support it received from the public was the most poignant certitude that Blake’s spirit is still alive and touching many. Working on it, I am sure, kept me alive during rather trying times.

Part of the plan was to make Blake’s cottage in Felpham, Sussex, a ‘house of refuge’ for persecuted writers. This, I thought, would be quite a concrete way of honouring what Blake stood for — and precisely in the place where he was accused of sedition. The appeal’s original conception meant for the cottage to be the materialisation, through collective effort, of what Blake believed in as a man and an artist.

True, things didn’t go that way, and the problems that ensued nearly killed me (in compensation, perhaps, for the project having kept me alive for a long while?). Yet I don’t regret one bit having invested so much of me in the dream. I believed in what we were doing, and as far as my own experience goes, the path walked with faith becomes the destination. The ordeal also gave me the chance to have a first-hand experience of a Blakean prophetic poem unfolding live, with all its acute drama. It might have been trying, but no one can say it wasn’t interesting. If I lost my Innocence in the Blake Society and the Blake Cottage appeal, I gained loads of Experience. I am therefore grateful.

Finding Blake again: Ciudad doliente de Dios

For a while, the wounds were so bad that I couldn’t even hear William Blake mentioned without my stomach hurting, and so I walked away from him for the first time in over thirty years. My Blakean novel was finished but not published, and finding a publisher was proving hard. But healing came. I knew I’d be alright the day when, out of the blue, I decided to visit Bunhill Fields again. I sat there, by the fig tree and the old stone with its chipped corner — a place which has become hallowed by the pilgrimage of so many — as I had often done while writing the novel. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular. I just sat there, watching the trees, the pigeons flying, people passing by. It was a very happy day.

I’m now ready for Blake again.

Which is a good thing, because, after a long wait, Ciudad doliente de Dios was finally published last December in Mexico, by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Things therefore became quite intense. The novel had to go to print in October, which gave me the shortest time I’ve ever had to read the proofs of a book of mine (and this is my longest one).

It being a book I finished five years ago, I was at moments tempted to rewrite again. It wouldn’t have been wise though, as it would have meant more destroying than building. On the whole, I decided to trust the writer I was then. It has been twenty-one years since I started working on this novel. I believe it has indeed reached the point when it has to go out into the world.

On reading the proofs, I was reminded of what a strange novel it is. I liked that. As a dialogue with Blake’s prophetic poems the visionary mattered more than any conventions of modern fiction, and it feels right to have been loyal to that intent.

I was struck too by the degree to which this is a Christian book, in the sense that Blake was Christian (I hope!). I felt somewhat melancholic. I’ve talked before of how I’d been a Christian who responded to the symbolic power of the myth while struggling with the dogma. Precisely in the years I was finishing the novel, I started to walk away from the remnants of my identity as a Christian, as I discovered Buddhism. There aren’t so many contradictions, and I even find much that sounds utterly Buddhist in Blake himself. Ultimately, the quest of my characters for the meaning of the cross and the figure of Christ is a quest for understanding of suffering, and it’s moved by compassion. The questions in it remain utterly genuine and alive for me.

Another matter I pondered on while reading the proofs is the extent to which the tragedies endured by the country where I was born take centre stage in the novel. Set on the visionary rather than the mundane side of reality, it doesn’t take place in any ‘real’ geographical spot. Its characters walk towards the sacred city, led by an image of St Paul’s Cathedral. However, the unfathomable suffering of a country called Mexico has been woven around the cosmogony of William Blake, in an effort to understand and to find meaning. I do hope, therefore, that Ciudad doliente de Dios honours all the people who have endured such suffering with courage and even — as is the case of the community Las Abejas, members of which were the victims of the Acteal massacre — with hope.

Revising the manuscript Image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso
Revising the manuscript
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Blake: art as path and goal

It must be clear by now, the importance that William Blake has had in my life, as a writer and a human being. He’s an artist and poet who talks to me. One whom I honour and admire for the way he lived the extremely hard battle it was his lot to fight. A sublime and truly inspired but misunderstood artist who endured mockery, incomprehension and poverty.

However, William Blake is not a saint, and in coming closer to some other people’s appreciation of him, I believe that the kind of fanaticism encountered around him now and then is a great loss: a deviation of what really matters in his legacy.

There is no doubt that he lived an exemplary life, as a courageous human being who remained steadfastly faithful to his call, his passions and his principles, against all odds. He believed in the power of art and the imagination to transform human life by helping us break through the veils which hinder our awareness of transcendent reality. And he considered this power the essence of divinity in human existence. He devoted his life to that vision, and therefore to create beauty and meaning. What else can we possibly demand from him?

He gave us more than enough, and like any true artist, he demands in turn our full regard for his work, our full responsiveness. Any other extraneous meaning whimsically projected onto him is a deviation from this. Blake’s belief in being able to communicate with certain spirits (his brother Robert’s; the sages he saw on the shores of Felpham; and his angels) wouldn’t be more interesting than any other person’s perhaps unusual beliefs, had he not linked that faith to a greater, encompassing one: his faith in the human spirit, capacious enough to hold within it God, the universe and all the questions hence derived.

Furthermore, he was adamant about art’s paramount importance in the life of man, believing that a society which stands with its back to the arts is impoverished, lame and crass. Art was, to him, the vehicle, the path and the goal: what he dedicated his life to. If we make any claim to having accepted his gift for posterity, it is to his images and his poetry that we must turn — and they are certainly not for the literal-minded.

We live in times of confusion, when the arts are often understood either as a commodity, novelty, entertainment, a sorry mirror for the vacuous existence of the consumer society, or (with good but misguided intentions) as a by-product of sociology, which then becomes surreptitiously an instrument for social engineering.

All these approaches strip art of its transcendent principle, and when that happens, art is dead. The death of art means the death of a society’s spirit, of human freedom. That is why artists such as William Blake are important, and it is a thing to celebrate that there are many individuals in younger generations who understand this and want to make Blake’s art and poetry a part of their lives.

The art and the poetry of a man who lived on earth. Nothing more and nothing less. 


Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com

'Ciudad doliente de Dios' cover, Adriana Díaz-Enciso
‘Ciudad doliente de Dios’ cover

Adriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

You can read her three earlier posts in this series for Finding Blake: William Blake & the Doleful City of God Part 1 – McAllen, Texas, Part 2 — London, England and Part 3 — Visionary City

William Blake and Doleful City of God: 3 – Visionary City

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa EspinasaIn her first two posts, Adriana Díaz Enciso recalled how her discovery of William Blake in a bookstore in Texas sparked a series of puzzling encounters with the poet and artist. Immersing herself in his work, Adriana also embarked on her own ambitious creation: Ciudad doliente de Dios, (‘Doleful City of God’) a Blakean novel which would take inspiration from horrific events in her own country, Mexico. Recovering from ill health and grief, she turned in a new direction: London. Here, Adriana recalls her experiences of an in-between world.    


During those years in London, I got glimpses of what Blake meant to England. Back in Mexico, he was someone that writers and artists knew about — truly known by few, who admired him in isolation — but in no way a central figure. Here, I started to understand that in his native country he was central and peripheral at the same time. He seemed to be revered and forgotten, beloved and derided in equal measure, still alive and, often, still misunderstood.

On the periphery … 

I couldn’t make any sense at all of ‘Jerusalem’ being sung at the Proms patriotic orgy. I could see that, for better or worse, Blake was a national figure and I would probably never get to fully understand that Blake – just as I couldn’t expect, for instance, a foreigner in Mexico to understand what it means to have grown up alongside the figure of the poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. ‘My’ Blake was then of the periphery in a different way, and though I was excluded from the national symbolism attached to him, I had the privilege of my unique approach, of being left to disentangle on my own what his art meant and how it was becoming the pillar of my novel, which had by then become the most important writing project of my life.

That’s why I didn’t approach the Blake Society for many years, and why I eschewed the heaviest scholarly works on Blake (some of which I found quite off the mark and soul-killing): I didn’t want interference in my understanding of him. I wanted to unravel Blake myself. I therefore continued inching along with my second draft. I finished it, after some years.

It was no good. I destroyed it again, and was now in sheer despair, feeling dead as a writer.

Despair, as is the case with everything in life, wouldn’t last forever. In 2008 I received a three-year writing grant from the Mexican equivalent of the Arts Council. It meant the time and peace of mind I needed for writing the novel all over again, and I leapt in. I followed the characters — Blake’s prophetic poems’ characters, in my own interpretation — in their quest for a sacred city, their wondering about humanity’s seemingly pointless suffering and the glimpses they had of such pain transfigured by a divinity that is no other than our own imagination. I followed them, seeking the meaning of beauty and compassion in the midst of manifold sorrows.

The Acteal massacre remained central to the plot. The character who in the novel mirrors Blake’s Orc embodied the struggle between the call for political action and the call of the spirit (which includes the artist’s vocation) in the face of atrocity. And several of the horrors described in the book have their source in real events which have taken place in Mexico.

… and between worlds

However, it was important to me that my ‘doleful city’ wasn’t set in any definite geographical space. The borders between the mundane and the visionary, the visible and the invisible, needed to be blurred, and the characters to keep on crossing from one into the other. They all find — and don’t — the sacred city. That city shares some lineaments with Mexico City, but also with a visionary London; a dome with a golden cross on top, which echoes St Paul’s, looms large in the characters’ visions. This city can’t be found on any map, and yet in the realm of literary truth, I do hope that its essence can be experienced now and then in Mexico City, in London, or any other city on Earth.

Doleful City of God: the visionary city Mexico City London, image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso
The visionary city
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

All the characters in my novel are seeking God’s answer to their pain and the pain of others. Some quite misguidedly, I have to say. All of them are looking also for the meaning of the Cross, and whereas the liberation hinted at in that most beautiful image of Christ nailed to a tree of golden fruits in Plate 76 of Blake’s Jerusalem is revealed to some, there is also a sinister mockery of the symbol when a murdered youth is tied to a cross on top of a mountain. This is something that actually happened in Mexico and left me wondering further on the meaning of so much woe and such brutality.

Needless to say, neither I nor my characters have reached any answer, but in my novel — Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God) — the characters find something that is perhaps of more worth: an intimation that the wonder of human existence reaches beyond the opposition of contraries through lucid vision and compassion, and that there is no real barrier between the visible and the invisible, matter and spirit.

While I was writing the novel, I sometimes went to Bunhill Fields. I liked sitting in that most gentle space by the fig tree and the old stone which tells us that Blake’s remains and those of his wife Catherine Sophia lie ‘nearby’. In those quiet moments, I pondered on what I was writing, sometimes asking whatever remained of Blake — wherever it is that we go after death (if we go anywhere) — to point me in the right direction… or, only half-jokingly, to forgive me if I got it all utterly wrong. 


Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.

Cover Ciudad doliente de Dios, crop, Adriana Díaz-EncisoAdriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. You can catch up with her first two posts about the writing of the book, William Blake & the Doleful City of God Part 1 – McAllen, Texas and Part 2 — London, England.

In her final post in this series, Adriana becomes immersed in the work of the Blake Society and her Doleful City of God finally arrives in the world. And Adriana discusses the meaning of Blake’s art for her in today’s world.