Episode 49

The Sanctioned State by Edward Doegar

 

Edward Doegar reads ‘The Sanctioned State’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

For Now by Edward Doegar 

For Now book cover

Available from:

For Now is available from:

The publisher: clinic

Amazon: UK

 

 

The Sanctioned State

by Edward Doegar

This is deliberate ruin
Here we must imagine
Her
The symbol of sanctity

From the guesswork
Of chisel and shot
The removed particulars
Of lips nose eyes

We have to assume
Her identity
From the effort taken
To remove it

The lack of evidence
Is evidence
Of the belief
That belief can be beaten

Out of stone
It sustains
Lord Cromwell remains
Alive in the currency

Of language
Warts and all
He stands over us
Plinthed and protected

A part of what he fought
For and against
The balanced argument
Of history

We cannot live then
Today the converted church
Of an All-Bar-One
Desecrates nothing

We can distinguish
One thing from another
Jesus is not Muhammad
Here not there

We have the freedom
To be appalled
For the obsolete god
For the significance

Destroyed in the columns
Of Baal’s Temple
We can all agree
That this is wrong

But there is no we
No consensus
Just my own finger pointing
At an imagined face


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Ed, where did this poem come from?

Edward: I think it came from a few different things. On the one hand, it came specifically from seeing an icon on a road in East Anglia that had been desecrated. So a statue that had been partially destroyed. And it also came, I think, from a wider set of thinking that I was doing when I was writing this poem, which is part of a sequence of poems that became the pamphlet, For Now, where I was quite interested in general about what statues represent for us. What art represents for us in terms of the collective imagination. The ability to hold versions of collective belief, but through particular instances.

So, in the collection, there’s another poem called ‘Caryatids’, which looks at the architectural and sculptural form of women holding up roofs, which allows one to perhaps consider the way in which the female body is then used both for the gaze, male gaze, let’s say, as well as within kind of social and architectural space that is often defined by a sort of patriarchal structure.

So, I guess that poem was already in the back of my mind to a degree when I started to think about this sculpture of the Virgin Mary. And we know it’s the Virgin Mary simply because it has been so powerfully destroyed. The gender, for instance, of this statue is visible to us by our inability to see it. And I was quite struck by the power of that. So, this poem, to a certain extent, focuses on what isn’t there in the work of art that becomes symbol and remains symbol. So it wasn’t made to be destroyed, but we make it in our society as something that has been destroyed into something new.

Mark: So this was an icon, a statue of the Virgin Mary by the roadside in England?

Edward: Yes, in the east of England.

Mark: And how old was it roughly?

Edward: I’m not sure. But it would’ve been destroyed in the English Civil War by Cromwell’s soldiers. So, the point in the poem which picks up Cromwell, and obviously Cromwell’s statue is very prominently displayed outside of the Houses of Parliament. And on the statue, his ‘warts and all’ depiction, which is a phrase that he asked the painter – I think it’s potentially apocryphal, but I’m not sure – for when he was sitting for a portrait. I guess he was being asked like, ‘How would you like to be depicted?’. And he said ‘warts and all’ because he famously had warts on his face.

Mark: Right. So, you say ‘this is deliberate ruin’ at the beginning. So this is Cromwell’s soldiers, who would’ve been of the puritanical bent, were very much against what they would have seen as ‘graven images’, remnants of Catholicism in England?

Edward: Yeah, exactly. And that I suppose in a relatively simplistic way links back to at the time I was writing what was happening in Iraq and Syria relating to the desecration of various antiquities by ISIS. And that kind of link between the then and now and what might be happening there, and also the degree to which we other and distinguish those thens and nows. So, the degree to which ‘we’ think about ‘them,’ and those kind of rather easy and clumsy distances that we create that are potentially very, very harmful.

Mark: And again, just for context, For Now, the pamphlet that this appears in, this was published in 2017, wasn’t it?

Edward: Yeah.

Mark: So in other words, before the recent hoo-ha, outrage and debate over, what are statues for? What do they represent? So here in Bristol where I live, famously, the statue of Edward Colston was thrown into the harbour just down the road. So, they are very much charged objects, aren’t they, even to this day?

Edward: Absolutely. And I guess there’s something that interests me is the relation between the notion of public and private in art.

So, statues are very obviously and very easily used as public displays. And reading and literature is very often thought of as very private. But obviously, in the context of everything that’s written in this poem and what’s underwriting the vociferous acts of violence in the poem actually comes from written text. You know, it’s only because of the Bible, it’s only because of the Quran, which are motivating these very, very violent and turbulent acts.

So clearly, there we see something that is often thought of as very private. Certainly, when we consider something like, contemporary lyric poetry in the English language tradition, we very often think of that as an internalized activity of private communion between ourselves and either the text or the poet, which obviously a lot of other communities and other traditions very often don’t think, you know? I mean, that isn’t the living tradition in a lot of other cultures, but it is the predominant one, I think, in the English language. And yet it is a sort of false distinction in a certain way.

I think that we allow that private notion of reading to ourselves become agents in the world that are acting through the arguments that we’ve read. We embody them, you know? So we’ve got to be quite careful about what we read and how well we read it.

Mark: Yeah. And where do you see yourself in a poem like this? You know, because as you’ve said, the conventional mode of poetry in English, at least since the Romantics, has been the private lyric expressing my own private thoughts and feelings and so on, and maybe doing it in an artfully and self-conscious way because it’s going to be out there in public. But you’ve got quite a different stance here. So I was curious about how do you see yourself as a poet when you’re speaking with this voice?

Edward: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I guess to a certain extent, these poems came about through something of a considering of the dilemma of the right to lyric voice when you’re talking ethically. So if you were to speak about social and political issues, how can you do that in an ethical manner with the lyric ‘I’?

And so one of the points that I wanted to look at was how to interrogate that sort of inherent perspectivism, which isn’t to sort of replace it with a notion of some objective view of truth, which is stable and singular, but rather to find a way of speaking and a way of writing that accommodated the erosion and reality still of an I. So in the collection, there are I’s, there are instances of a speaker who presents as the first person, but they are troubled in various ways or ironized in certain ways. And this comes from the reading that I was doing at the time, which was predominantly of Eastern European and East German poetry. I was very interested in Zbigniew Herbert, a great many of the GDR poets, and Rozewicz, who I still don’t know how to pronounce correctly, actually. I hope I haven’t murdered that name!

Mark: Well, you know better than I do. So…

Edward: And the tradition that had developed there, but I felt in order to do that with honesty and integrity, we’re needed to reflect on the dilemma of appropriating the style of distance that they allow and create.

So, there are some poems in For Now, there’s two poems that are experiments in bad faith, they’re kind of subtitled as such. And this is essentially a kind of attempts to investigate the degree to which the way that I was using a style inherently had the danger and capacity to be used in the wrong way, in ways that afforded sort of bad faith lyric certainties, or bad faith ethical implications. So, I wanted to subtitle them, so it was clear. I didn’t want to just put them out into the world as bad faith! But I felt somehow that it was necessary for the reader to, if you like, have a tuning fork of ‘Okay, but notes can be false notes as well’. And that the type of consideration that these poems allow through the form that their language is taking can very easily lead us in wrong directions.

Mark: I think you’ve got quite a nice tuning fork for this poem in the title. So, you have this word, ‘The Sanctioned State’, and ‘sanctioned’ is one of those weird words, isn’t it? That can mean two opposite things. It can either mean ‘authorize’ or ‘ratify’, or it could be ‘to penalize’. And it strikes me that that’s all of a piece with your portrayal of Cromwell as being ‘A part of what he fought / For and against / The balanced argument / Of history’, and this kind of ambiguity of stance or perspective you’re talking about.

Edward: Yeah. Thank you. I think that that’s sort of what I was trying to get at and how, I guess, we only have ‘states’ in the sense of ‘collective entities’ but by agreement, but often it’s coerced agreement. And then obviously, there’s a kind of, to a degree, there’s also that same dilemma in the word ‘state’ as there is in the word ‘sanctioned’.

So, the state in terms of the overall governing body of a community is one aspect of the word, but the word also relates to how we encounter things. You know, just very simply, what is the lived reality?

And I guess to a certain degree, there’s always a sort of shuttling back and forth between those two things in existing in the world. You know, there’s a sort of shuttling back and forth between, well, how am I experiencing the world? What is my phenomenological kind of like encounter? As well as the external realities that determine that to a large degree. And I think it’s a poem that’s to a certain degree trying to move back and forth between those… well, states.

I guess in some ways, the way that this poem came about is also in dialogue with the other poems in the collection and in dialogue with the sort of formal and stylistic techniques that were being developed in other poems. And a large part of that is a sort of inherently ambiguous technique with regard to syntax.

So, it was important to me that the poem at various points would allow slippage between one syntactical reading and another so that you could read given lines with one interpretive kind of approach or another that would create an ethical navigation that was required by the reader. So, for instance, if you think about:

We can distinguish
One thing from another
Jesus is not Muhammad
Here not there

We have the freedom
To be appalled

I mean, it’s easy to read the ‘Here not there’ in that instance as following on from one thing, not another. But you could also just as easily read it as ‘here in the presumed UK’ of the place and not ‘there, over there’ in that other place where Baal’s temples are being destroyed. We have the freedom to be appalled.

Now, those two readings, I guess very much change how you then come on to read, ‘We can all agree / That this is wrong’. And at various points in the poems as a whole, I guess I was trying to facilitate that being a problem and a dilemma for the reader.

Mark: Yeah. So I would encourage you if you’re listening to this to go and check out the text. You know, Ed, you read it very clearly and deliberately, one line at a time. So I think we can hear the effect even in the little gaps, but it’s maybe even more pronounced when you read the poems in the collection, that the break between one line and another often contains a surprise that will shift the perspective and the meaning.

Another way I think you shift perspective and in an interesting way here is between what could be called high and low culture. So you start off with the symbol of sanctity, the Virgin Mary, and we’ve got Cromwell. And then we get ‘the converted church / Of an All Bar One’. Now, Ed, perhaps you could gloss that for our international listeners!

Edward: Yeah. So, All Bar One, it’s a chain of rather yuppie pubs that sort of predominate. I think they must have come about in the late nineties, I sort of remember.

Mark: They feel very nineties, don’t they?

Edward: Yeah, they do. Yeah, some of my relating to, it’s not even gentrification, it’s just uglification. I mean, I guess that is gentrification. I don’t know. They hold a special place for me personally in the kind of dislike, even though I wouldn’t say the largest problem faced.

But I suppose the reason why I was quite keen on that All Bar One idea was in this particular instance, I find it funny simply because the idea of entering a church, you know, if you convert a church into a pub and then you call it All Bar One, there’s a level of irony that is perhaps missed by the people who chose to do it.

Mark: Right. Let’s just say there are different perspectives on desecration in the poem!

Edward: Indeed. Indeed. And I suppose like that while it as a poem is largely as opposed looking at the way that religion as the opium of the people might have motivated quite a lot of change, whether for good or ill. Obviously, we live in a time where overrulingly, it’s capital that is dominating those decisions. And so I suppose as a nod to what’s really happening today. So, if the poem in some ways is taking the setting in the UK to be one that is shuttling between the early 21st century and the mid 17th century, then it’s also looking at what’s happening in the Near East. And it didn’t feel appropriate not to make today more present in some ways. And one of the things that we are faced with is, yeah, bad pubs.

Mark: Yeah. You could argue that it’s desecrating the idea of the pub as much as it is of church because there are good pubs as well as the corporatized version.

Edward: Yeah. And I suppose it’s like the version of a pub, right, that has lost all spirit of the pub. I mean, the pub being a place that really is a community. You know, in the traditional English setting, the pub being a place that comes together largely of working-class people to make change happen.

And obviously, there was an awful lot of the puritanical movement that had that in it, in the mid 17th century. You know, a lot of the pressure was coming from not the ruling classes. So, although Cromwell himself was very much of the ruling classes, an awful lot of the intellectual kind of spirit of the times wasn’t, and I guess like an All Bar One is like the desecration of the capacity of the pub to have a place in society that is in any way sort of meaningful from a community point of view.

Mark: Okay. Turning to the form of the poem, which we’ve touched on in a couple of instances already. I think, like a lot of the poems in For Now, the pamphlet, you could describe it as tall and thin. It’s in four-line stanzas, but you’ve got these wonderfully clipped very short free verse lines, whereas we’ve said the movement from one line to another, quite often, things happen. I think you’ve got to read this and the other poems in the collection quite slowly and carefully and savour those little surprises.

So I’m assuming, I would guess quite a lot of work goes into making the text that surprising and that rewarding to read. I mean, how close is this to the first draft of what you wrote?

Edward: Honestly, I can’t really remember. I guess that it would’ve gone through quite a few drafts. In general, I draft and redraft quite a lot. So, I imagine that there is quite a few behind it, but I don’t think that it would’ve been so different in some of the ways because I’d already established quite a lot of the mode of writing if you like.

You know, if you’re writing sort of in a single style, which the poems in For Now are kind of broadly speaking in one kind of way of writing, I think that that had become just how my ear was hearing language in some ways, and I was sort of kind of preoccupied with the way that if you slow language right down and you put a great deal of emphasis on each word, what different type of facility does that give?

And for a long time, it took me quite a long time to write in different ways after this, because I’d get a little bit too fascinated by a word, even though I was trying to write in a different style. So I was writing, longer and more fluidly, and in a deliberately less halted, grandiloquent manner because my brain had sort of adopted that. It became quite hard for me to allow it, you know? Yeah.

Mark: So you wouldn’t jump from this mode of writing to another one and back again? This was a period of time that you were in this way of looking at language?

Edward: Yeah, very much was. It was a period of time, and I guess it has informed other work. I mean, there’s other poems that maybe… I mean, later this year, I’ll be publishing a pamphlet with Broken Sleep Books, which is a series of sonnets, which are different stylistically and they are different in their approach. But they’re certainly informed by that idea both in terms of syntactical complexity when you reduce the pace of reading and the options to arrange meaning so that you could flow through it in one reading through the syntax or in a separate reading through the syntax. They actually take that further than was used in For Now. But they feel to me like a different thing. Like my brain is doing something different when I was trying to write those.

You know, like inevitably, one always wants to do something that’s totally different. So I feel like, my aim for a long time after For Now is to, I don’t know, write, highly descriptive poems in long flowy lines, but I didn’t manage to do that unfortunately.

Mark: But I think what you have managed to do is really worth reading and re-reading and savouring. So, thank you, Ed, for sharing your thoughts on this, and maybe this would be a good time for us to hear it again.

Edward: Thank you very much. I’m really grateful for the opportunity.


 

The Sanctioned State

by Edward Doegar

This is deliberate ruin
Here we must imagine
Her
The symbol of sanctity

From the guesswork
Of chisel and shot
The removed particulars
Of lips nose eyes

We have to assume
Her identity
From the effort taken
To remove it

The lack of evidence
Is evidence
Of the belief
That belief can be beaten

Out of stone
It sustains
Lord Cromwell remains
Alive in the currency

Of language
Warts and all
He stands over us
Plinthed and protected

A part of what he fought
For and against
The balanced argument
Of history

We cannot live then
Today the converted church
Of an All-Bar-One
Desecrates nothing

We can distinguish
One thing from another
Jesus is not Muhammad
Here not there

We have the freedom
To be appalled
For the obsolete god
For the significance

Destroyed in the columns
Of Baal’s Temple
We can all agree
That this is wrong

But there is no we
No consensus
Just my own finger pointing
At an imagined face


 

For Now

‘The Sanctioned State’ by Edward Doegar is from his pamphlet For Now, published by clinic.

For Now book cover

Available from:

For Now is available from:

The publisher: clinic

Amazon: UK

Edward Doegar

Edward Doegar portrait photo

Edward Doeger is a poet and editor based in London. He is a consulting editor at The Rialto and was the commissioning editor of the Poetry Translation Centre between 2018 and 2021. His pamphlet For Now was published by clinic in 2017 and a text written in collaboration with the artist Shakeeb Abu Hamdan was published by Kelder Press in 2022. His latest work, sonnets, will be published by Broken Sleep Books in 2023. He is a fellow of the Complete Works.

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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