Laurie Duggan: The Passenger

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006, 89pp.

Even a poetry as distinctive as Laurie Duggan’s is not easy to describe without being reductive. Crudely put, we are operating in a poetic world that is, to most readers of Australian poetry at least, surprisingly dispassionate. This is not the world of expressive effects running the usual danger of deteriorating into a rhetoric. Yes, the tone is wry but tone is not really what the poems are about: it is simply an adjunct. There is nothing confessional and in the occasional poem about the self (like the earlier “Adventures in Paradise”) the self seems to be examined as a kind of comic, almost fictional, device in a poetic experiment. Duggan’s poetry is not sui generis though and a lot of time and labour could be spent sketching in his poetic forebears, mentors and “classmates”: Jonathan Williams, Ed Dorn, Roy Fisher and an almost unlistable cast. Among Australian poets he is closest to Ken Bolton and Pam Brown but I have never felt that any of these three are at all interchangeable. And there is no secret about Duggan’s literary references: they appear constantly as references and dedicatees throughout the body of his work.

The Passenger is Duggan’s latest book. It is his second (after Mangroves) since an extended poetic silence although those wanting a sampling of early and new work might well consult the new selected poems wonderfully titled, Compared to What (Shearsman, 2005). The first poem is a good introduction to Duggan’s poetry though it should not be seen as typical since, as I will say later, the essential stance manifests itself as a wide variety of poems. It is a seven page, fourteen poem sequence, “British Columbia Field Notes”. The title is a useful cross-genre joke because it invokes anthropology, a discipline that Duggan’s poetics often brings him close to. The poem has that typical quality of “Here I am. This is what I see and hear. Why is it like this, what does it mean and what lies beneath it?” and it is the last question which usually produces the challenging part of the poem. The very first stanza derives from watching a Japanese wedding at the University of British Columbia:

Japanese brides drink red wine in the rose garden;
patches of snow (all the way from here to Hokkaido).

It seems at first no more than an odd conjunction that any culturally-oriented poet might use as symptomatic of the bricolage quality of an ex-colony. But more striking and less obvious is the fact that it points to a connection rather than a disjunction: Japan is just across the north Pacific and may well share much of the weather patterns of western Canada. From an Australian’s perspective, these places are comparatively close. Other parts of the sequence, such as the ninth, link history, ecology and a visual image to reflect on the way that a timber-based community destroyed its timber housing and reduced wood to comfort stations for the affluent:

Apartments date mainly from the 1950s,
an erasure of wooden housing from the city to Stanley Park.

Burrard Inlet is still a working harbour
(containers, sulphur and woodchips)

logs chained, floating downstream
the odd escapee beached and weathered

fit for sunbathers to shelter, leeward from ocean wind
or rest a bicycle against.

Another poem (the fourth) is museum-based placing events next to each other so that they go backwards in time: the suppression of potlatch in the 1890s, introduction of Christianity, the smallpox epidemics and, in the final line, the arrival of the whites. It will come as no surprise that the museum is a crucial site for Duggan and the assumptions behind its choice of exhibits and the patterning of the display is one of his obsessions. But he is equally obsessed by the art gallery. This can be because in a sense a gallery is a kind of museum reflecting the assumptions of its culture, but it is also likely to be because it houses the work of local artists (in the case of British Columbia, Emily Carr and Bill Reid) and Duggan generally trusts their view of things – they are the equivalents of the anthropologist’s trustable intepreters).

There are two poles to the various ways in which this poetic anthropology can work: the world can reveal itself or the poet can analyze. “British Columbia Field Notes” is balanced in the structure of the book by “Ten Days”, a record of Greece made before the Athens Olympics, and here the method is generally to allow the landscape to speak to the antipodean traveller:

                            40 degrees
a cool wind under the awning
and a late lunch

                       were cicadas the sirens?

Cape Sounion
plays over the beach
under the temple of Poseidon

One wouldn’t want to over-emphasise the difference between the poems though. The third section of “Ten Days” gets us into a museum and the kind of editorializing we meet in “British Columbia Field Notes” emerges almost immediately:

The English and the Germans
furnished a Greece of their own:
the eminence denuded by accretions
(Byzantine chapels, a small mosque)

Schliemann edited the layers,
Elgin robbed the grave
(a diagram shows which caryatids went where):

casts substituted keep the Erechtheion upright.

“Things to do in Perth” (recalling that wonderful title “Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead”) is largely made up of propositions (“aspects of natural vegetation may be the same as Sydney (ref. Seddon) but the foccacia are entirely different”) but it, too, has examples of those moments when the world reveals itself without any analytical help from the poet: as in the “stanza” “CHURCH OF CHRIS”.

Duggan has always been especially good at recording those moments when the world seems miraculously to reveal itself without anybody’s assistance. “Animal Farm” – itself a mixture of found statements and poet’s comments – contains a wonderful definition of poetry produced entirely accidentally:

A Near Perfect Definition Of Poetry Supplied by a Queensland Police Traffic Officer
Describing with a Double Negative a Major Cause of the Christmas Road Toll

"momentary lapses of inattention"

Two kinds of Duggan poem are extended exercises in letting the world speak for itself. The first of these is, rather surprisingly, those poems like “A Conscious Citizen” and “September Song” which are, in a way, autobiographical in that they have an “I do this: I do that” structure. But these poems use the self and its experiences as a way of focusing on the latter rather than the former. There is a sense that the poet, for all his strong tastes and opinions, is a vehicle whereby the truth of how we live in the world can be explored. Perhaps this derives from the fact that the self is seen as an unpretentious but complex phenomenon filled to the brim with knowledge about music, writing, friends, the visual arts etc but no more outstanding than any other self, filled to the brim with other things. This self is complex but not necessarily important or “poetic” because of this – the pleasantly egalitarian assumption may be that all selves are complex. The experiences, day to day, of this self are, thus, ordinarily unique and the task of the poetry is to record them. One could imagine Duggan being very impatient about poets with vatic assumptions. “A Conscious Citizen” is very much about poetry and how larger structures can be made out of the recording of material of a life lived. The great Americans from Pound to Ashbery are good here and a long passage deals with Williams’ Paterson:

I open the revised Paterson
for clues
                             (the older cover was better:
a painting by Earl Horter
of the Passaic falls,
                                                 but don't think
the river here is usable
as mythic connection.
                                                 It wasn't
for Williams either
                                the poem written in its spite
(what is the meaning of a route
between the University and the container docks?
not, certainly the "life of man".
Williams wanted to continue
beyond the frame Book 5
jumped out of.
                                                And that's just it.
We all want the poem to escape
from our lives
on the bathroom wall;
news on the radio
                                        or at least
our lives to escape from the poem

(Help! I'm trapped . . .
                                                          in a barrel
passing over the Prosaic falls
butcher birds, resonant
all morning
                                     the bougainvillea
bursting out.

The second kind of poem which eschews editorializing in favour of allowing the world to speak for itself are the Blue Hills poems. This series began as long ago as 1980 and the current volume contains numbers 52 to 60. One way of describing them would be to say that they are largely visual and usually impersonal and are often almost verbal sketches for imaginary paintings. A better way, though, might be to think of them in terms of the structural issues of recording the world. These are self-contained “capturings”, part of an infinitely extendable series. They are one stage up from the kind of brief squibs to be found in this book in the “Animal Farm” sequence. They are not blocks which will require a complex structure to support them. But if they are treated as imaginary paintings, then the Blue Hills poems in The Passenger are decidedly minimalist with an oriental quality – as can be seen in No. 54:

lit clouds
electrical storm
over Moreton Bay
later, the moon
yellow on
Bulimba reach

Duggan is a fascinating poet and by now has clearly joined the ranks of major Australian poets (a crude working definition of which might be “people a serious poetry reader has to read whether you like what they do or not”). His (in Australia) unusual poetic practice raises a lot of questions. He makes you think carefully about the pretensions that often come as a necessary part of being a poet: pretensions about the relative significance of what poets do and the status of their notion of the self. But the same applies to Duggan in reverse. If we ask “Why is this stuff so good? What exact pleasure does it give me?” the answers can become very complicated. For minor poets, it is enough to say that they do something other poets don’t do and thus challenge us to widen our notion of the possibilities of poetry. But a major poet has a kind of stand-alone capacity. Why, in Duggan’s case, does a dispassionate intelligence, hyper-aware of the visual and of cultural implications make for such a compelling poet? Would one want all poets to be like this? I don’t know the answers to these questions but I do note that there is no nationalist dimension to Duggan though his landscapes are often wonderfully Australian – especially from the South-East corner. Perhaps he represents an Australian implementation of ideas of poetry generated elsewhere, perhaps overseas readers can detect something uniquely Australian in his responses to environments (both Australian and non-Australian). Perhaps it doesn’t matter: perhaps poets should be a caste of individuals sensitive to environment and its cultural underpinnings and should be part of a pan-nationalist project.

These issues will concern writers about poetry in the future. For the present it is enough to affirm that The Passenger is a wonderful book profound and entertaining in equal parts. It is graced by a stunning cover reproducing a photograph by Jack Cato in which a vaguely sinister 1930s car pulls away from the curb in front of a formal colonnaded building. Without wanting to play with the core of the picture in a trivial way, it is tempting to read the slight angle which the car makes with the curb as a reference to Duggan’s own slight angle to Australian poetic practice.