Lucy Dougan: White Clay

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2008, 91pp.

Lucy Dougan’s first book, Memory Shell, was published as one of Five Islands Press excellent series New Poets in 1998. It didn’t seem really successful to me at the time – the individual poems were usually fine, often interestingly mysterious, but one couldn’t pick up a consistency of voice or consistency in the poet’s conception of the way she wanted the poems to work. It is true that there was a thematic consistency: as the title suggests, memory is a key preoccupation as is loss – the first and last poems record the loss of a parent, though they do so in very different ways. Another poem, “John Clare” concludes that nothing, neither “act nor pilgrimage” will bring back what has gone and only “imagination, / that sly politician” will trick us. Memory Shell does contain a poem which has stayed with me, though, “The Novice Embalmer’s Art”, a work that circulates around the issues of loss, memory and recreation:

The Novice Embalmer’s art

preserves love’s trace
in a forensic desire
from sheet stain and soap splinter,
dog-eared pages and circled text,
the sleep-pressed bed’s declivity,
flowers picked and left.

develops an obsession
for the newly vacated,
is jealous of last words to others
and begins to circumnavigate
an erotics of the used 
that great shifting land of love’s detritus.

it is beautifully real, this land
yet subtle as another’s shadow,
fleeting as your breath on a page,
as fugitive as any presence,
only I can truly fix your hereness
now it is erased.

This new volume, White Clay, is a striking achievement and represents a quantum leap. Its interests are not largely different to those of Memory Shell but it is consistent in its notion of what a poem might look like. One might have reservations that the poetic method has limited its horizons compared to the experimental earlier book, but there is no doubt that this is a far more successful individual collection. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that its general consistency allows us to appreciate more of the complexity of its author’s view of life and the way that complexity inhabits the poems.

The structure of White Clay involves a large slab of essentially autobiographical poetry framed at beginning and end by a set of rather different sorts of poems. The central, autobiographical group looks as though it were conceived as an individual book-length work, perhaps in answer to the question: if memory cannot restore the past, what can it do with my own life? It introduces familiar material involved with living (parents, sex, children etc) but also a lot of material specific to this poet. This includes a slightly mysterious ancestry and consequently distance from a sister who might be only a half sister (I apologize for being vague about what are biographical facts but I have only the poems and my readings of them to go on), and a Neapolitan family connection.

The childhood material is coloured by a healthy (in Eastern states it would be called Vitalist) interest in sex. The title poem – one of many involving white clay – recounts the experience of making plaster statuettes in a school art class.

In high school
she moulded a man
and a woman.
When the work
got her palms
tight and dry
she was learning
something about touch.
. . . . .
The man lay along
the woman’s back.
The girl stroked the slip
from faceless starts
to uncertain ends
and found a word
that softened her inside. 

Another girl
called it fucking.
She tested this word
against the raw silk
limbs she had shaped.
There was no congress
between form and sound.

Boys looked at her now . . .

This story of erotic beginnings, fittingly couched in terms of art, moulding and control (she learns that though the bodies begin cold and finish hot “they could not be counted on / to do what her hands wanted”), continues in “Frangipanis” to sexual experiences:

Now, the bruised gift
you carry to my lips, my hair, brings back
the scent of love before care . . .

and then quickly to social/sexual perspectives in “Perfectly Good Evenings” where private school boys (and their tendency to spoil perfectly good evenings) are passed over in favour of “ramshackle boys, often motherless”:

And another sitting in a garden at dusk
rubbed the heel of his hand
from chin to cheek.
I never said, but that sweet rasping sound
wiped clean the reign of private school boys
and made me begin over all again with men.

Between “Frangipanis” and “Perfectly Good Evenings” comes an impressive poem, “The Rose Round”. The central character, in a circular rose garden, breaks a bowl with rose decorations at the edge. Thus this is set up symbolically as an art-life poem: the character has been reading romances where the heroines “won out / and were more careful / with the world / than me”. Her brother shows her that the bowl (not insignificantly made up of clay, fired in a furnace) has broken cleanly and can be repaired but the same cannot be done with life:

But I felt the wind
spring cold
through the ragged rose round
sprays of tears
on the brim.

The art-life connection remains one of the themes of this group, indeed of the entire book. In “Stunt Double” the character imagines living her life like the actresses in soap operas, speaking “queenly monosyllabic / lines like – don’t ask this from me now”, and wondering if she really wants her family’s “messy life”. In “Mannequin Brides” the clothes-dummies (works of art, conceivably made with clay) stand above the ordinary world like oracles or goddesses. They challenge the passersby with an image of perfection which highlights the fact that these people have lived lives of compromise. But the interesting turn of the poem comes at the point where it leaves this perspective to focus on imagining the mannequins entering the real world, abandoning the fixed perfections of commercialized romance.

Perhaps the brides will forsake the itch
of borrowed lace for the tat shops instead,
being careful not to wed
legends like Mine Forever.
They are escaping
the most important day of their lives.

The point here is that, though in art the bowls can be mended and re-achieve perfection, this is not the case in a real world made up of imperfections and compromises. It’s surprising how rare it is for writers (and other artists) to stress this.

Real messiness enters the autobiographical material at about this point. The exact issue is not absolutely clear, but it suggests the discovery that her biological father is different to her parent. I like the fact that at this crucial point, far from lapsing into a denotative my-life-as-trauma mode, the poetry becomes very dense. The central image is her older sister’s compact – its powder (more chalk) is used to make-up the central character’s face so that it can face the crisis of identity involved. In a sense it is made into a work of art. The central event is reconsidered as an expulsion from the garden, the image of Eden having been used liberally in the poems of erotic experience.

But that garden is gone
and my sister leaves me grown-up
games of gin and make-up
and a deep breath in, she promises,
will hold this spell for hiding tears.

I breathe with the lean-to for a while.
Its ship-like listings
forecast storms ahead.
I’m left to court strange blood
as the gin burns through
the buried scarlet of my cheek.
I try to straddle this uneven ground,
figurehead sturdy.
I might build an internal Armada.
The day overhead pales
and everything fades out
to a queen’s powder white.

And there are, indeed, storms ahead. The next poems deal with loss of father and mother and culminate in two important poems, “Everything Broken” and “White Clay II”. On my first reading of White Clay these made the profoundest impression, probably because they are comparatively free-standing meditations – though they undergo that pleasurable deepening as you get to know their context. “Everything Broken” begins with a broken up tea service and thinks about the way this stuff began as clay – it is material of life fired into art. But art carries with it the memory of the life in which it had its origins and so:

. . . . . 
When we’re very old
refusing food somewhere
a cup will sit
in the mind’s clearing ”“
the one thing saved
from everything broken
and the part of us going
will crave the intimate river
of its making – one toe
two – till we are cupped
in the mud we had
taken to our lips
daily – asking if things
were worth the life
we spent on them.

“White Clay II” describes finding a damaged statuette of her mother made by her father. It too thinks of the clay from which the piece was made:

. . . . .
There must have been 
a day, a time,
a starting point – one afternoon – 
when he carried the clay
close to his chest
and began to coax her out . . .

and seems to conclude by saying that this damaged statue is a kind of half-way point between the perfection of art and the messiness of life:

. . . . . 
She seems to say,
if clay could speak,
that there can be comfort 
in incompleteness.
His marks are echoes.
Like her, he wanted me to know ”“
a series of breakages,
a letting go.

The last poems of the book deal with these experiences more in the manner of the poems of Memory Shell. It is though poems are expected to justify themselves by being different in approach to their neighbouring poems. “Beneath Us” is a kind of surreal narrative where all of those who “went before” are imagined to be underwater swimmers above which we tread water. “The Chest” explores (again in a surreal way) the potentialities inherent in the symbol of the chest which contains all imaginative possibilities but which is also the human breast. “Strange Flowers” is a dream-poem in which, interestingly, the poet is instructed to look for “strange flowers” – in other words a dream tells her to look in dreams.

The obsessions of the body of the book recur, however. “Small Family of Saltimbanques” is a wonderful portrait of a family of performers who are probably symbolic of a life which is complete and un-messy: as perfect as a tea-cup or rose bowl:

. . . . . 
Their mother watches them with a poised neutrality.
She is with them the same way her oldest child dances.
At any moment she is tuned to another order, to almost
imperceptible openings. The colour of skin
beneath her eyes, a feather-blue in forest light.

The openness to erotic experience of the poems of early girlhood re-appears in “Female Pan” and there are plenty of poems in which one wants to read tokens, charms, and letters as symbols of the perfected life of art.

The book’s first poems are also about art but instead of clay and porcelain, the range is expanded to texts. The book’s fine first poem is built around a letter received from a friend in Spain and there are poems about books (The Transit of Venus, Anna Karenina) as well as a poem about finding lines transcribed from a poem by Rupert Brooke – it recalls Hope’s “Meditation on a Bone” though there is a big temporal gap between the Edwardian poet and the composer of that ferocious runic text. These are complex and interesting works and one doesn’t want to be reductive and see them merely as developments of the book’s general concern with art and life. However they have their own set of images. “Letter from Spain” is very much about edges. It begins “When I slip into the lane / there’s another order” and it is tempting to read this as a symbol of the tangential approach that poetry has to meaning, as is the phrase with which the poem concludes “working quietly at the edges”. The poems based on verbal texts seem to have interleaving as their central image: what matters is the way texts move in and out of our lives or, perhaps better, how we move in and out of texts. In the case of “The Quilt” in which a woman cuts up her dresses, makes a quilt from them and sends this to Gerald Brenan as a wedding gift, it is about how grief can create a work of art that someone can live in and under.