Laurie Duggan: Crab & Winkle

Exeter: Shearsman, 2009, 163pp.

Crab & Winkle ”“ the title derives from the name of a now disused railway line – is a record of Laurie Duggan’s first year in residence in Kent. It begins with autumn and ends at the end of the northern summer. Its cover makes an initial (and one of the best) attempt at describing what is going on by calling it “a warped Shepherd’s Calendar for the age of climate change”. Another, cruder, way of describing it might be to say that it is a book made up of excerpts from a wide-ranging diary””covering everything from the landscape and culture of South East England to the ordinary events of finally accessing one’s luggage and arranging the art on the walls of one’s house to meditations about the future and the likelihood of poetry surviving””put together so as to make it cohere while its individual elements are all juxtaposed. In other words, like Duggan’s earlier The Ash Range, it is an assemblage, a collage even, and, as these sorts of things (and their distinctive capabilities) are not very common nowadays, it raises all sorts of interesting questions.

It is, by definition, very hard to quote from this kind of book in a way that gives, in a reasonably brief space, any sort of sense of what it is like to read and so, to spare my readers a long attempt at categorised description, I’ll exploit the one great advantage of criticism in cyberspace””no limits on the length of quotations””and reproduce two passages chosen pretty much at random. The first is the opening page of December and the second the opening page of March.

December
The Descent of Winter? Possibly
(the warmest autumn since . . .

no sign of the Royal Mail (the writing
gets littler and littler
                                             (a review
finished yesterday, deranged, maybe
”” but on deadline
                                   (someone outside
in a parka, like the Michelin man
                                                            (car lights
the excess of energy. Will there be anyone
to remember us?
                               (would Frank O’Hara
enjoy it while it’s there
                                           (the syntax
strangely wrong
                                   (begin again

*

marked on the directory: the Oxo tower
”” an advertisement for beef-cubes””
a palindrome at the centre of an empire

At the dining hall of the Inner Temple the consumption of wine has fallen off since the advent of the internet (letters would formerly be answered in the morning).

Sir John Sloane’s museum is a surrealist trouvé,
stones, plaster casts and false walls . . . 

And from March

settling in

a bright, perfectly clear day

Basil’s 77 Beasts:
his work, by accumulation,
detail magnified, or shifted

a painting, viewed
in different surrounds

the shadow of a lamp, its reflected light
cast upward on the shop wall

                                                                      the way such a dark presence in Chiroco’s painting might emanate from another time, be a trace rather than the immediate effect of an unseen object

                              THE THING! (writ in dripped blood)

                          *

By Hollowshore and the Ham Marshes, against a stiff wind along the muddy top of a dyke. Down Oare Creek and up Faversham Creek, the skeletal spire never out of sight. Off the dyke, at low tide, crescent bogs, startled waders, the stiles (“lovers’ gates”) always a mud patch. Closer to Faversham, the shipyards, then diversion around new housing to Front Brents.

                         *

Tiepolo and the defeat of gravity:
that we should see the great event from beneath . . .

And so on, although even these two longish passages fail to give a satisfactory sense of the book since they omit so much of its variety.

Crab & Winkle is a Janus-faced book that looks outward to the world and, at the same time, inward. But the inward view has two components. There is, inevitably, the interiority of the poet/diarist but more important is the way the book worries about itself and its own structural integrity. In this sense it is a true book of process and the central structural concern is whether (in Pound’s terms””quoted on p.80) the whole thing “coheres”, the central fear being that, as a line in November says, “the grand projects become miscellanies”. It is not a new problem but it is one that the book states clearly when looking at the sea wrack near the nuclear plant at Dungeness:

if art can be made of old rope
shoes and driftwood
what follows?

everything here is deposited
everything can be carried off

In fact one could make a good argument that the real process in this book is not in outward things – the walks, travels, trips to galleries, remembrances of artists and writers, miseries of settling in, quotations, sharply observed signs, and so on – but rather in this sense of what it might be, how it might be described and how the responsible author might make good editorial decisions. At one point (p.130), having observed through a hole in the wall “a garden // allotments and duck ponds / sheds and bridges // as close to willow pattern / as the Home counties allow”, Duggan asks “what would hold English matter / as ”˜Blue Hills’ held Australian?”. This reference to his own serial set of poems, appearing throughout his books, alerts us to his desire to find a form for his responses to a new environment. In a way the “walk” is a structuring device (as in A.R. Ammons’s much admired “Corsons Inlet”) but there is too much to include that isn’t observed on Duggan’s various walks: though he does imagine a poem:

Duggan’s Tramps through Kent #33
or see my By Trailbike
& Hot-air Balloon Through England.

(Duggan has a neat habit of writing what might be called provisional poems like this and including them assemblage of the book. I especially like “Immigrant Spring Poem” which, fittingly, opens the April section signalling, in conventional English verse, the beginning of spring:

When the [ ] sings before dawn
from the branches of the [ ]
the blue [ ]s unfurl
while grey [ ]s circle in the skies.)

Crab & Winkle proposes (or flirts with) a number of descriptions of itself and its method. A trip to Marrakech in February throws up the idea of the two kinds of Middle-Eastern rug/carpet:

as those rugs
this journal
woven or knotted

It’s a pregnant metaphor especially as knotted carpets contain nodes built up in the intersections of an existing woven base. Thus the observations, memories etc are built on a background of context and when turned over reveal a perfectly coherent picture. But it’s never really explored and thus may be no more than a suggested reading method, or hopeful writing method. October, on the other hand, concludes by comparing a diary, carefully kept on a previous brief visit to England years before, with the current one:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . but this is
half-diary, half-what?   The opening of the
field?

(half-man, half diary)

the lamp’s angle reveals brush strokes on plasterboard
a great sea of institutional off-white
the odd dip and puttied hole

a Freudian ship

                              in which we serve

I’m inclined to read this as comic dismissal (despite Duggan’s approval of Black Mountain figures) of the “field-theory” approach to poetics of the sixties though that approach was, itself, designed to deal with Poundian problems of inclusiveness over a lyric voice with a tendency to gestures of transcendence. January finds Duggan, among other things, working on a separate poem “One-Way Ticket” saying of it: “the parts alright (mostly), but not the whole . . . it’s a labyrinth, confusing but leading somewhere” so that the fate of this poem is like a little inset miniature of the Crab & Winkle project as a whole. And towards the end of the book (in June) there is a complexly patterned group of three excerpts which begins with a notion of poetry as estranging, as “unheimlich”:

The importance of strange poetry, of unfamiliarity.

a mind always elsewhere
not focussed on text
but allowing it to shift
as a film before perception
odd detail in clefts
part of the net seen clear
the weave otherwise vague

This recalls the image of the rug or carpet and also the experience (recorded in March) of seeing how, in a Renoir exhibition at the National Gallery, the technique is “sketchier than reproduction suggests” and the underlying “fawn canvas” often shows through. The idea that there can be momentary glimpses of part of the underlying net is echoed in the next section, a geographical comment about the siting of Faversham. The Thames and the Medway refuse to blend together (thus setting up a metaphorical warp and weft) and a quoted comment points out that the fact that the towns of Faversham and Sittingbourne are comparatively sea-going, sea-manufacture-oriented (where one might have expected agriculture) occurs because of a concealed delta of the Medway. It’s hard to tell how fortuitous this connection is but it is a revealing one, looking to poetry and Duggan’s own peculiar brand of “poetic anthropology” to reveal underlying structures usually covered over by an agreed-upon self-image: in modern England this is usually the world of sanitised National Trust images. It’s no accident that the section following this deals with visits to churches and country houses and finishes with the word “industry”:

Statuary in the gardens by those who play at Gods.

Then Firle, staid, half-finished in its grandeur.
the “long” (not the “short”) view.

so what’s heimlich? old money
heating its cavernous ante-rooms?
a sense of order outside which
is chaos (“industry”)?

Finally in this quick survey designed to prove that this is a poem that worries about its own form continuously, there is a late passage in which the fact of having accidentally taken a wrong path on a walk (and finished up on ground used for army training), is exploited for its symbolic value by being followed (after a description of a photo of upper-class ladies playing at working as hop-pickers) by a passage that recalls this idea of estrangement and even flirts with the idea of compost (enormous quantities of valueless material eventually producing””by a process of compression, juxtaposition and mysterious transformation””something valuable).

so, the scattering
of phrases, the mulch
making up this (or
making this up), things
don’t hold until
a strange discourse
takes over, the notes
blind to purpose
except the track of
improbability, in fear
of taking up too much
of the page (off
the page? no,
Mister O, on it
firmly

I have a strong ”” though subjective ”” sense that Crab & Winkle works brilliantly. It is the most enjoyable of Duggan’s books and enjoyableness is something they usually rate highly for. Of course the task as reader is to try to work out why it is a success. I would say that its success depends first on the chosen particulars. Duggan has brilliant eye and ear for those moments when the structures of reality peek through the agreed-upon surface of life. Sometimes these emerge as acts of critical observation of others’ works sometimes as quirky or ambivalent found signs. Secondly, as he wryly admits in a passage in October, he has a complete “lack of narrative sense” and this means that unity through a narrative framework (“a year in the life of a stranger in Kent and some things that happened to him”) is never really an option. Thus he is thrown back onto edited juxtaposition and the exploitation rather than suppression of the radically different modes that his observations take.

Another feature in Duggan’s favour is his position as bemused but intelligent outsider (something more difficult to sustain in his Australian poems). In other words, the estranged view comes naturally, or more naturally than for many others. Outsiders are more likely than inhabitants to see that the environment has all the properties of a theme park; as long as they have a reasonably sceptical frame of mind (or cast of eye). He also has a masterful control over tone so that this position as diasporic outsider is never cute or whimsical and the intensity with which the book looks at the world means it can never be accused of being merely fey or a diaristic exercise in self-revelation. (The worst that could be said, along this line, is that if one put together the homesick references to the close friends that he feels form the core of his readership, one might detect a slight air of “nobody understands the complex things I am trying to do”.)

I don’t want to suggest that the success of Crab & Winkle depends (as so many diaries do) on the personality of the narrator but the issue does arise in the book itself in Pound’s rather more aesthetically sophisticated notion of a “shapely mind”:

I have functioned as though things put together stood for something, or rather become something other than what they were before.

the disjuncts are too great . . .

o.k. so Pound said mind is shapely
””my mind? I wonder.

elusive bar talk
always seems more than the sum of its parts

a woman picks several leaves of the Alder(?) for
what purpose?””and one decays, blown in,
at the base of the table

(there’s no place in a writing school for a poetic predicated on doubt)

our “worldly goods” somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Although “shapely” is used here in a much more structuring way than simply attractive, an attractive mind is a great help when it comes to making anything based on a diary of observations attractive and convincing to a reader. The profound fear in Duggan’s poetry (and which drives him to the provisional aesthetics of books like this rather than any “well-made” poem) is of portentousness. It’s admirable to see it being so ruthlessly avoided but it also has to be recognized that the “lyrical ego” is an important part of most writer’s sense of themselves especially at the beginning of their careers. In other words I think Crab & Winkle is a wonderful freak book by an extraordinary and very untypical poet rather than a model for other, younger writers; if writing courses were built around it there might well be an even higher percentage of failed attempts than usual.