Laurie Duggan: Allotments and East & Under the Weather

Allotments (Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2014), 70pp.
East & Under the Weather (Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2014), 97pp.

These two books, published within a few months of each other, give readers the opportunity to look at Laurie Duggan’s career from both ends, so to speak. East & Under the Weather is a compilation, re-editing and enlargement of Duggan’s first book matched with a re-presentation of his second. Allotments, on the other hand, could be seen as a kind of English version of his “Blue Hills” sequence and is a showcase for his most recent work. You can see the point behind re-releasing East & Under the Weather: essentially, as Duggan notes in his introduction, the former was a first, small book, edited down from a lot of material while the second, though it contains a great deal of interesting poetry and foreshadows issues present in the later work, manages to obscure this by its eccentric presentation. Charitably Duggan blames himself for this: “I had been away when the page-proofs arrived. As a result a couple of sections lost their titles and looked like single poems. One section had been split into two with a short line taken to be a title . . .” Although some of these are tidied up in Duggan’s two selecteds, it’s nice to see the work entire since it does make claims for a coherence seemingly at odds with its laid-back, “odd-notes-from-different-places” mode.

It’s always seemed important – to me at least – that Duggan’s first book should have begun with the sequence called “East” since that establishes at least one version of what might be called a documentary mode in his work. The sequence looks east – from West Clayton towards Gippsland – but also towards family history. The second and third poems are an actual document: an excerpt from the Argus of 1912 detailing the State Treasurer’s visit to Gippsland. In an act of formal precision it’s a reproduction of twenty-eight lines of newsprint, thus forming two sonnets. A passage like this seems like a rehearsal for The Ash Range, Duggan’s most document-inspired and document-built work, and “East” thus seems, by being placed first, to stress the importance of this strand. The original version of the book introduced many more poems in modes that won’t be so important in later Duggan such as versions of Rimbaud, anagrams (in the style of Jonathan Williams), and a piece, “Parkville”, made up of lines from Chris Wallace-Crabbe. This new, expanded version, adds even more but, again, they are in modes that later developments show not to be Duggan’s strongest suit. “A Literary Life” is a group of sonnets playing with a jazz-like structure of repeated, modified and repositioned lines and “Crossroads” is one of those poems which combines the subject of personal history with bringing the writing of a poem up to the surface: “this cruel, / gentle collision wending through / semicolons . . .” It’s good to have this expanded, chronologically ordered version of East, but I don’t think that I would have become an admirer as quickly as I did if that had been the way in which I first met Duggan’s work.

The repackaged version of Under the Weather is, in contrast, an unqualified blessing re-establishing just how good a second book this was. Again, the documentary impulse is what sustains it but it is a documenting of personal life, often involving travel either to the north – to Armidale, the Sara River, etc – or to the south – Kangaroo Valley, Coalcliff, Dapto. One bleak poem (there is another one called “Spleen”) is positioned in a library, the site of part-time employment as well as the storage of texts like “Racine’s Mother Characters”. It’s a kind of limbo (one thinks of Borges in the National Public Library of Buenos Aires) sustained by marijuana and flickering contact with friends:

          George in London squatting in Charteris Rd.
plenty of Xopta – this the only Greek word to appear in
his letters
          Terry driving thru Cornwall, Wales, Scotland – “like
a ballroom dancer with a club foot”
          Alan, drunk in New York, phoning Scotty collect from
a booth
          John working as a clerk in Australia house -

                                      O Ganja
                                      preserver of us all
                                      one more time . . .

          & then the Library, Freya’s Day

                                        O Ganja
be with me in my (8) hours of need . . .

This self-portrait of a dope-smoking drifter with a shifting cohort of friends (presented in a shambling book design that makes the structure of the poems opaque) enables you to understand the irritation it caused a lot of the reviewers at the time of its original publication. But in retrospect the book as a whole sets up the contradictory components of the Duggan self that are going to be the basis of the best of the later work whereby Duggan appears simultaneously as a vague, often confused ring-in in a group (“Ken Wythes: what do you mean? / explain yourself? / Reply: um ah well”) and also as a very sharp-eyed observer with a penchant for revealing signs. Duggan’s introduction tells us that the harsh reception of this book lead him to the next stage of poems as formal satires and from there to the translations of Martial and to a series of translations generally. I don’t think these are Duggan at his best – perhaps because to be a good satirist the poet has to speak for community rather than for an odd, individual outlook, but The Ash Range and the developing series of “Blue Hills” poems kept the documenting impulse alive, though in quite different ways – the former being a stately representation of a specific place and the latter much more quirky and free opportunities to deal with the interaction of place, life and important themes in Duggan’s work such as the visual arts.

Although the times have changed, and hippyish camps have been replaced by solid English pubs, that paradoxical core of the poet as a sociable character and, at the same time, an outsider with a quirky, outsider’s perspective on things persists into Allotments. But to imply that Allotments is the spirit of the “Blue Hills” poems transferred from east coast Australia to south-east England obscures a number of differences between them. The most important of these is that the reader has a sense that the “Blue Hills” sequence is an act of poetic freedom, establishing an open space where a lot of disparate poetic activity can take place. If it has any structure it will be an “organic” one which emerges and changes as the sequence grows. In Allotments you get a hint of an imposed form in the way in which the hundred poems seem to cycle through a year’s worth of seasons. In this sense it may be half way between “Blue Hills” and Crab & Winkle, Duggan’s “warped Shepherd’s Calendar” of 2009. At any rate, one of the poems – Allotment 5 – uses (I think) a conference on the work of Charles Olson held at the University of Kent in 2010 to air the issue of the structure of long, assemblage poems and thus return to a theme that obsessed Pound and has obsessed the post-Poundian tradition. Duggan’s position amongst these giants is characteristically modest. In “Allotment 37” he says: “my work irrelevant as / an immense puzzle, lifelong” and “Allotment 5” concludes:

. . . . .
                                                                                such the fate
                                                                                of epic

the breath of a man
struggling for same

                                                           in the light of lecture rooms
                                                                               my writing

cuts corners, loses
the thread

                                                                     the notebook
                                                                     steers towards November

towards (including) disorder
(Olson’s final line: he’d lost the lot)

This final line invites us to read “plot” instead of “lot” and thus seems close to a fairly basic comment about twentieth century “epic” poetry. But it also reminds the reader that the book’s title, which seems, on the surface, to be an attempt to find a word as completely English as “Blue Hills” is Australian, also contains suggestions of “what we are allotted”, what is our fate, as well as “how are things to be allotted, ie placed?”. “Allotment 40” engages with this by developing a pun on the word “fault”:

radio at 4.00 am
news of an earthquake, the second
in a month on the Pacific fault
as in “whose”?
                                            things happen
they’re not punishment, we just
(Shintō) have to deal with them.

These formal issues aren’t likely to be our first impressions of Allotments, though. The regular settings in pubs (there are a dozen or so of these, most of them named, the names being yet another mysterious verbal sign) replace the camps and friend’s rented houses of Under the Weather as sites of the sociability. It is no accident that the first line of the first poem, “Live, at the local . . .” exploits the pun whereby the first meaning of “local” to a poet (experience of the immediate environment as opposed to the “universal”) is overlaid by the second – the pub. But, in Duggan, the immediate is always impregnated with complexities that make the experience awkward. The pub of the first poem, for example, contains a “brooding Irish accent” and an old door, leading “through to a French delicatessen, / bolted, probably, for decades”: no ethnic purity in these experiences of the local. At a pub called the William IV in Shoreditch (celebrated in “Allotment 4”) the awkwardness emerges verbally when the nervousness induced by waiting for an audience to arrive for his poetry reading produces a stream of semi-conscious verbal gags “I have books to sell (ha ha) / and pints to go before I weep”, “the one-eyed / spill fewer beers”. Although one wouldn’t want to claim iconic status for this minor poem documenting the preparation for a reading, it expresses the conjunction of sociable insideness and awkward outsideness perfectly.

The pub is also, often, a site of writing – one of the least sociable of acts. “Allotment 28” describes how this space is shared awkwardly with two others and finishes with a fine Rimbaud joke:

a dose of “the finger” (Bishop’s)
and the fire

someone else writes in this room, or types
on a notebook
                                   a poem
a report (or both)

it’s dead quiet on the street
where earlier in the day a Dutch truck
delivered flowers

a man with a black hat and cloak enters
(also with a folder)
                                                so the room has now three (3)
readers, writers, reporters

a season by the fire or
Un Saison d’Enfer

The pub can also operate symbolically to make a sharp political point as it does in “Allotment 17”:

again, waiting
(all lager, no ale)

light glimmer through drizzle
a gust from the east

someone reads La Peste
then talks of it in German

Cameron’s Britain is
dark shapes beyond double-glazing

an imaginary space
where imagination is redundant.

And then there are, finally, those poems which are almost entirely visual. They record the momentary experience visually (“virginia creeper / red on a far wall / under a rusted vent”). Although it’s natural to want to read a visual representation for symbolic value – one could spin pages of readings of poems like 53, “cygnets on the marsh / red fox in the forest” or 41, “a robin lands, curious / as I grub weeds” – I get the feeling that these poems want to remain in the aesthetic world of visual image or, to put it another way, Duggan wants a framework that will allow representations like this to stand alone. One of them, “Allotment 74” is just a breathtakingly beautiful visual representation of a sea view. It is allegorisable, certainly, as a statement about different zones of habitation, different levels of a picture plane, but that would somehow seem to miss the point:

long grass, gnats
to shoulder height,

the North Sea:
distant, cerulean, a pink strand

far side of the mud flats,
the racket of migrating birds.

There is, in other words, a great deal of variety in Allotments despite one’s sense that it wants to suggest a structuring framework. If it is driven by an odd contradiction in Duggan’s poetic self whereby he is simultaneously a socially accepted insider and a sharp-eyed outsider it can also extend to these beautifully done visual jottings which seem to be the product of a landscape painter manqué. The poems of Allotments and Under the Weather can often seem easily-done, casual jottings but there is a complex pattern behind their conception and an extraordinary quality of poise about their execution. Both books remind us what a remarkable poet Duggan has become.