Lucy Dougan: The Guardians

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2015, 76pp.

Lucy Dougan’s new book seems structured in a way that is designed to recall her previous Giramondo book, White Clay. That collection began with a letter from a friend that was clearly designed to alert us to the sort of angled perceptions that are at the base of her poetry when it speaks of “working quietly at the edges” and it concluded with a poem about a treasured letter from her sister “carried . . . for sixteen years”. The Guardians begins with a poem about the vertical chain of genetic history – one of the book’s obsessions – and concludes not with a letter from her sister but with a drawing from her the subject of which is the author herself. Both letter and drawing seem to be messages from another world. They come from the far side of the world but they come from a member of the poet’s genetic community. “A Picture from Julia” seems a message that relates to the poet’s illness, an ordeal which is the subject of a number of poems in the third section: “Now I need your Spring / as I never did when it was simply mine”. It’s a winter portrait but it looks to spring, something which Dougan expresses in an uncharacteristically “high” mode with perhaps a suggestion of Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn” or “After the Funeral”:

. . . . . 
If anyone should take this green off me
I will summon the harpies,
set all of Campania alight;
and not rest
until the white button daisies return
and your feet make
a path through the thaw.

Most of Dougan’s poems do not have this elevated tone and, in the case of The Guardians, though every poem is built around personal experience it never seems to be a confessional book seeing the experiences of the self as the sine qua non of poetry. Even when the experiences are as traumatic as cancer surgery there is nothing of the melodramatic in their treatment, nothing of the “poetic diary of one woman’s journey through pain”. There is something distinctive about this poet’s attitudes to life and the way life and an individual poem are related that makes her look towards framing perspectives both to shape the poems and speak of the meaning of experience. Take the first of the poems about cancer, a poem which provides the book’s title:

I could not bear the empyrean capped,
not after living so long under the ground.

You were away
when I found the lump.
You came back with a wooden duck
and a black toy dog.
In the thick of it
the duck would come to live
with the small plastic shepherd
and the stone our daughter found out in the river - 
its shape sat safe in my hands.
The piggy bank was another gift.
My friend said put a coin in it a day
and smash it when you need to buy the dress
for your daughter’s wedding.
But the dog – the dog was quite something.
Being stuffed, it said nothing.
In a dream it sat quietly by our own living dog
and she looked at me straight out of her old eyes and said
Go on – it’s OK to pick it up.

Admittedly the first two lines seem odd and what I take to be their meaning – “After having finally got to the stage (in life or, more likely, in poetry) where I could more fully express myself, finding I had a potentially fatal illness was especially unbearable” – doesn’t really account for the strange vocabulary: “empyrean”, “capped”. But the movement of the poem is away from the conventional “How do I feel about this?” towards a listing of the homely totemic animals which begin to assemble. The mysterious animal world which these little creatures stand for is an important part of the framing perspectives of the poems of this book which often recount how wild animals, especially dogs and foxes, stand at the hinge of different realities. But the structure of the poem is striking as well. It begins with the body, quickly moves to models, then to a model designed to look to the future but, unknowingly, highlighting that that future suddenly has to be questioned. Finally the poem, rather than conventionally bringing us back to the pressing issues of the flesh, moves into dream and imagined dog-speech. The constant rejection of the conventional in favour of the more interestingly enlightening perspective is matched in the unpredictable but rather satisfying shape of the poem.

“The Guardians” comes from the third section of the book devoted, fittingly, to the body. The first section focusses on what might be thought of as historical and genetic history. One of the major changes of perspective that happens in our lives happens at the moment when we go from seeing ourselves as self-contained experiencing objects (an illusion bizarrely fostered not only by genre fiction but even so-called “serious” fiction) to expressions of a long genetic history. It seems, superficially, restricting because it suggests some kind of determinism but it is, in actuality, liberating: we are part of a community structured vertically in time as well as one made up out of contemporary lovers, friends and neighbours. Having a slightly unusual genetic history (the poems of the earlier book, White Clay, establish Dougan as one of those people whose familial father is not her genetic father and she thus finds herself with an exotic “other” family in Naples, the subject of a number of interesting poems) must mean that you are more sensitive to the complexities of genes than most of us.

One of the images of genetic history is the vertically suspended chain and the book’s first poem is a version of this. It begins memorably by a poetic sleight of hand – “This is the house of her childhood. / It’s not standing anymore.” – which one could expand out into a tract of explicatory material about the status of reality in a poem, the opposition between remembered experience and the “real”, and so on. In the poem a trunk is dragged out from under the room in which the girl sleeps. In it, amongst other initially disappointing bric-a-brac (the value of objects can derive from their historical and familial context), is a linen face mask which both mother and daughter put on. But the mask was made by the mother’s grandmother:

That night she wondered
if there were more rooms
beneath the room under her bed.
How deep did they go down;
and if each of her mother’s mothers
stretching right back
had left a fearful face there
for her to try on?

When I first read this I worried about that word “fearful” but I think, on rereading it, that it exploits the ambiguity of the word (“fear-inducing” or “fear-expressing”?) deliberately though it never explains why the girl and her ancestresses should have fearful expressions.

Other poems in this first section explore genetic heritage or, as the last says, the vision of “genetics sparking magnetically / along the lines.” “Wayside” begins “My body wants / the long way back / just to find lost land” and deals with the desire to discover “the uncertain map / of family trees”. The central image though is not of a rigidly mapped line of descent but of randomly sown seeds sprouting in unexpected places after having been sown by some medieval farmer “jaunty in a book of days”. At the end of the poem we meet her “nipote” – the son of her half-sister – whose vision of familial descent is not so much seeds as fireworks:

And of my nipote,
a love child too,
who took me aside
and mimed at fireworks
with hands and eyes,
his fingers sprays.

We’re like this, you see,
all kaboom and splutter - 
who knows where we’ll fall . . .

What the body had wanted was “the dark of a city / when paths were lit / by shrines, by love . . .”

Running alongside these poems about genetic pathways are those which stress, if not so much the sideways vision of working from the edges, then at least the blurring of borders that this can produce. When her sister and the poet walk either side of a garden bed at the Villa Bruno in Naples, “we step outside all drawn rings”. And in “The Mice” a childhood site once more is revisited and the author finds:

            a man sitting
on a fold-out chair
just at the edge
of where it used to be wild 
. . . 
he seemed to be doing an imitation
of a man sitting in the sun
like me
the place was lost on him.

The second section, begun with a quotation from Geoff Dyer’s book on Tarkovsky’s Stalker, is about places and one of the poems, “The Old House”, makes a kind of connection with the first poem in the book in that it is about a girl revisiting a childhood home. This time the home still exists but has a new, welcoming but slightly sexually sinister owner. Significantly it is the girl’s dog, acting on scent-memory, which runs into the house first. In this sense the dog is not only more attuned to the paths of history but perhaps acts as a symbol of one of his human counterpart’s buried senses (there is a very significant dog who inhabits the zone in Stalker). But the dog is only one of the inhabitants of these spaces: the first poem of this section begins by describing an impossibly small attic hotel room in London but finishes with the jetlagged poet hearing the arrival of doves which coo “their own flight histories”. Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider introduces an exhibition at the Tate Modern and a visit to Kensal Green in search of Wilkie Collins’ grave discovers a fox, perfectly at home in the cemetery. Significantly, the poet follows the fox “in the hope that he will / show me what he knows / about the dead”. The poem of this group which stays most with me, though, is “The Foxes”, perhaps because it is less explanatory than the other poems and simply presents a visitation. Arriving back in London

We stood at the deep sash window
and beneath us
two foxes stared up.
Their gaze was not territorial
or neutral but simply there

as the grass was there, the trees
were there, and the cold summer furniture.
They did not hide their boredom
and crossed back over
into another evening.

But we stayed for a while
as if their candour held us to the spot
until lights started up
- those other unknown lives -
in the flats across.

There is, I suppose, only so much that even a poet can say about such visitations but you have to be able intuitively to understand them even before you can see them properly. Certainly foxes, rather than dogs and doves, seem the best symbols of this weird otherness of the animal world because, whenever I have seen one, I’ve been struck by the way they simply appear – as though they had always been there – and the way they go about their business, not looking at you, as though they didn’t see you whereas you know perfectly well that they know you are there and that they knew you were there before you knew that they were there! At any rate, they’re a wonderful introduction to the animal otherworld.

As I’ve said, the final section is made up of poems about the body and more than half of these “deal with” – a very equivocal cliched phrase – the experience of cancer. The last of these describes a “covert pilgrimage” to the ruins of St Catherine’s abbey in Dorsetshire, perhaps analogous to the nearby East Coker. Other experiences of the body focus on the way in which an experience can open a door. A poem about needlework – the labour (or art) of repair by hand – finishes with a memory of her mother’s Home Economics class; paintings bought by her father remind her that advice by the gallery owner about how to prepare instant coffee is something she has mysteriously taken into her own living practices; a poem about her daughter’s dance school modulates from a poem about dancing’s bump and grind to a poem about menarche and menopause, though without the Greek-based technical language – “the year that you start bleeding / and I stop”; and the second-last poem, “Dearest”, which seems a simple piece inspired perhaps by Mr Darcy’s declaration to Elizabeth, is actually a complex meditation about the way a single word can open “the door / to another century”.

At all levels Dougan reveals herself as a more challenging and more profound poet than the apparently simple personal tone of her poems may suggest. I think it might have taken her some while to reach this complex unassuming clarity – Memory Shell, her first book, clearly isn’t sure what moulds to pour pressing personal experience into and White Clay alternates between first and third person poems. The Guardians is made up of poems that always seem to be looking at the world – both outer and inner – anew and though this is an ability we want from poetry – which is, after all, the most successful destroyer of cliché – it’s rarer than you would think. A measure of the consistency with which the poems of The Guardians achieves this is the shock caused by a momentary lapse. In a poem called “Kenwood House” poet and partner find themselves looking at a stack of Jacobean portraits:

. . . . .
I ask you if we bumped into Donne
or Shakespeare or their wives
(especially their wives
I would want to meet)
could we all make sense . . .

This seems like a mere conventional contemporary piety to me. Though it’s true that a cultural historian interested in provincial England at the end of the Elizabethan period might get more out of Anne Hathaway than out of her husband, it’s hard to credit that a poet – of all people – would actually prefer to speak to Shakespeare’s wife when the writer himself was available!