Laurie Duggan: Homer Street; Selected Poems: 1971 – 2017

Homer Street (Artarmon: Giramondo, 2020, 120pp.)
Selected Poems: 1971 – 2017 (Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2018, 289pp.)

An earlier book, Leaving Here, was built around Laurie Duggan’s move to England in 2006. Homer Street is a kind of counterpart, being based on final poems in England before a return to Australia at the end of 2018. The first of its three sections is a farewell to England in the form of a valedictory poem, fittingly called, for such a visual poet, “A Closing Album” and a set of additions to his English-based series, “Allotments”. This structure (and structure is one of the things I will focus on in this brief review) is repeated in the second section where an initial poem, “Six Notes for John Forbes”, is followed by a set of additions to the Australian equivalent of “Allotments”, “Blue Hills”. The third section is an anthology of poems about painters, “not strictly ekphrastic works” as a note at the end says, but reflecting in their variety of approaches something of Duggan’s larger methods which have always involved a variety of responses to the world itself.

One can describe this variety of response, in the poems of Homer Street, by looking (slightly randomly, admittedly) at the additions to “Allotments”. Number 112 is an example of extreme minimalism (another issue I will want to return to):

orange sky (Sahara dust)

glare of a wet street

At nine words and twelve syllables this is minimal even by oriental standards. It’s built, like so much minimalism, on registration and contrast: the wet environment of England is contrasted to the dust in the air from the Sahara which is providing the visually brilliant sky. Of course, it isn’t an entirely innocent contrast and I read it as introducing a very distinctive feature of Duggan’s poetry (a feature which always makes his poetry attractive) in that there is an oblique acknowledgement of the way a growing isolationism in England is threatened (that might be too strong a word) by an alien invasion.

There is more of this not entirely innocent observation in a poem like “Allotment 108”:

the door of the Bloomsbury Room
swings shut,

St George flags ruffled by
cold air off Museum Street;

a man with a basset hound
collects coffee from Ruskin’s Café

These are three observations about the Bloomsbury area of London but the flags suggest it might be a comment on a kind of genteel cultural nationalism and this is supported by the fact that the second stanza takes place on Museum Street, leading a reader to suppose that these three little images together suggest a certain kind of mummification of England’s cultural past converted into capital. The images themselves are not invented or manipulated to provide a nice, clean symbolic tableau. One always feels in Duggan’s work that the observations are “genuine”: Homer St, for example, is a real street, not an invention designed to activate convenient puns about homing-pigeons and Greek poets. This is a world which, if looked at correctly, can, at moments, reveal itself.

Sometimes the poems record more obvious jokes – “Allotment 116”, for example: “for realism / the right of way / from Brogdale Road/ blocked by developers”. Throughout Duggan’s work these are the sorts of things that get collected into his “Dogs” series which are made up out of a collection of such jokes. But “Allotment 113” is quite different to any of these: it is a prose poem detailing the experience of waiting for a poetry reading. Although poetry readings figure largely (as do pubs) in earlier “Allotments”, this is really a personal, almost diary entry though, as one would expect, the visual receptiveness is very keen.

The Australian section of Homer Street begins with “Six Notes for John Forbes” a poem which overtly refers to an earlier “English” poem, “Letter to John Forbes”, from the 2012 collection, The Pursuit of Happiness. Both poems celebrate Forbes as someone who was capable of seeing the forces underlying cultural and economic superficialities: in other words, someone who can see when the world reveals its own mechanisms. Although Forbes was a completely different poet to Duggan, there is much in their work which is in harmony and there is a well-disguised sense of “Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour” behind these two poems. “Six Note for John Forbes” focusses on Australia but the second stanza turns back to England:

I wrote to you a few years back
that England wasn’t the place you knew
now it’s even less so, or more:
the superstructure of class
showing through the fake edifice of “merit”,
all that bedrock pomposity
and servility that characterises the place
as Jacob Rees-Mogg, a seeming parody
turns out to be the real thing. . .

It’s a letter which enables Duggan to explore the imperatives behind his own poetry. Typically the result isn’t a manifesto , more a meditation on what Duggan thinks his poetry is doing and what he feels it needs to do. At the same time it reminds readers that the death of poets is a theme in Duggan’s work that exists in quite a different dimension to the registration of life in the English or Australian present.

The Selected Poems: 1971 – 2017 gives readers a chance to look at these things over the span of a lengthy writing career. It seems to me that the poems reveal two crucial issues. The first is the easiest to identify: what is the nature of the material. As I’ve said above (and in other comments on Duggan’s books) the essential material is the world as it is: an orange sky, St George flags ruffled in the street. These are usually, but not always, visual images – one of the advantages a poet has over a painter is the mobilisation of material from the other senses, especially hearing. It’s a matter of focus (an earlier “Dogs” poem from the beginning of the century contains a little poem in which a twenty-six word title introduces a four line poem:


“momentary lapses of inattention”)

There are also personal reflections, diary-like notes on the way the world is affecting the observer who is no mere registering plate.

The second involves selection and structure. Author’s notes about their poetry are generally only a little more helpful than blurb endorsements but the Author’s Note to Homer Street is very revealing:

I often work in the form of the sequence, an area between the long poem and the short freestanding lyric. This comes out of a sense that I am writing a long discontinuous poem generally and that everything eventually finds its place. . . . . . I’ve never felt that there was a single way to write poems though there are a few that I seem to use a lot. The results are always something more than the process, at least in any poems which succeed. I think I have always been a minimalist, if a minimalist with content, and that I will always try for what so many of the great modernists have achieved: more with less.

The second part of this raises the issue of minimal verbal description: what to leave out. And “Blue Hills 98” from Homer Street, refers to it specifically:

what to leave out
(the detail of all those tiles
instead of the sweep
of a roof
                 the art
of knowing when to stop

It’s an intriguing issue in poetry because one of poetry’s traditional strengths is its ability to do “thick” description either by massing images (think of Hopkins or something like Murray’s “Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands”) or exploiting the synonym-rich, consonantal qualities of English. Duggan’s poetry feels “modernist” in its deployment of a drier, more denotative diction (initially invented early in the twentieth century to tell late-Victorian poets that reacting against their predecessors by increasing the lushness was the wrong direction) but the contrast between detailing the unique “thisness” of each of a million dreary roof tiles and focussing instead on the sweep of a roof involves abstraction (isolating shape) rather than suggestiveness. Although I’ve said this many times in these reviews, I will say again that lack of a minimalist tradition in Australian poetry has meant that is a very “loud” poetry inclined to be discourse-dense. In such a culture anything minimalist is hard to get off the ground. If there is no cultural tradition of minimalist suggestiveness it can probably only be achieved by abstraction.

Opposed to the visual registrations are the mental ones. The body of Duggan’s poetry has a surprising amount of personal reflection. As I’ve said there are continuing meditations of the death of poets in poems like “Ornithology” from the 1990s. There is even, quite early, an extended biographical poem, “Adventures in Paradise”, although the impulse behind it seems to be as much parodic as confessional. I don’t think that all the personal responses mount up to a failure to be a dispassionate observing eye; I think they are based on the idea that observation – even of the moments in which the world reveals itself – must always include the observer. One never wants to praise a poet for tact, but Duggan’s usually wry inclusions of himself and his responses very rarely cross the social line into egocentricity. Nor, as a counter, do we ever think that the wry, self-mocking tone of this component is a clever social mask.

A lifetime’s work of careful observation produces a large mass of usable material and it leads to the central issues of Duggan’s poetics: namely – how to organise this stuff. This is a question with two dimensions. The first is the issue of what makes an observation or set of observations a genuine poem. The second is, how can these small poems be organised into larger wholes.
In the case of the first, although a certain amount of aesthetic policy (as, for example, the commitment to modernist practice and to minimalism) is present there is no doubt that the method is intuitive – a dangerous adjective to use, I know. But all poets operate with a test of “Does it work?” and I think Duggan is no exception. One could go on looking at poems from these two books for a considerable time but I suspect that even really close scrutiny might not produce much more than the feeling that generally the poems have a shapeliness built of balance and contrast rather than climactic rhetoric – you aren’t likely to find, for example, flocks of pigeons making ambiguous undulations as they sink downwards to darkness on extended wings! But most crucially, one never gets a sense, as one does with minor poets, of a simple template lying behind everything. Duggan’s poetry at the minimal level is based on an extraordinary variety. No doubt someone with an analytical-critical mind will in the future (if there is a future for dispassionate literary scholarship) attempt a complete analysis of all these different structures but I’m content to remain with a subjective sense of variety, supporting it only by the evidence that the extensive results are never predictable or boring.

The issue of the larger structures is also intriguing and one suspects that, as time has gone on and the bulk of Duggan’s work has increased, it has become a pressing problem. The third section of Homer Street might be relevant here. There is immense variety in what the poems do: some are descriptions of paintings that require a kind of immersion, others look at a painting from a critical distance and make a wry observation or joke (as in the one line poem devoted to Boucher: “only Cupid’s chafed arse is real”). I’m intrigued not so much by this variety – though it prevents the series looking like a “project” – but by the decision to organise the series of forty-four poems in alphabetical order by the artist’s surname. Alphabetical order is simultaneously a high level of formal organisation and a rejection of organisation itself because it doesn’t convey any information about the author’s judgements about the material. I’m reminded of the practice of Persian classical poetry where the divans are organised in alphabetical order (oddly enough, of the rhyming syllable). This plays havoc with Western readers since it rejects the orders made out of date of composition (which a contemporary critic needs in order to speculate about developments, imaginative growth, etc) or by theme.

So much for these middle level structures. On the largest structural scale, Duggan has made two attempts at unified, book length works: The Ash Range and Crab & Winkle. The latter of these is a large compendium of responses to England made at the beginning of his stay there. Since it is built around an entire year, it is in its structural essence a diary: it describes itself (again one wants to say, wryly) as “a warped Shepherd’s Calendar for the age of climate change”. But it is also an assemblage of experiences, observations and texts. It never occurred to me at the time of its publication but I have a sense, rereading it now, that its author’s interest in it may have been as much dictated by internal issues as external ones: it could be read as an experiment in seeing exactly how wide a variety of materials a single year produces. And this could, perhaps, be a preliminary to answering the questions, “What does my poetry do and where can it go?”

The Ash Range has fewer structural problems to solve. It is a portrait of a specific place, Gippsland, made up by selecting and assembling historical documents and so there isn’t any difficulty with determining what is relevant and what isn’t. The principle problems involve what “Blue Hills 98” calls, “knowing when to stop”, what to omit from the vast amount of material available and then how to organise it. The Ash Range was reprinted in 2005 by Shearsman and now includes an introductory essay about the process of writing it. It is striking how much of this essay is devoted to issues of structuring the material and it is tempting for a reader to guess that Duggan has become more focussed on the general issues of structure as time has progressed. On its first appearance The Ash Range might well have been a single experiment, an attempt to write a “documentary poem”, but by 2005 it was enmeshed in an overall concern with structure.

All of this, I suppose, leads to the question of what the nature of Duggan’s achievement is. In one way, it might be simply to be unique. Although he has close friendships with poets like Ken Bolton and Pam Brown, he isn’t entirely like them. He doesn’t seem to have any followers and there is no punchy manifesto-like statement that might prove the basis for a School of Duggan amongst younger poets. It’s even hard to work out what the legacy will be, half a century from now. He could be read as a recorder of his times, somebody alert to the world as it is who will be a richer source of material for future historians than current scholarly works of cultural criticism which are always underpinned by some theory which is sure to have a short half-life. But that doesn’t seem to square with what he has done. Worrying about it brings up the issue that Duggan covers a wide sweep geographically in his work. If he was a chronicler of any sort one would expect that place would be fairly strictly controlled. If The Ash Range suggested that he could have been a poet of Eastern Victoria, other poems – those in the Blue Hills series, for example – move to many locations in Australia. And then there are the English poems as well as poems about North America, the Basque country and so on.

He could be read as a poet-diarist progressing through life (and different countries) observing things and then making poems and books out of the material. But diarists tend to be more self-obsessed than Duggan is: although in England he gravitates to pubs he doesn’t seem to have the obsessive clubbability of a diarist. Is his total work a kind of livre compose shifting in tenor and subject as the personality of the author shifts but retaining that essential central thread of self? This seems to tap into lyrical pomposity in a way that is at odds with the tone of Duggan’s work. The two words that he links his star to in the Author’s Note that accompanies Homer Street are “minimalism” and “modernism” but these are far too imprecise (or, perhaps, multivalent) to act as guides to interpreting his work as a whole. I don’t, obviously, have any answers to this, only the hopes that the wonderful work continues so that it will leave this challenging problem for future readers.