Lucy Dougan: Monster Field

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2022, 100pp.

Lucy Dougan’s fourth book operates in the same territory as the last two of its predecessors – White Clay and The Guardians – exploiting the unexpected perspectives of her distinct vision of the world. A good deal of the apparatus of the book – its title and the description included in the blurb which is transposed from the back cover into the half-title page – prepares us for this. Monster Field is an idea taken from Paul Nash to express worlds which are apprehended momentarily at the edge of vision and which have the power to disturb the preformed, edited view that makes up our sense of what is happening. I have a feeling that this is very much post facto. Lucy Dougan’s poetry has been interesting exactly because this has been her mode of operating and it’s a mode that enables her to escape conventional tropes and predictable interests and responses. She lives simultaneously in an ordinary and extraordinary world and anyone reading her poems would have picked this up without requiring any kind of critical apparatus (Creative Writing Project-style) as a support.

At any rate: some examples of the unusual. The first poem of the book, “The Throne”, focusses on a chair which the poet finds outside the local library. Unable to fit it into her car – significantly because a child’s seat for her grandson (ie a family responsibility) is taking up the room – she cannot take it home and thus domesticate it or, more likely, put it alongside what in an earlier review I called her “homely totemic animals”. It remains in its own context from which it will derive whatever meaning it has. So far this is a predictable kind of poem in the Dougan universe but there is a lot more to it than this – it isn’t simply a poem built out of a single attractive idea. There is a barely stated personal element, for example: the poem’s first line is “In crisis” and it’s a dis-ease which seems to be responsible for a kind of paralysis: “I go to the local library / and do not take out / the book I find, / this one or that one first, / what matter?” And the poem finishes by allowing the chair to have an effect because, if it had been domesticated, it would have been used in front of a bathroom mirror and, having left it, the poet acknowledges this in a perhaps unconscious way by using the car’s mirror: “though I fix my hair and do my lips / before I reverse away”. It’s a good introduction for someone reading Dougan’s poetry for the first time: a certain blandness of tone and anecdotal narration matched with underlying dis-ease and infected by genuine strangeness.

“The Throne” is echoed by a poem in the last section of the book, “Gomi Office”, where some passing boys have arranged the rubbish in a kerbside council pick-up so that they recreate an actual office with table, desklamp, phone and – again – chair. The boys may intend no more than a whimsical parody but to Dougan it’s rather more than this. Like Malouf’s bicycle, this office is a visitor from another world, rather lost and looking for its own context. To the observer it raises the question – as do others of this type – of what kind of world it might inhabit where it is as much at home as we observers are in our own world. As a result, it is a poem which concludes not by describing how the poet is affected and drawn to the totemic object but by how it leads one to speculate about alternative worlds:

. . . . . 
At night it is perfectly at home
beneath a sliver of moon
and the trees with their leaf outlines
neat as paper cuts.
I dream a man comes to work
at this gomi office -
a ”one man for the use of”
kind of man,
but I cannot for the life of me
fathom the clock he will punch.

Each of the three sections of Monster Field has an epigraph which gives some idea of the poems that it will contain though the overall interests are so consistent that these probably should just be seen as groupings. The first is a quote from Deborah Levy – “It was true that I had no idea how to endure being alive and everything that comes with it” – which emphasises the personal costs of the poet’s contemporary life. The second, from John Berger – “I propose a conspiracy of orphans” – encourages us to think of the de-contextualised visitors as orphans, and the third – “All the blood facts that follow me to bed at night” – warns us to expect the world of dreams to be dominant. The second section begins with an orphan poem, “Leonie”, which centres (a metaphor to use carefully here) on a statuette which the family has taken around with it over the years. It becomes one of Dougan’s totemic guardians – “Stranger, stay with us, / watch over us / never leave us” – and in this sense it is as close to a predictable poem as we are likely to find in Dougan’s work, but the actual poetic structure is more complex and intriguing than that.

. . . . . 
If I were rendered blind I would know
your lightly pitted cheekbones,
your brow line, your rough underside and slight headache-inducing
scent of epoxy resin in which a finger could snag a glassy splinter
of what it is you keep inside the void of your cast.
I cannot see you as empty for in your hollow head lives the clamour of us all.
And something else, you still abide with us
even though our mother and father are dead and gone . . .

The poem seems to have a double perspective. We see a set of scenes (in other poems, expressed as photographs) of family life with a changing cast and different locations and points of view although all have this humble statue buried somewhere in the background. But we also see the statue as the central focus of vision, staying fixed while almost everything else changes around it. It brings together, in other words, the ordinary life in this world and the life of one of the visitors.

Incidentally, the three poems I have looked at briefly so far are on pages three, thirty-three and sixty-six of Monster Field and for a while I was lured into a kind of speculative numerological hermeneutics with all the possibilities that entails but, on reflection, I think it’s probably no more than an accident though that is a decision, in poetry, not to be taken lightly.

Among the homely objects which have been living their lives alongside the author’s and her family’s, like the statuette, are, predictably, dolls and, perhaps less predictably, some miniature lusterware horses. Dolls are celebrated and examined in “The Dolls” where the power of these toys is evident in their ability to frighten the poet’s children. They are, really, figures of power rather than nostalgia. They are not inherited from childhood but bought at a crisis moment:

. . . . . 
I still remember the texture
of the day I found the dolls.
I swung down the street
feeling open, reckless,
and I swear the dolls called to me
. . . . 
To this day, I think of it
as a return -
the moment I brought myself back -
agreed that warring selves
could live beneath my skin . . .

“The Claphams” deals with a specific genre of dolls and imagines the world through their eyes, a world in which they understand that the children who are responsible for their sad state of repair nevertheless possessed a “frenzied love” for them that the adults who do the repairing never can. Though the poem focusses on the two dolls, its concern is really with human beings and the possibilities lost in adulthood by the editing out processes that we are forced to apply to the world – always much stranger and resonant than it appears to us (something brilliantly conveyed in a poem about two foxes from The Guardians which seems to have lodged in my consciousness and refuses to remove itself).

“The Horses I Threw Out” inhabits the same territory as these doll poems. The model horses, thrown out “in a fit of anger”, are also creatures removed from their context and the poem speculates as to what this might be:

. . . . .
What had their wider world been
before this unhappy fate?
An unlocatable “Planet Lustre”:
their hooves cavorting on the carpet
at my mother’s lover’s house . . .

In a sense they are out of a context because they fall between two periods of the poet’s life: the childhood one and the later one where objects – like the dolls – were collected because of their sensed power. Like the Claphams they had been injured by the child’s love but never had the opportunity to settle into being potent items from the past. What is striking about the poem is the intensity of the poet’s grief and guilt:

. . . . .
O little abandoned horses,
I am sorry, I am sorry.
Where was it that we travelled
my unharnessed companions? . . .

It’s expressed in a single line with a repeated sentence and is very moving.

Guilt and regret figure largely in another poem, “The Wallpaper”, which is not about objects but about contexts. A childhood friend has wallpaper depicting a forest put up behind his desk and realises from her silence when she sees it that she doesn’t like it. In a way, her response is a childish one because she hasn’t yet learned – as adults must – to tailor responses to other people’s likes in a way that takes their feelings into account. There is a lot that could be teased out of the idea of an alternative context being provided for a person by a superficial change in their habitat and the poem does follow this direction at least to some extent. But the overwhelming drive of the poem is emotional rather than phenomenological:

. . . . .
It is so long ago now.
So long since you lived there.
So long since we were close
(as if we had both vanished into the well-laid depths
of the wallpaper wood with no search party sent).
. . . . . 
I was such a stupid girl
and yet there you sat
in your wood
with never a reprimand.
Down the bombed-out years
I imagine you sitting there still.

An emotional response of guilt and regret may be less sophisticated than the intellectual possibilities of exploring notions of alternative worlds but it is undeniably powerful. And certainly more powerful than the contempt that runs through two poems about a school “Home Economics” course which could be said to refuse to accept that the past itself is a different context: as the famous quote says: “they do things differently there”.

One of the aspects of the idea of objects coming into our world from other worlds is the realisation that they can be present in entirely unmystical ways. Our view of life – the view even of the most altruistic of us – necessarily involves placing ourselves firmly in the centre and relating what passes and what we experience to ourselves. But to do this we edit out the complex contexts that are connected to what we see. So a man we do not know, passing us in the street, is a man we do not know. But he has family, genetic history, employment – and a host of other connections – of his own. Our view, even when we are at our most negatively capable, is ruthless in cutting out the entirely ordinary otherworlds that lie all around us. There are many readers who would argue that one of the functions of great narrative – the worlds of Tolstoy and Proust, for example – is precisely that: to give us some sense of the incredibly complex worlds which everyday life demands that we devote so little time to that they may as well not exist. Dougan’s “Girl on a Rug With a Cat” explores a painting (I assume) of just what the title says but wants to move outside the frame to speak of what is omitted: the person who made the rug, for example, or the way the cat’s hair is growing and the way the girl herself is experiencing life “making a start inside” her. “In this scene” the poem says at its end, “a lot remains unknown, / just as it always does”.

A final poem that deserves some attention is the lugubriously titled “Features on Artistic Women Who Live by the Sea in UK Magazines”. It begins in a mocking mode which continues the title’s comical ambiguities: it is the feature articles which are in UK magazines not the women’s facial features, and neither the sea or the women live in these magazines. These are women devoting themselves to “upcycling” repurposing junk to become saleable items. To this extent it fits in with the world in which chairs turn up outside libraries and in which passing boys rearrange kerbside detritus into an office. The poem’s structure is to move from mockery to approval:

. . . . .
Artistic women who live by the sea,
I’ve changed my mind.
I hope that patrons come in droves to your doors
and pay mightily for what you make . . .

and we sense that the reason for this is that the efforts of these women are not in themselves trendy and faux-artistic; that’s an impression we get from the glossy and expensive magazines in which their stories appear. In their way, they, on the shores of Devon or Suffolk are objects taken out of their usual worlds and they respond to other objects in the same situation. Like dung-beetles (to use an unnecessarily cruel analogy) their activities are valuable. They only seem initially contemptible because they are first met in an eminently dislikeable fashion magazine surrounded by “spreads / for pricey anti-ageing creams”. In this sense, they too are objects taken out of their worlds and put into an alien one. As with the chair that Monster Field began with, context is everything.