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
(Shinto) 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 manque. 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.

Laurie Duggan: The Pursuit of Happiness; Leaving Here

The Pursuit of Happiness (Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2012)
Leaving Here (Maleny: light-trap, 2012)

The final poem of Laurie Duggan’s new book is a long set of diary-like entries made while based at Griffith University (it’s called “The Nathan Papers”) and it concludes with Duggan’s arriving in Kent. This pivotal event took place in August, 2006, and produces the title of the second book under review, Leaving Here. Despite visits back to Australia, England has been Duggan’s home since then. Someone who seemed to have such an ability to see Australia whole and dispassionately looked as though he might be headed for a period of disorienting exile (often defined as the quintessential condition for a contemporary poet). It says a lot about Duggan’s poetics that this hasn’t occurred at all and the years since his leaving have been poetic anni mirabiles for him. His reputation is, justifiably, higher than it has ever been and all would expect him to be one of the first chosen in any anthology of post-war Australian poetry. His publishing output seems also to have blossomed: The Collected Blue Hills was published in Australia last year and a small volume of the first of their English equivalents, Allotments, has also been released; Shearsman Press, in England, have brought out a selected poems (Compared to What), a reissue of The Ash Range, the important Crab & Winkle, (reviewed on this site in February, 2010) and now this new collection, The Pursuit of Happiness. Reading Duggan’s weblog, Graveney Marsh, gives you some sense of the reasons for this comparatively smooth adjustment to England, beyond a new, supportive publisher. You get a sense of the vitality and openness of the Post-Poundians in England (Duggan has always been an admirer of Bunting and Roy Fisher); poets searching for a way in which to register the real – the actuality of landscape and cityscape as well as the complex social situations that the English have a reputation for being especially sensitive to. It seems, to an outsider looking at the blog, to be a “scene” full of fertile discussion and possibilities, far richer than one might meet in Australia.

The Pursuit of Happiness has, on its cover, a reproduction of a painting by Stella Bowen called Flight From Reason, showing the statue of a periwigged man of the Enlightenment among houses bombed-out in the Blitz. This, together with the book’s title, suggests that it will join in the critique of the “Age of Reason” and its projects. But, although this may underlie many of Duggan’s attitudes (especially towards all-embracing cultural and intellectual perspectives) you still feel that this is a poetry of detail and the frameworks of placing that detail. Significantly, it begins with a wonderful poem whose main aim seems to be to position the poet himself. “Letter to John Forbes” is Janus-faced in that it is, at its beginning, addressed back to Australia (and backwards in time) and, at its conclusion, forwards to something which will, in at least a small way, celebrate poetry: “the buses all head north / to Clapton Pond, / but I’m southbound / for The Cut, Southwark, // poetry, spotlit / on a tiny stage”. The opening of the poem is all about placement:

lit up in a window
with a burger & glass
of African chenin blanc

I’m reading the later Creeley
on Charing Cross Road

you, ten years back
in limbo (Melbourne)
of which you made the best

I inhabit an England
you mightn’t recognize
though you would have read
the fine print that led here . . .

We might, initially, think that the “fine print” of that last quoted line could refer to a personal knowledge of Duggan and the intimate details of those features of his situation which have meant that he has finished up in a London cafe. It may well do so, but it also refers to the cultural currents that have produced contemporary England. The more you are familiar with Duggan’s poetry which, though it does introduce the poet’s self, tends to do so in a casual way as though he were no more than an (admittedly important) detail among details, the more you are likely to see the second implications as the important ones (although later Creeley is very personal, it still resists making the history and experiences of the “lyric ego” central). At any rate, I prefer to keep both readings present especially, as I’ll explore later, because Duggan is present in The Pursuit of Happiness in ways that are untypical for him.

In a sense “Letter to John Forbes” could be described as an elegy, though it certainly isn’t in the “Lycidas”, “Adonais” mode. A more overt elegy is “Written in a Kentish Pub on Hearing of the Death of Jonathan Williams” but though it is more overtly an elegy it isn’t in any sense formulaic. The title itself (like the book’s title) has a deliberately archaic, almost eighteenth century, quality and the poem reflects how memories of Williams (an American from the south who lived in England) interact with the pub environment and with Duggan’s response to it: “this Thatcherite / province, its // councils / comprised of / Tory / stayputs // the idiots / of small business?”. It’s a poem that wants to know how an elegy for a friend might be made, asking “for J.W. / what?”. And at least part of the answer is to take those elements of Williams’s verbal playfulness that Duggan himself has responded to over the years and highlight them in the poem.

Duggan’s obsession with place isn’t entirely confined, in The Pursuit of Happiness, to the place where much happiness is usually sought – English pubs. “Oxenhope Revisited” – another very English title, this time sounding more Georgian than eighteenth century – is ten short views of Bronte territory; “Exeter Book” – a medieval title this time – is a poem devoted to Exeter and “The London Road” is devoted, I think, to his “home” town of Faversham, in Kent at the end of Watling Street. There are short poems about Granada (“Grenadines” – “Baroque is / ‘shock and awe’ // you see the virtues / of Rococo”), Milan and Cyprus (“Paphos”). What strikes me about these is how flexible Duggan’s sense of observation is. I probably have developed a tendency, over the years, to see it as composed of two elements. The first is a painterly registration of sights and lights – “the sun at an angle / manages the northern window”, “Darkness across the water, before which / lightning, hail against windows”, “after the Great Storm a broken crown / wild anemonies under the lip of the hill”, are examples though dozens of others could have been chosen. This kind of observation seems to be dominant in the two sets of “Angles” included in this book, all thirty-two of which a quick and accurate “views” though they are sometimes sociologically slanted.

The second component is a sensitivity to signs, especially those where, as I have said in other places, aspects of the world being observed are revealed. Thus the letter to John Forbes with which the book begins cannot help recording the shop sign, “BUDWEISER, / ENGLISH BREAKFAST / ‘OPEN’” and there is something satisfying about a dry-cleaning shop (in “Angles 4”) being called VOLTAIRE as there is of CHRIS HOLIDAY RENT A CAR in Paphos. But there are other elements. There is, for example, throughout Duggan’s work, an interest in verbal signs. “Looney Tunes” and “Bin Ends” in The Pursuit of Happiness are made up of these. Sometimes they are just puns – “Old Speckled Hen / (for old speckled men?)” – but in a poem like “An Italian Lake” the visual registration of the place which opens it and the tart social comment which derives from this and concludes it, bracket what would have to be called an “aural sign”. It’s odd the way sound appears in what would otherwise be a visual setpiece:

one side shaded
for months; the other
plentiful olives, a house
on a steep hillside.
this is “a speechless place”
says the guide: meaning
neither incomparable
nor unspeakable;
“sightless” perhaps;
a wall of shuttered villas
owned by footballers
and movie stars

This is only one example of the way in which the elements of Duggan’s poetry might be more varied than at first appears. It may be that the real energy in this poetry comes not from observation but from the placing of those in a poem. The tensions that make a Duggan poem “work” as some kind of aesthetic entity (I’m aware that this might beg questions) may well lie not only in the way observations are placed next to each other but also in the way different sorts of observations impinge on each other.

“Onati Notebook” is the only example in The Pursuit of Happiness of Duggan in his more extended “anthropological poetic” mode – “Milan” and “Paphos” are more compressed, condensed and allusive examples. And yet, at the same time, it still has its origins in personal diary-keeping and the author is very much a presence. In fact read singly, rather than as part of a set (including, say, “British Columbia Field Notes” from The Passenger), “Onati Notebook” is full of intimations of a tense, uncomfortable observer. The tour of Onati in the Spanish Pyrenees (Basque territory) is interrupted by “intermittent heavy rain” and the forced spells of interior living bring out doubts and fears, as in the second poem:

Coats dance on the coat rack
noises off from a billiard room

a rip in the table’s baize,
a warp towards one pocket.

is all you need to do”
says Pam

and, I guess,
“It’s my job”

Euskadian rhythms,

the mysteries
of 2009

Much of this discomfort can be put down to the experience of the signs of an alien culture, but Duggan has always thrived on the notation (and, sometimes, exploration) of such signs. My reading of the poem stresses that it is the unease that the poet has brought with him, rather than anything specific to Basque culture, which produces this tenseness:

. . . . .
My hands, the hands of a very old person,
rest on the arms of an ergonomic chair
(of Bauhaus design: Marcel Breuer?).

All this takes me away from what’s out there:
a black square (homage to Ad Reinhardt)
inflected by pointillisme

The end of “Onati Notebook” brings a lot of this together. It finishes not with any kind of summation of the culture but with the bewilderment of the poet. And this bewilderment is visual and linguistic (and, thus, aural):

Is it? could it be (the peak)?
Landurratzko Punta,
with Klabelinaitz (or Marizelaieta)
a little to the left?

the contours are about right

it would have to be

right on the border of this province/region


It might be going too far to see “Onati Notebook” as being the closest Duggan’s poetics can take him to confessional poetry but it is consonant with the elegiac elements of the letter to John Forbes and the elegy for Jonathan Williams. The final sequence of The Pursuit of Happiness, “The Nathan Papers” is also full of an uneasy self. Since this is really a set of diary entries made in the period leading up to leaving Australia for England, this dis-ease might be understandable. On first reading it seems less consequential than the other poems of the book but rereadings alter this judgement. The first page, in particular, is one you would want to see in any selection of Duggan poems because it deals with so many of the issues crucial to his poetry. It begins with a view of the eucalypts – in which the Nathan campus is set – seen after rain. I think this is an iconic image for Australians. Winding paths full of the litter of stripped gumbark among the great trees themselves have always seemed symbolic of Australia, opposed to the carefully defined edges of European privet hedges. Needless to say, Duggan’s view is rather less essentialist than my own and he quickly moves a seemingly natural environment into a created one:

eucalyptus after rain, even this, trunks straight or sinuous, reminds of Sydney Long. art has made this environment, its pathways, marked, curve toward the dormitories
red mahogany (not “real” mahogany, just a variety of eucalypt). and in the low-lying areas stringybark and needlebark, the path goes up the ridge. underbrush. a side track revegetating
forest on a hill
small brush turkey with undeveloped tail
furiously running
the science of this?               mound building?
I never wanted to be a poet. not like some people want to be one now. it just happened. and then it was too late to do otherwise
the template is buried (or burned), the elsewhere to this this for which I function (among others) as an as if. “imagine that all these things you’ve been taught are meaningless”. or slide into pure consumerism

And so forth until the final section which is actually set in England. It’s a poem with a lot of important material in it, prompted by the imminent fact of leaving (“We will be leaving all this behind”) that brings a new perspective to landscapes and objects.

This tone of a distinctive, almost confessional air in some of the poems of The Pursuit of Happiness extends into Leaving Here, a beautiful, large format, thirty page, limited edition book produced by Light-trap press with a cover by Angela Gardner. There are three poems: “Thirty Pieces”, “One-Way Ticket” and “The London Road” – the latter also appearing in The Pursuit of Happiness. The outside poems are about locations – Brisbane and Faversham – and the central poem is, like “The Nathan Papers”, about the process of leaving, especially that of going through one’s property to see what should be kept. For a poet that means revisiting a lot of writing and documentation about writing:

what I have written
I have lost

what’s recorded
so much paper and celluloid

the 1974 of desire moves
through its lack of movement

a moment
a memento

a memory stick

a stack
of disks

a pile
of maps . . .

Many of the parts of this poem detail objects and scenes (“circular paths / a wrought-iron gate . . . / distant apartments / pipes, wind-vanes / funnels // walking figures / backwash / along the rocks // old military medals / account books / chess pieces . . .”) in a way which Duggan’s poetry of place has made us familiar with. But, unusually in this poem, they are places and objects left behind and are thus imbued with an emotional burden that the other recorded items do not have.

The way the self appears in the poetic traditions to which Duggan adheres always seems problematic. This is largely because these traditions reject the possibility of the revelation of the self being the central act of poetry. In this they betray their origins both in time and place. But the self is always there, perhaps the more so the more it is hidden or suppressed, and in the case of these two books we feel are engaging with something new in Duggan’s now extensive output: a different, rather uneasy self.