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.

“Poetry
is all you need to do”
says Pam

and, I guess,
“It’s my job”

Euskadian rhythms,
pinxto:

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
unpronounceable

right on the border of this province/region

Onatiko

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

amen
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.

Laurie Duggan: Crab & Winkle

Exeter: Shearsman, 2009, 163pp.

Crab & Winkle – the title derives from the name of a now disused railway line – is a record of Laurie Duggan’s first year in residence in Kent. It begins with autumn and ends at the end of the northern summer. Its cover makes an initial (and one of the best) attempt at describing what is going on by calling it “a warped Shepherd’s Calendar for the age of climate change”. Another, cruder, way of describing it might be to say that it is a book made up of excerpts from a wide-ranging diary “covering everything from the landscape and culture of South East England to the ordinary events of finally accessing one’s luggage and arranging the art on the walls of one’s house to meditations about the future and the likelihood of poetry surviving” put together so as to make it cohere while its individual elements are all juxtaposed. In other words, like Duggan’s earlier The Ash Range, it is an assemblage, a collage even, and, as these sorts of things (and their distinctive capabilities) are not very common nowadays, it raises all sorts of interesting questions.

It is, by definition, very hard to quote from this kind of book in a way that gives, in a reasonably brief space, any sort of sense of what it is like to read and so, to spare my readers a long attempt at categorised description, I’ll exploit the one great advantage of criticism in cyberspace “no limits on the length of quotations” and reproduce two passages chosen pretty much at random. The first is the opening page of December and the second the opening page of March.

December
The Descent of Winter? Possibly
(the warmest autumn since . . .

no sign of the Royal Mail (the writing
gets littler and littler
                                             (a review
finished yesterday, deranged, maybe
 but on deadline
                                   (someone outside
in a parka, like the Michelin man
                                                            (car lights
the excess of energy. Will there be anyone
to remember us?
                               (would Frank O’Hara
enjoy it while it’s there
                                           (the syntax
strangely wrong
                                   (begin again

*

marked on the directory: the Oxo tower
 an advertisement for beef-cubes
a palindrome at the centre of an empire

At the dining hall of the Inner Temple the consumption of wine has fallen off since the advent of the internet (letters would formerly be answered in the morning).

Sir John Sloane’s museum is a surrealist trouve,
stones, plaster casts and false walls . . . 

And from March

settling in

a bright, perfectly clear day

Basil’s 77 Beasts:
his work, by accumulation,
detail magnified, or shifted

a painting, viewed
in different surrounds

the shadow of a lamp, its reflected light
cast upward on the shop wall

                                                                      the way such a dark presence in Chiroco’s painting might emanate from another time, be a trace rather than the immediate effect of an unseen object

                              THE THING! (writ in dripped blood)

                          *

By Hollowshore and the Ham Marshes, against a stiff wind along the muddy top of a dyke. Down Oare Creek and up Faversham Creek, the skeletal spire never out of sight. Off the dyke, at low tide, crescent bogs, startled waders, the stiles (“lovers’ gates”) always a mud patch. Closer to Faversham, the shipyards, then diversion around new housing to Front Brents.

                         *

Tiepolo and the defeat of gravity:
that we should see the great event from beneath . . .

And so on, although even these two longish passages fail to give a satisfactory sense of the book since they omit so much of its variety.

Crab & Winkle is a Janus-faced book that looks outward to the world and, at the same time, inward. But the inward view has two components. There is, inevitably, the interiority of the poet/diarist but more important is the way the book worries about itself and its own structural integrity. In this sense it is a true book of process and the central structural concern is whether (in Pound’s terms quoted on p.80) the whole thing “coheres”, the central fear being that, as a line in November says, “the grand projects become miscellanies”. It is not a new problem but it is one that the book states clearly when looking at the sea wrack near the nuclear plant at Dungeness:

if art can be made of old rope
shoes and driftwood
what follows?

everything here is deposited
everything can be carried off

In fact one could make a good argument that the real process in this book is not in outward things – the walks, travels, trips to galleries, remembrances of artists and writers, miseries of settling in, quotations, sharply observed signs, and so on – but rather in this sense of what it might be, how it might be described and how the responsible author might make good editorial decisions. At one point (p.130), having observed through a hole in the wall “a garden // allotments and duck ponds / sheds and bridges // as close to willow pattern / as the Home counties allow”, Duggan asks “what would hold English matter / as ˜Blue Hills’ held Australian?”. This reference to his own serial set of poems, appearing throughout his books, alerts us to his desire to find a form for his responses to a new environment. In a way the “walk” is a structuring device (as in A.R. Ammons’s much admired “Corsons Inlet”) but there is too much to include that isn’t observed on Duggan’s various walks: though he does imagine a poem:

Duggan’s Tramps through Kent #33
or see my By Trailbike
& Hot-air Balloon Through England.

(Duggan has a neat habit of writing what might be called provisional poems like this and including them assemblage of the book. I especially like “Immigrant Spring Poem” which, fittingly, opens the April section signalling, in conventional English verse, the beginning of spring:

When the [ ] sings before dawn
from the branches of the [ ]
the blue [ ]s unfurl
while grey [ ]s circle in the skies.)

Crab & Winkle proposes (or flirts with) a number of descriptions of itself and its method. A trip to Marrakech in February throws up the idea of the two kinds of Middle-Eastern rug/carpet:

as those rugs
this journal
woven or knotted

It’s a pregnant metaphor especially as knotted carpets contain nodes built up in the intersections of an existing woven base. Thus the observations, memories etc are built on a background of context and when turned over reveal a perfectly coherent picture. But it’s never really explored and thus may be no more than a suggested reading method, or hopeful writing method. October, on the other hand, concludes by comparing a diary, carefully kept on a previous brief visit to England years before, with the current one:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . but this is
half-diary, half-what?   The opening of the
field?

(half-man, half diary)

the lamp’s angle reveals brush strokes on plasterboard
a great sea of institutional off-white
the odd dip and puttied hole

a Freudian ship

                              in which we serve

I’m inclined to read this as comic dismissal (despite Duggan’s approval of Black Mountain figures) of the “field-theory” approach to poetics of the sixties though that approach was, itself, designed to deal with Poundian problems of inclusiveness over a lyric voice with a tendency to gestures of transcendence. January finds Duggan, among other things, working on a separate poem “One-Way Ticket” saying of it: “the parts alright (mostly), but not the whole . . . it’s a labyrinth, confusing but leading somewhere” so that the fate of this poem is like a little inset miniature of the Crab & Winkle project as a whole. And towards the end of the book (in June) there is a complexly patterned group of three excerpts which begins with a notion of poetry as estranging, as “unheimlich”:

The importance of strange poetry, of unfamiliarity.

a mind always elsewhere
not focussed on text
but allowing it to shift
as a film before perception
odd detail in clefts
part of the net seen clear
the weave otherwise vague

This recalls the image of the rug or carpet and also the experience (recorded in March) of seeing how, in a Renoir exhibition at the National Gallery, the technique is “sketchier than reproduction suggests” and the underlying “fawn canvas” often shows through. The idea that there can be momentary glimpses of part of the underlying net is echoed in the next section, a geographical comment about the siting of Faversham. The Thames and the Medway refuse to blend together (thus setting up a metaphorical warp and weft) and a quoted comment points out that the fact that the towns of Faversham and Sittingbourne are comparatively sea-going, sea-manufacture-oriented (where one might have expected agriculture) occurs because of a concealed delta of the Medway. It’s hard to tell how fortuitous this connection is but it is a revealing one, looking to poetry and Duggan’s own peculiar brand of “poetic anthropology” to reveal underlying structures usually covered over by an agreed-upon self-image: in modern England this is usually the world of sanitised National Trust images. It’s no accident that the section following this deals with visits to churches and country houses and finishes with the word “industry”:

Statuary in the gardens by those who play at Gods.

Then Firle, staid, half-finished in its grandeur.
the “long” (not the “short”) view.

so what’s heimlich? old money
heating its cavernous ante-rooms?
a sense of order outside which
is chaos (“industry”)?

Finally in this quick survey designed to prove that this is a poem that worries about its own form continuously, there is a late passage in which the fact of having accidentally taken a wrong path on a walk (and finished up on ground used for army training), is exploited for its symbolic value by being followed (after a description of a photo of upper-class ladies playing at working as hop-pickers) by a passage that recalls this idea of estrangement and even flirts with the idea of compost (enormous quantities of valueless material eventually producing by a process of compression, juxtaposition and mysterious transformation something valuable).

so, the scattering
of phrases, the mulch
making up this (or
making this up), things
don’t hold until
a strange discourse
takes over, the notes
blind to purpose
except the track of
improbability, in fear
of taking up too much
of the page (off
the page? no,
Mister O, on it
firmly

I have a strong – though subjective – sense that Crab & Winkle works brilliantly. It is the most enjoyable of Duggan’s books and enjoyableness is something they usually rate highly for. Of course the task as reader is to try to work out why it is a success. I would say that its success depends first on the chosen particulars. Duggan has brilliant eye and ear for those moments when the structures of reality peek through the agreed-upon surface of life. Sometimes these emerge as acts of critical observation of others’ works sometimes as quirky or ambivalent found signs. Secondly, as he wryly admits in a passage in October, he has a complete “lack of narrative sense” and this means that unity through a narrative framework (“a year in the life of a stranger in Kent and some things that happened to him”) is never really an option. Thus he is thrown back onto edited juxtaposition and the exploitation rather than suppression of the radically different modes that his observations take.

Another feature in Duggan’s favour is his position as bemused but intelligent outsider (something more difficult to sustain in his Australian poems). In other words, the estranged view comes naturally, or more naturally than for many others. Outsiders are more likely than inhabitants to see that the environment has all the properties of a theme park; as long as they have a reasonably sceptical frame of mind (or cast of eye). He also has a masterful control over tone so that this position as diasporic outsider is never cute or whimsical and the intensity with which the book looks at the world means it can never be accused of being merely fey or a diaristic exercise in self-revelation. (The worst that could be said, along this line, is that if one put together the homesick references to the close friends that he feels form the core of his readership, one might detect a slight air of “nobody understands the complex things I am trying to do”.)

I don’t want to suggest that the success of Crab & Winkle depends (as so many diaries do) on the personality of the narrator but the issue does arise in the book itself in Pound’s rather more aesthetically sophisticated notion of a “shapely mind”:

I have functioned as though things put together stood for something, or rather become something other than what they were before.

the disjuncts are too great . . .

o.k. so Pound said mind is shapely
my mind? I wonder.

elusive bar talk
always seems more than the sum of its parts

a woman picks several leaves of the Alder(?) for
what purpose? and one decays, blown in,
at the base of the table

(there’s no place in a writing school for a poetic predicated on doubt)

our “worldly goods” somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Although “shapely” is used here in a much more structuring way than simply attractive, an attractive mind is a great help when it comes to making anything based on a diary of observations attractive and convincing to a reader. The profound fear in Duggan’s poetry (and which drives him to the provisional aesthetics of books like this rather than any “well-made” poem) is of portentousness. It’s admirable to see it being so ruthlessly avoided but it also has to be recognized that the “lyrical ego” is an important part of most writer’s sense of themselves especially at the beginning of their careers. In other words I think Crab & Winkle is a wonderful freak book by an extraordinary and very untypical poet rather than a model for other, younger writers; if writing courses were built around it there might well be an even higher percentage of failed attempts than usual.