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.

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 cliche – 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!