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.

Laurie Duggan: The Passenger

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006, 89pp.

Even a poetry as distinctive as Laurie Duggan’s is not easy to describe without being reductive. Crudely put, we are operating in a poetic world that is, to most readers of Australian poetry at least, surprisingly dispassionate. This is not the world of expressive effects running the usual danger of deteriorating into a rhetoric. Yes, the tone is wry but tone is not really what the poems are about: it is simply an adjunct. There is nothing confessional and in the occasional poem about the self (like the earlier “Adventures in Paradise”) the self seems to be examined as a kind of comic, almost fictional, device in a poetic experiment. Duggan’s poetry is not sui generis though and a lot of time and labour could be spent sketching in his poetic forebears, mentors and “classmates”: Jonathan Williams, Ed Dorn, Roy Fisher and an almost unlistable cast. Among Australian poets he is closest to Ken Bolton and Pam Brown but I have never felt that any of these three are at all interchangeable. And there is no secret about Duggan’s literary references: they appear constantly as references and dedicatees throughout the body of his work.

The Passenger is Duggan’s latest book. It is his second (after Mangroves) since an extended poetic silence although those wanting a sampling of early and new work might well consult the new selected poems wonderfully titled, Compared to What (Shearsman, 2005). The first poem is a good introduction to Duggan’s poetry though it should not be seen as typical since, as I will say later, the essential stance manifests itself as a wide variety of poems. It is a seven page, fourteen poem sequence, “British Columbia Field Notes”. The title is a useful cross-genre joke because it invokes anthropology, a discipline that Duggan’s poetics often brings him close to. The poem has that typical quality of “Here I am. This is what I see and hear. Why is it like this, what does it mean and what lies beneath it?” and it is the last question which usually produces the challenging part of the poem. The very first stanza derives from watching a Japanese wedding at the University of British Columbia:

Japanese brides drink red wine in the rose garden;
patches of snow (all the way from here to Hokkaido).

It seems at first no more than an odd conjunction that any culturally-oriented poet might use as symptomatic of the bricolage quality of an ex-colony. But more striking and less obvious is the fact that it points to a connection rather than a disjunction: Japan is just across the north Pacific and may well share much of the weather patterns of western Canada. From an Australian’s perspective, these places are comparatively close. Other parts of the sequence, such as the ninth, link history, ecology and a visual image to reflect on the way that a timber-based community destroyed its timber housing and reduced wood to comfort stations for the affluent:

Apartments date mainly from the 1950s,
an erasure of wooden housing from the city to Stanley Park.

Burrard Inlet is still a working harbour
(containers, sulphur and woodchips)

logs chained, floating downstream
the odd escapee beached and weathered

fit for sunbathers to shelter, leeward from ocean wind
or rest a bicycle against.

Another poem (the fourth) is museum-based placing events next to each other so that they go backwards in time: the suppression of potlatch in the 1890s, introduction of Christianity, the smallpox epidemics and, in the final line, the arrival of the whites. It will come as no surprise that the museum is a crucial site for Duggan and the assumptions behind its choice of exhibits and the patterning of the display is one of his obsessions. But he is equally obsessed by the art gallery. This can be because in a sense a gallery is a kind of museum reflecting the assumptions of its culture, but it is also likely to be because it houses the work of local artists (in the case of British Columbia, Emily Carr and Bill Reid) and Duggan generally trusts their view of things – they are the equivalents of the anthropologist’s trustable intepreters).

There are two poles to the various ways in which this poetic anthropology can work: the world can reveal itself or the poet can analyze. “British Columbia Field Notes” is balanced in the structure of the book by “Ten Days”, a record of Greece made before the Athens Olympics, and here the method is generally to allow the landscape to speak to the antipodean traveller:

                            40 degrees
a cool wind under the awning
and a late lunch

                       were cicadas the sirens?

Cape Sounion
plays over the beach
under the temple of Poseidon

One wouldn’t want to over-emphasise the difference between the poems though. The third section of “Ten Days” gets us into a museum and the kind of editorializing we meet in “British Columbia Field Notes” emerges almost immediately:

The English and the Germans
furnished a Greece of their own:
the eminence denuded by accretions
(Byzantine chapels, a small mosque)

Schliemann edited the layers,
Elgin robbed the grave
(a diagram shows which caryatids went where):

casts substituted keep the Erechtheion upright.

“Things to do in Perth” (recalling that wonderful title “Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead”) is largely made up of propositions (“aspects of natural vegetation may be the same as Sydney (ref. Seddon) but the foccacia are entirely different”) but it, too, has examples of those moments when the world reveals itself without any analytical help from the poet: as in the “stanza” “CHURCH OF CHRIS”.

Duggan has always been especially good at recording those moments when the world seems miraculously to reveal itself without anybody’s assistance. “Animal Farm” – itself a mixture of found statements and poet’s comments – contains a wonderful definition of poetry produced entirely accidentally:

A Near Perfect Definition Of Poetry Supplied by a Queensland Police Traffic Officer
Describing with a Double Negative a Major Cause of the Christmas Road Toll

"momentary lapses of inattention"

Two kinds of Duggan poem are extended exercises in letting the world speak for itself. The first of these is, rather surprisingly, those poems like “A Conscious Citizen” and “September Song” which are, in a way, autobiographical in that they have an “I do this: I do that” structure. But these poems use the self and its experiences as a way of focusing on the latter rather than the former. There is a sense that the poet, for all his strong tastes and opinions, is a vehicle whereby the truth of how we live in the world can be explored. Perhaps this derives from the fact that the self is seen as an unpretentious but complex phenomenon filled to the brim with knowledge about music, writing, friends, the visual arts etc but no more outstanding than any other self, filled to the brim with other things. This self is complex but not necessarily important or “poetic” because of this – the pleasantly egalitarian assumption may be that all selves are complex. The experiences, day to day, of this self are, thus, ordinarily unique and the task of the poetry is to record them. One could imagine Duggan being very impatient about poets with vatic assumptions. “A Conscious Citizen” is very much about poetry and how larger structures can be made out of the recording of material of a life lived. The great Americans from Pound to Ashbery are good here and a long passage deals with Williams’ Paterson:

I open the revised Paterson
for clues
                             (the older cover was better:
a painting by Earl Horter
of the Passaic falls,
                                                 but don't think
the river here is usable
as mythic connection.
                                                 It wasn't
for Williams either
                                the poem written in its spite
(what is the meaning of a route
between the University and the container docks?
not, certainly the "life of man".
Williams wanted to continue
beyond the frame Book 5
jumped out of.
                                                And that's just it.
We all want the poem to escape
from our lives
on the bathroom wall;
news on the radio
                                        or at least
our lives to escape from the poem

(Help! I'm trapped . . .
                                                          in a barrel
passing over the Prosaic falls
butcher birds, resonant
all morning
                                     the bougainvillea
bursting out.

The second kind of poem which eschews editorializing in favour of allowing the world to speak for itself are the Blue Hills poems. This series began as long ago as 1980 and the current volume contains numbers 52 to 60. One way of describing them would be to say that they are largely visual and usually impersonal and are often almost verbal sketches for imaginary paintings. A better way, though, might be to think of them in terms of the structural issues of recording the world. These are self-contained “capturings”, part of an infinitely extendable series. They are one stage up from the kind of brief squibs to be found in this book in the “Animal Farm” sequence. They are not blocks which will require a complex structure to support them. But if they are treated as imaginary paintings, then the Blue Hills poems in The Passenger are decidedly minimalist with an oriental quality – as can be seen in No. 54:

lit clouds
electrical storm
over Moreton Bay
later, the moon
yellow on
Bulimba reach

Duggan is a fascinating poet and by now has clearly joined the ranks of major Australian poets (a crude working definition of which might be “people a serious poetry reader has to read whether you like what they do or not”). His (in Australia) unusual poetic practice raises a lot of questions. He makes you think carefully about the pretensions that often come as a necessary part of being a poet: pretensions about the relative significance of what poets do and the status of their notion of the self. But the same applies to Duggan in reverse. If we ask “Why is this stuff so good? What exact pleasure does it give me?” the answers can become very complicated. For minor poets, it is enough to say that they do something other poets don’t do and thus challenge us to widen our notion of the possibilities of poetry. But a major poet has a kind of stand-alone capacity. Why, in Duggan’s case, does a dispassionate intelligence, hyper-aware of the visual and of cultural implications make for such a compelling poet? Would one want all poets to be like this? I don’t know the answers to these questions but I do note that there is no nationalist dimension to Duggan though his landscapes are often wonderfully Australian – especially from the South-East corner. Perhaps he represents an Australian implementation of ideas of poetry generated elsewhere, perhaps overseas readers can detect something uniquely Australian in his responses to environments (both Australian and non-Australian). Perhaps it doesn’t matter: perhaps poets should be a caste of individuals sensitive to environment and its cultural underpinnings and should be part of a pan-nationalist project.

These issues will concern writers about poetry in the future. For the present it is enough to affirm that The Passenger is a wonderful book profound and entertaining in equal parts. It is graced by a stunning cover reproducing a photograph by Jack Cato in which a vaguely sinister 1930s car pulls away from the curb in front of a formal colonnaded building. Without wanting to play with the core of the picture in a trivial way, it is tempting to read the slight angle which the car makes with the curb as a reference to Duggan’s own slight angle to Australian poetic practice.