Laurie Duggan: Homer Street; Selected Poems: 1971 – 2017

Homer Street (Artarmon: Giramondo, 2020, 120pp.)
Selected Poems: 1971 – 2017 (Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2018, 289pp.)

An earlier book, Leaving Here, was built around Laurie Duggan’s move to England in 2006. Homer Street is a kind of counterpart, being based on final poems in England before a return to Australia at the end of 2018. The first of its three sections is a farewell to England in the form of a valedictory poem, fittingly called, for such a visual poet, “A Closing Album” and a set of additions to his English-based series, “Allotments”. This structure (and structure is one of the things I will focus on in this brief review) is repeated in the second section where an initial poem, “Six Notes for John Forbes”, is followed by a set of additions to the Australian equivalent of “Allotments”, “Blue Hills”. The third section is an anthology of poems about painters, “not strictly ekphrastic works” as a note at the end says, but reflecting in their variety of approaches something of Duggan’s larger methods which have always involved a variety of responses to the world itself.

One can describe this variety of response, in the poems of Homer Street, by looking (slightly randomly, admittedly) at the additions to “Allotments”. Number 112 is an example of extreme minimalism (another issue I will want to return to):

orange sky (Sahara dust)

glare of a wet street

At nine words and twelve syllables this is minimal even by oriental standards. It’s built, like so much minimalism, on registration and contrast: the wet environment of England is contrasted to the dust in the air from the Sahara which is providing the visually brilliant sky. Of course, it isn’t an entirely innocent contrast and I read it as introducing a very distinctive feature of Duggan’s poetry (a feature which always makes his poetry attractive) in that there is an oblique acknowledgement of the way a growing isolationism in England is threatened (that might be too strong a word) by an alien invasion.

There is more of this not entirely innocent observation in a poem like “Allotment 108”:

the door of the Bloomsbury Room
swings shut,

St George flags ruffled by
cold air off Museum Street;

a man with a basset hound
collects coffee from Ruskin’s Café

These are three observations about the Bloomsbury area of London but the flags suggest it might be a comment on a kind of genteel cultural nationalism and this is supported by the fact that the second stanza takes place on Museum Street, leading a reader to suppose that these three little images together suggest a certain kind of mummification of England’s cultural past converted into capital. The images themselves are not invented or manipulated to provide a nice, clean symbolic tableau. One always feels in Duggan’s work that the observations are “genuine”: Homer St, for example, is a real street, not an invention designed to activate convenient puns about homing-pigeons and Greek poets. This is a world which, if looked at correctly, can, at moments, reveal itself.

Sometimes the poems record more obvious jokes – “Allotment 116”, for example: “for realism / the right of way / from Brogdale Road/ blocked by developers”. Throughout Duggan’s work these are the sorts of things that get collected into his “Dogs” series which are made up out of a collection of such jokes. But “Allotment 113” is quite different to any of these: it is a prose poem detailing the experience of waiting for a poetry reading. Although poetry readings figure largely (as do pubs) in earlier “Allotments”, this is really a personal, almost diary entry though, as one would expect, the visual receptiveness is very keen.

The Australian section of Homer Street begins with “Six Notes for John Forbes” a poem which overtly refers to an earlier “English” poem, “Letter to John Forbes”, from the 2012 collection, The Pursuit of Happiness. Both poems celebrate Forbes as someone who was capable of seeing the forces underlying cultural and economic superficialities: in other words, someone who can see when the world reveals its own mechanisms. Although Forbes was a completely different poet to Duggan, there is much in their work which is in harmony and there is a well-disguised sense of “Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour” behind these two poems. “Six Note for John Forbes” focusses on Australia but the second stanza turns back to England:

I wrote to you a few years back
that England wasn’t the place you knew
now it’s even less so, or more:
the superstructure of class
showing through the fake edifice of “merit”,
all that bedrock pomposity
and servility that characterises the place
as Jacob Rees-Mogg, a seeming parody
turns out to be the real thing. . .

It’s a letter which enables Duggan to explore the imperatives behind his own poetry. Typically the result isn’t a manifesto , more a meditation on what Duggan thinks his poetry is doing and what he feels it needs to do. At the same time it reminds readers that the death of poets is a theme in Duggan’s work that exists in quite a different dimension to the registration of life in the English or Australian present.

The Selected Poems: 1971 – 2017 gives readers a chance to look at these things over the span of a lengthy writing career. It seems to me that the poems reveal two crucial issues. The first is the easiest to identify: what is the nature of the material. As I’ve said above (and in other comments on Duggan’s books) the essential material is the world as it is: an orange sky, St George flags ruffled in the street. These are usually, but not always, visual images – one of the advantages a poet has over a painter is the mobilisation of material from the other senses, especially hearing. It’s a matter of focus (an earlier “Dogs” poem from the beginning of the century contains a little poem in which a twenty-six word title introduces a four line poem:


“momentary lapses of inattention”)

There are also personal reflections, diary-like notes on the way the world is affecting the observer who is no mere registering plate.

The second involves selection and structure. Author’s notes about their poetry are generally only a little more helpful than blurb endorsements but the Author’s Note to Homer Street is very revealing:

I often work in the form of the sequence, an area between the long poem and the short freestanding lyric. This comes out of a sense that I am writing a long discontinuous poem generally and that everything eventually finds its place. . . . . . I’ve never felt that there was a single way to write poems though there are a few that I seem to use a lot. The results are always something more than the process, at least in any poems which succeed. I think I have always been a minimalist, if a minimalist with content, and that I will always try for what so many of the great modernists have achieved: more with less.

The second part of this raises the issue of minimal verbal description: what to leave out. And “Blue Hills 98” from Homer Street, refers to it specifically:

what to leave out
(the detail of all those tiles
instead of the sweep
of a roof
                 the art
of knowing when to stop

It’s an intriguing issue in poetry because one of poetry’s traditional strengths is its ability to do “thick” description either by massing images (think of Hopkins or something like Murray’s “Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands”) or exploiting the synonym-rich, consonantal qualities of English. Duggan’s poetry feels “modernist” in its deployment of a drier, more denotative diction (initially invented early in the twentieth century to tell late-Victorian poets that reacting against their predecessors by increasing the lushness was the wrong direction) but the contrast between detailing the unique “thisness” of each of a million dreary roof tiles and focussing instead on the sweep of a roof involves abstraction (isolating shape) rather than suggestiveness. Although I’ve said this many times in these reviews, I will say again that lack of a minimalist tradition in Australian poetry has meant that is a very “loud” poetry inclined to be discourse-dense. In such a culture anything minimalist is hard to get off the ground. If there is no cultural tradition of minimalist suggestiveness it can probably only be achieved by abstraction.

Opposed to the visual registrations are the mental ones. The body of Duggan’s poetry has a surprising amount of personal reflection. As I’ve said there are continuing meditations of the death of poets in poems like “Ornithology” from the 1990s. There is even, quite early, an extended biographical poem, “Adventures in Paradise”, although the impulse behind it seems to be as much parodic as confessional. I don’t think that all the personal responses mount up to a failure to be a dispassionate observing eye; I think they are based on the idea that observation – even of the moments in which the world reveals itself – must always include the observer. One never wants to praise a poet for tact, but Duggan’s usually wry inclusions of himself and his responses very rarely cross the social line into egocentricity. Nor, as a counter, do we ever think that the wry, self-mocking tone of this component is a clever social mask.

A lifetime’s work of careful observation produces a large mass of usable material and it leads to the central issues of Duggan’s poetics: namely – how to organise this stuff. This is a question with two dimensions. The first is the issue of what makes an observation or set of observations a genuine poem. The second is, how can these small poems be organised into larger wholes.
In the case of the first, although a certain amount of aesthetic policy (as, for example, the commitment to modernist practice and to minimalism) is present there is no doubt that the method is intuitive – a dangerous adjective to use, I know. But all poets operate with a test of “Does it work?” and I think Duggan is no exception. One could go on looking at poems from these two books for a considerable time but I suspect that even really close scrutiny might not produce much more than the feeling that generally the poems have a shapeliness built of balance and contrast rather than climactic rhetoric – you aren’t likely to find, for example, flocks of pigeons making ambiguous undulations as they sink downwards to darkness on extended wings! But most crucially, one never gets a sense, as one does with minor poets, of a simple template lying behind everything. Duggan’s poetry at the minimal level is based on an extraordinary variety. No doubt someone with an analytical-critical mind will in the future (if there is a future for dispassionate literary scholarship) attempt a complete analysis of all these different structures but I’m content to remain with a subjective sense of variety, supporting it only by the evidence that the extensive results are never predictable or boring.

The issue of the larger structures is also intriguing and one suspects that, as time has gone on and the bulk of Duggan’s work has increased, it has become a pressing problem. The third section of Homer Street might be relevant here. There is immense variety in what the poems do: some are descriptions of paintings that require a kind of immersion, others look at a painting from a critical distance and make a wry observation or joke (as in the one line poem devoted to Boucher: “only Cupid’s chafed arse is real”). I’m intrigued not so much by this variety – though it prevents the series looking like a “project” – but by the decision to organise the series of forty-four poems in alphabetical order by the artist’s surname. Alphabetical order is simultaneously a high level of formal organisation and a rejection of organisation itself because it doesn’t convey any information about the author’s judgements about the material. I’m reminded of the practice of Persian classical poetry where the divans are organised in alphabetical order (oddly enough, of the rhyming syllable). This plays havoc with Western readers since it rejects the orders made out of date of composition (which a contemporary critic needs in order to speculate about developments, imaginative growth, etc) or by theme.

So much for these middle level structures. On the largest structural scale, Duggan has made two attempts at unified, book length works: The Ash Range and Crab & Winkle. The latter of these is a large compendium of responses to England made at the beginning of his stay there. Since it is built around an entire year, it is in its structural essence a diary: it describes itself (again one wants to say, wryly) as “a warped Shepherd’s Calendar for the age of climate change”. But it is also an assemblage of experiences, observations and texts. It never occurred to me at the time of its publication but I have a sense, rereading it now, that its author’s interest in it may have been as much dictated by internal issues as external ones: it could be read as an experiment in seeing exactly how wide a variety of materials a single year produces. And this could, perhaps, be a preliminary to answering the questions, “What does my poetry do and where can it go?”

The Ash Range has fewer structural problems to solve. It is a portrait of a specific place, Gippsland, made up by selecting and assembling historical documents and so there isn’t any difficulty with determining what is relevant and what isn’t. The principle problems involve what “Blue Hills 98” calls, “knowing when to stop”, what to omit from the vast amount of material available and then how to organise it. The Ash Range was reprinted in 2005 by Shearsman and now includes an introductory essay about the process of writing it. It is striking how much of this essay is devoted to issues of structuring the material and it is tempting for a reader to guess that Duggan has become more focussed on the general issues of structure as time has progressed. On its first appearance The Ash Range might well have been a single experiment, an attempt to write a “documentary poem”, but by 2005 it was enmeshed in an overall concern with structure.

All of this, I suppose, leads to the question of what the nature of Duggan’s achievement is. In one way, it might be simply to be unique. Although he has close friendships with poets like Ken Bolton and Pam Brown, he isn’t entirely like them. He doesn’t seem to have any followers and there is no punchy manifesto-like statement that might prove the basis for a School of Duggan amongst younger poets. It’s even hard to work out what the legacy will be, half a century from now. He could be read as a recorder of his times, somebody alert to the world as it is who will be a richer source of material for future historians than current scholarly works of cultural criticism which are always underpinned by some theory which is sure to have a short half-life. But that doesn’t seem to square with what he has done. Worrying about it brings up the issue that Duggan covers a wide sweep geographically in his work. If he was a chronicler of any sort one would expect that place would be fairly strictly controlled. If The Ash Range suggested that he could have been a poet of Eastern Victoria, other poems – those in the Blue Hills series, for example – move to many locations in Australia. And then there are the English poems as well as poems about North America, the Basque country and so on.

He could be read as a poet-diarist progressing through life (and different countries) observing things and then making poems and books out of the material. But diarists tend to be more self-obsessed than Duggan is: although in England he gravitates to pubs he doesn’t seem to have the obsessive clubbability of a diarist. Is his total work a kind of livre compose shifting in tenor and subject as the personality of the author shifts but retaining that essential central thread of self? This seems to tap into lyrical pomposity in a way that is at odds with the tone of Duggan’s work. The two words that he links his star to in the Author’s Note that accompanies Homer Street are “minimalism” and “modernism” but these are far too imprecise (or, perhaps, multivalent) to act as guides to interpreting his work as a whole. I don’t, obviously, have any answers to this, only the hopes that the wonderful work continues so that it will leave this challenging problem for future readers.

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.