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!

Lucy Dougan: White Clay

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2008, 91pp.

Lucy Dougan’s first book, Memory Shell, was published as one of Five Islands Press excellent series New Poets in 1998. It didn’t seem really successful to me at the time – the individual poems were usually fine, often interestingly mysterious, but one couldn’t pick up a consistency of voice or consistency in the poet’s conception of the way she wanted the poems to work. It is true that there was a thematic consistency: as the title suggests, memory is a key preoccupation as is loss – the first and last poems record the loss of a parent, though they do so in very different ways. Another poem, “John Clare” concludes that nothing, neither “act nor pilgrimage” will bring back what has gone and only “imagination, / that sly politician” will trick us. Memory Shell does contain a poem which has stayed with me, though, “The Novice Embalmer’s Art”, a work that circulates around the issues of loss, memory and recreation:

The Novice Embalmer’s art

preserves love’s trace
in a forensic desire
from sheet stain and soap splinter,
dog-eared pages and circled text,
the sleep-pressed bed’s declivity,
flowers picked and left.

develops an obsession
for the newly vacated,
is jealous of last words to others
and begins to circumnavigate
an erotics of the used 
that great shifting land of love’s detritus.

it is beautifully real, this land
yet subtle as another’s shadow,
fleeting as your breath on a page,
as fugitive as any presence,
only I can truly fix your hereness
now it is erased.

This new volume, White Clay, is a striking achievement and represents a quantum leap. Its interests are not largely different to those of Memory Shell but it is consistent in its notion of what a poem might look like. One might have reservations that the poetic method has limited its horizons compared to the experimental earlier book, but there is no doubt that this is a far more successful individual collection. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that its general consistency allows us to appreciate more of the complexity of its author’s view of life and the way that complexity inhabits the poems.

The structure of White Clay involves a large slab of essentially autobiographical poetry framed at beginning and end by a set of rather different sorts of poems. The central, autobiographical group looks as though it were conceived as an individual book-length work, perhaps in answer to the question: if memory cannot restore the past, what can it do with my own life? It introduces familiar material involved with living (parents, sex, children etc) but also a lot of material specific to this poet. This includes a slightly mysterious ancestry and consequently distance from a sister who might be only a half sister (I apologize for being vague about what are biographical facts but I have only the poems and my readings of them to go on), and a Neapolitan family connection.

The childhood material is coloured by a healthy (in Eastern states it would be called Vitalist) interest in sex. The title poem – one of many involving white clay – recounts the experience of making plaster statuettes in a school art class.

In high school
she moulded a man
and a woman.
When the work
got her palms
tight and dry
she was learning
something about touch.
. . . . .
The man lay along
the woman’s back.
The girl stroked the slip
from faceless starts
to uncertain ends
and found a word
that softened her inside. 


Another girl
called it fucking.
She tested this word
against the raw silk
limbs she had shaped.
There was no congress
between form and sound.

Boys looked at her now . . .

This story of erotic beginnings, fittingly couched in terms of art, moulding and control (she learns that though the bodies begin cold and finish hot “they could not be counted on / to do what her hands wanted”), continues in “Frangipanis” to sexual experiences:

Now, the bruised gift
you carry to my lips, my hair, brings back
the scent of love before care . . .

and then quickly to social/sexual perspectives in “Perfectly Good Evenings” where private school boys (and their tendency to spoil perfectly good evenings) are passed over in favour of “ramshackle boys, often motherless”:

And another sitting in a garden at dusk
rubbed the heel of his hand
from chin to cheek.
I never said, but that sweet rasping sound
wiped clean the reign of private school boys
and made me begin over all again with men.

Between “Frangipanis” and “Perfectly Good Evenings” comes an impressive poem, “The Rose Round”. The central character, in a circular rose garden, breaks a bowl with rose decorations at the edge. Thus this is set up symbolically as an art-life poem: the character has been reading romances where the heroines “won out / and were more careful / with the world / than me”. Her brother shows her that the bowl (not insignificantly made up of clay, fired in a furnace) has broken cleanly and can be repaired but the same cannot be done with life:

But I felt the wind
spring cold
through the ragged rose round
sprays of tears
on the brim.

The art-life connection remains one of the themes of this group, indeed of the entire book. In “Stunt Double” the character imagines living her life like the actresses in soap operas, speaking “queenly monosyllabic / lines like – don’t ask this from me now”, and wondering if she really wants her family’s “messy life”. In “Mannequin Brides” the clothes-dummies (works of art, conceivably made with clay) stand above the ordinary world like oracles or goddesses. They challenge the passersby with an image of perfection which highlights the fact that these people have lived lives of compromise. But the interesting turn of the poem comes at the point where it leaves this perspective to focus on imagining the mannequins entering the real world, abandoning the fixed perfections of commercialized romance.

Perhaps the brides will forsake the itch
of borrowed lace for the tat shops instead,
being careful not to wed
legends like Mine Forever.
They are escaping
the most important day of their lives.

The point here is that, though in art the bowls can be mended and re-achieve perfection, this is not the case in a real world made up of imperfections and compromises. It’s surprising how rare it is for writers (and other artists) to stress this.

Real messiness enters the autobiographical material at about this point. The exact issue is not absolutely clear, but it suggests the discovery that her biological father is different to her parent. I like the fact that at this crucial point, far from lapsing into a denotative my-life-as-trauma mode, the poetry becomes very dense. The central image is her older sister’s compact – its powder (more chalk) is used to make-up the central character’s face so that it can face the crisis of identity involved. In a sense it is made into a work of art. The central event is reconsidered as an expulsion from the garden, the image of Eden having been used liberally in the poems of erotic experience.

But that garden is gone
and my sister leaves me grown-up
games of gin and make-up
and a deep breath in, she promises,
will hold this spell for hiding tears.

I breathe with the lean-to for a while.
Its ship-like listings
forecast storms ahead.
I’m left to court strange blood
as the gin burns through
the buried scarlet of my cheek.
I try to straddle this uneven ground,
figurehead sturdy.
I might build an internal Armada.
The day overhead pales
and everything fades out
to a queen’s powder white.

And there are, indeed, storms ahead. The next poems deal with loss of father and mother and culminate in two important poems, “Everything Broken” and “White Clay II”. On my first reading of White Clay these made the profoundest impression, probably because they are comparatively free-standing meditations – though they undergo that pleasurable deepening as you get to know their context. “Everything Broken” begins with a broken up tea service and thinks about the way this stuff began as clay – it is material of life fired into art. But art carries with it the memory of the life in which it had its origins and so:

. . . . . 
When we’re very old
refusing food somewhere
a cup will sit
in the mind’s clearing ”“
the one thing saved
from everything broken
and the part of us going
will crave the intimate river
of its making – one toe
two – till we are cupped
in the mud we had
taken to our lips
daily – asking if things
were worth the life
we spent on them.

“White Clay II” describes finding a damaged statuette of her mother made by her father. It too thinks of the clay from which the piece was made:

. . . . .
There must have been 
a day, a time,
a starting point – one afternoon – 
when he carried the clay
close to his chest
and began to coax her out . . .

and seems to conclude by saying that this damaged statue is a kind of half-way point between the perfection of art and the messiness of life:

. . . . . 
She seems to say,
if clay could speak,
that there can be comfort 
in incompleteness.
His marks are echoes.
Like her, he wanted me to know ”“
a series of breakages,
a letting go.

The last poems of the book deal with these experiences more in the manner of the poems of Memory Shell. It is though poems are expected to justify themselves by being different in approach to their neighbouring poems. “Beneath Us” is a kind of surreal narrative where all of those who “went before” are imagined to be underwater swimmers above which we tread water. “The Chest” explores (again in a surreal way) the potentialities inherent in the symbol of the chest which contains all imaginative possibilities but which is also the human breast. “Strange Flowers” is a dream-poem in which, interestingly, the poet is instructed to look for “strange flowers” – in other words a dream tells her to look in dreams.

The obsessions of the body of the book recur, however. “Small Family of Saltimbanques” is a wonderful portrait of a family of performers who are probably symbolic of a life which is complete and un-messy: as perfect as a tea-cup or rose bowl:

. . . . . 
Their mother watches them with a poised neutrality.
She is with them the same way her oldest child dances.
At any moment she is tuned to another order, to almost
imperceptible openings. The colour of skin
beneath her eyes, a feather-blue in forest light.

The openness to erotic experience of the poems of early girlhood re-appears in “Female Pan” and there are plenty of poems in which one wants to read tokens, charms, and letters as symbols of the perfected life of art.

The book’s first poems are also about art but instead of clay and porcelain, the range is expanded to texts. The book’s fine first poem is built around a letter received from a friend in Spain and there are poems about books (The Transit of Venus, Anna Karenina) as well as a poem about finding lines transcribed from a poem by Rupert Brooke – it recalls Hope’s “Meditation on a Bone” though there is a big temporal gap between the Edwardian poet and the composer of that ferocious runic text. These are complex and interesting works and one doesn’t want to be reductive and see them merely as developments of the book’s general concern with art and life. However they have their own set of images. “Letter from Spain” is very much about edges. It begins “When I slip into the lane / there’s another order” and it is tempting to read this as a symbol of the tangential approach that poetry has to meaning, as is the phrase with which the poem concludes “working quietly at the edges”. The poems based on verbal texts seem to have interleaving as their central image: what matters is the way texts move in and out of our lives or, perhaps better, how we move in and out of texts. In the case of “The Quilt” in which a woman cuts up her dresses, makes a quilt from them and sends this to Gerald Brenan as a wedding gift, it is about how grief can create a work of art that someone can live in and under.