Dan Disney Reviews Laurie Duggan’s Selected Poems 1971–2017

By | 11 February 2020

Which kinds of poetry can come from a place as problematic as ‘Australia’? Duggan’s oeuvre delivers us one plangent possibility, and his partisan lyrics regard skeptically a previous generation’s powerbroking elders, at once mapping also those incendiary generations (’68 and on) as progenitors of a new kind of creative commons in which stakeholders were more than simply lyrically literate. Everywhere in these texts, we behold camaraderies: feted names are assiduously dropped into the poems (Pam Brown, Gig Ryan, Ken Bolton, John Forbes, John Tranter, John Jenkins, John Scott, Martin Johnson, Robert Harris, Jas H Duke), and often to riotous effect; Murray is carefully excoriated while elsewhere, ‘Chris Wallace-Crabbe competed with billiards / near the billiard room and the billiards won’, and more boorish Melbourne Uni poets are shown to be busily and boringly hard at it:

writing about martyrdom in Parkville
on mornings before lectures with the shakes;
imagining themselves as William Blakes.

This nuanced, nettled parochialism evinces communities (generations) across Australian urban centres fighting for the naming rights of genre, and these recorded interactions enable Duggan to show a series of guerilla maneuvers in those recent skirmishes that now pass as part of our canon. His representations of conflict always adopt a light touch, for this is no ideologue deathlessly slugging it out, but a poet for whom other poets remain critically curious. The effect of these reveries is similar to the ‘black and white photograph / taken at Writers’ Week of the / 1964 Adelaide Festival. Douglas / Stewart, David Rowbotham, / Kenneth Slessor, and Kym Bonython / are clearly identifiable’; Duggan’s poems are an historical link to communities perhaps preceding his readers’ engagements, and this suite of eyewitness accounts speak toward naming which humans spoke in which ways in those moments when language was (as always) being steered into discourses that were later to become a bedrock of recent histories.

The frays into which Duggan has insistently and perhaps joyously leapt are captured as struggles for tumultuous, chaotic territories that shift and atrophy, always disintegrating the moment anything resembling order arises:

The constant rearrangement of furniture
relativities, what lives with you
and what you do without sinks back
under the reshaping atmosphere the albums
uncaptioned daring a narrative
where you start   from there a constant shift
a random play function, boxes of china
sent off to the charity store
things no one wants   the calm
late afternoon light   teetering vee
of a pigeon caught on an updraft

Poems like this exemplify Duggan as a skilled prosecutor, the images bundled together into a mass of thought-events and observances slanting toward specific fields, possibly projectively, rescuing from memory’s scrapbook an extraordinary arrangement of ordinary lives being poetically lived. This then is another of Duggan’s stunning gifts: as well as exhibiting poetry constituted through antipodean absences, these Selected Poems re-dimensionalise poets and places, moments and mayhem into mythic shapes that must not only be remembered, but sanctified. Whatever ‘we’ are today (Australian poets; Australian readers) can be causally linked to what Duggan et al. have been.

Perhaps in this era, in which the means of production are thrust evermore into the hands of the masses, so that messages are no longer narrowly controlled by those privileged in their bunkers or echelons, one unanticipated result is that we are evermore mesmerised by the spectacle of the now. Currents of the commoditised contemporary are our currency, and so often culture merely an easily digested, quickly materialised fashion; in these contexts, and as Duggan long ago understood, ‘[m]emory is displaced by memorabilia’. He also asserts that ‘[y]ou can’t be fashionable and first-rate’. One wonders which fads appear in contemporary Australian poetry and, more interestingly, which forces orchestrate second-rate non-innovations. By which means might this genre force its way into Australia’s ethical and political discourses, or are we forever a niche of bickering cliques? Elsewhere in this Selected Poems, we read of poetasters who once resisted doing the necessary homework:

An improbable group of young demonstrators at the Literary Festival want to get rid of poetry. They complain about having to read anything that is old, that poetry itself is perverse, gives people strange ideas and ruins their career prospects.

While Duggan’s tone is satirical, his point resonates: perhaps our work (as poets and readers) at least partly remains geared toward resisting forgetfulness, and to forge instead backwards, mindfully reading with an eye toward knowing what we were in order to know what we’re potentially becoming; by these means we can undertake the labour of extricating ‘Australia’ from its many mindlessly repeating (and increasingly dire) monotonies, to expand our possibilities of participation, present-minded and doing more than just drift through place without attention or understanding. Perhaps knowing ‘Australia’ can only be authentically undertaken by those whose cultures have been destroyed by empire. Duggan shows anyone else interested in poetry that we nonetheless must attempt to connect, to understand, perhaps even to know: the importance of books like this Selected Poems cannot be overstated, and Duggan’s oeuvre is partly a stranger’s placeholder, his designations orientating late twentieth century disorientations. Books like this are our maps; without them, we remain both at large and diminished, unwitting performers trapped in repetitive compulsions. These poems are indeed as if ‘psychedelic verities’, and Duggan has seen beyond the warping (and weft) of an antipodean real: a giant, from whose shoulders we might momentarily gaze and blink.

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