Laurie Duggan, New and selected poems, 1971-1993 (UQP 1996)
One result of reading poetry as it turns up in the secondhand bookshops is that I meet things out of sequence. As a retrospective of Laurie Duggan’s work, this book was superseded by 2005’s Compared to What: Selected Poems 1971–2003, and Duggan has published a number of books since then, not to mention his mainly photographic blog, Graveney Marsh. Still, this is the book I’ve got. It’s a fabulously mixed bag.
Laurie Duggan strikes me as a poet’s poet: not necessarily in the sense that he writes primarily for an audience of poets (though that could also be true), but in the sense that much of his work is concerned with the poet identity. You know how there are gay poets, and feminist poets, and nationalist poets? Well, there are also poet poets. Other poets turn up in his poems with extraordinary frequency, in two ways.
First, there are references to their work: there are poems imitating Rimbaud, Alan Wearne, John Forbes, John Tranter, and taking satiric digs at Les Murray, Robert Gray, A D Hope – ‘the last / Augustan poet claimed alive’ – and a number of translations from poets ancient and modern. I probably miss most of the allusions, but I spotted lines from Kenneth Slessor, James McAuley, Martin Johnston, and a number of 20th century US poets.
And then there are poets as enemies, or more frequently as members of the community he belongs to:
Anna & Ken's blue V.W. crawls up the opposite hill
off for milk___cottage pie ingredients
That’s Anna Couani and Ken Bolton. I was reminded of a moment in Ken Bolton’s essay ‘Some Memories of John Forbes’ in Homage to John Forbes (2003):
I remember driving, with Anna Couani at the wheel and Laurie in the passenger front seat. The blue Vee-dub, … the car loaded up. As we got to the Broadway end of Glebe Point Road … we spotted John’s familiar figure steaming along ahead away from us down the footpath. … Laurie leaned out the window and called Heeeeyyy, POET!
And a host of poets, mostly of the so-called ‘Generation of 68’, turn up by first name as the book progresses. The sense of a community of poets persists to the final poem ‘Ornithology’ which starts out as an elegy for poets Bob Harris, Martin Johnston and Jas Duke (misspelling the title of Martin’s ‘In Memoriam’, incidentally), becomes an extended soul-searching, and could now be read as a foreshadowing elegy for John Forbes.
I don’t want to give the impression that these are coterie poems or an exercise in navel-gazing. In general, there’s a seductive, self-deprecatory wit and, especially in the continuing Blue Hills sequence (recently gathered into a single book by Puncher & Wattman) and The Ash Range from the mid 1980s, a deep engagement with place.
In a 2010 interview with Fiona Scotney published in The Long Paddock, the online component of Southerly 71/3, Duggan said this about his poetic approach:
I like the idea of plonking something here and something there next to it and the result is something else.
‘Plonking’ is a way of describing bricolage – a kind of verbal scrapbooking, of which Duggan is a superb practitioner. ‘Clayton West 1’, the first poem in the book, includes this:
____________________my Grandmother's cup
clinks in its saucer, table ordered with
teapot, grapefruit, marmalade
STH VIET TROOPS FLEE LAOS
It’s just a newspaper headline at the breakfast table, but the result here is something else – what that something is, the poem leaves up to the reader to decide. I could give a hundred examples.
‘Plonking’ also happens in Duggan’s translations, especially of the epigrams of Martial, of which there are 50 here. If you compare them to a literal translation, again and again you see something from ancient Rome plonked down next to something from 20th Century Australia, to delightful effect. Take Epigram VII xx,
Cum facias versus nulla non luce ducenos,
Vare, nihil recitas. non sapis, atque sapis.
Though you write two hundred verses every day, Varus, you recite nothing in public. You are unwise, and yet you are wise.
And in Duggan’s ‘translation’:
Dransfield, who wrote
__200 poems each day,
was wiser than his editor
__who printed them.
This was my introduction to Martial, and I find it hard to imagine a better one.
As a reintroduction to Laurie Duggan, the book is pretty good too. Oh, inspired by a page of anagrams of contemporary Australian poets (to stick with Michael Dransfield: ‘Dead man chills fire’), I offer one of my own: I laud a grunge.