Lucy Dougan, The Guardians (Giramondo Poets 2015)
When I started blogging about my reading more than 10 years ago, I had a vague idea at the back of my mind that I would do it as an amateur. I could be subjective, ill-informed, cantankerous, idiosyncratic, sometimes enthusiastic, occasionally splenetic, but never claiming any kind of authority.
In that spirit, let me say I found The Guardians almost completely uninteresting. I approached poem after poem with hope, and time after time was disappointed. I thought I’d find one poem I really liked and just blog about that, but no such poem arrived. I re-read the book, thinking perhaps it had been a matter of poor timing. Same thing.
In the current Sydney Review of Books Ivor Indyk editorialises about ‘difficult’ poetry. He attributes the perception of difficulty to a failure to recognise that poetry needs a ‘different method of reading’ from prose:
You should feel easy with the prospect of reading a poem many times, in the process of weighing its implications, in contrast to the largely single and forward-directed reading you give to a novel.
Paradoxically, I find The Guardians difficult because a ‘single and forward-directed reading’ of many of the poems seems to be more than enough, while others read to me as disparate jottings on a theme.
Maybe the problem is that the poems are so pared down, so restrained, that I lack the imagination to feel their substance or emotional impulse. Understatement taken to the point of inaudibility. A series of poems narrates an experience of breast cancer (‘The Guardians’, ‘Right Through Me’, ‘The Deer’, ‘Driving to the First’, ‘Eve’, ‘Here’, and ‘The Hammock’), a big subject if ever there was one, but they hardly touch the sides.
I did read one poem to the Art Student, who professes to hate poetry, and she loved it. The poem was ‘A Renovation (Girl’s Work)’:
It would be tedious for me to say what I dislike about it. Enough to say that the Art Student, perhaps of an age with Lucy Dougan’s mother, resonated with the final section, was touched by the praise of imperfection, and loved the lines:
for think of a time
when only this labour
covered the body.
I can’t quarrel with her about any of it.
If I have one comment on the book that’s verifiably about the poetry rather than me as its reader, it’s to do with the sense of place. A recurring theme is place as containing personal and ancestral history. Yet, place is so abstract in these poems that – apart from those poems where places, all but one of them European, are named –it’s not clear even what continent we are on. The first poem, ‘A Mask’, with its mention of ‘dimpled louvres’ and ‘a room beneath the house’, suggests Australian architecture, but then gives us a child’s imagining of rooms beneath rooms beneath rooms, each with an ancestral identity – that is to say, a child’s imagining that her family has been in this land from time immemorial. Fair enough that a child might imagine that, but neither this poem nor any of the others about revisiting childhood locations and memories acknowledges the key element of non-Indigenous Australian experience: that our forebears come from elsewhere. (I’m assuming here that these childhood memory poems do refer to Australian places – mostly on the basis of what little I know of the poet’s biography, but also from the mention of wallabies in one poem.)
Maybe that’s what was nagging at me as I tried and failed to relate. On a third reading, I was no longer just unengaged, but positively dismayed, by the lines in ‘A Bourne’ in which the speaker, visiting Chudalup (the one non-European place to be named), feels a patch of rock, ‘warm to its core’:
A whole unschooled knowledge of place streamed in
and the liquid vision of boatmen,
was mine in constellations.
Just in this moment the way the planet turned
moved through the axis of my bones
I’m writing this the day after going to a demo in Sydney about the closure of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia. With the speakers’ eloquent assertion of Aboriginal connection to the land fresh in my mind, this poem’s claim to ‘knowledge of place’, even if ‘unschooled’, and even though based in an experience once can sympathise with, reads as a Eurocentric denial of Indigenous knowledge and history.
I received a complimentary copy of The Guardians from Giramondo Publishing.
This is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Ha! This is how I feel about most poetry. Although I must admit I had a sneaking agreement with ‘the art student’ about the poem you quote – ‘pointless work snatched from small hands’ is very evocative. I do agree wholeheartedly with you about the poet having an ‘unschooled knowledge of place’, but it raises the issue of whether we (as white people) are ever allowed to identify with the land at all. Now that I’m getting to know one small patch of land intimately, it is seeping into me. However, I would never dare to presume the sort of knowledge that the Indigenous people would have had – for a start, I don’t know how this land could support me.
I think that’s why I gave the whole poem, Kathy. I could see what the AS liked, so I wanted to give people evidence to weigh against my own response. I like the idea of the land seeping into you. In this book, my problem may be that the place never feels like a particular small patch, but an abstraction even when it’s apparently a specific spot.
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