Laurie Duggan, Homer Street (Giramondo Poets 2020)
Homer Street‘s back cover tells us that Laurie Duggan is ‘celebrated for his acute observations of everyday life and his minimalist style’. If you understand everyday life to include engagement with works of art and connections with other poets, that’s a pretty full description of the poems in this book. All it leaves out is the pleasure offered to the reader on every page.
Each of the book’s three sections is made up of short poems, one as short as three words counting the title. The first set of poems are based in England where the poet lived for many years, the second are back in Melbourne and then Sydney, where he now lives, and the third are poems in response to works of visual art and sculpture. They include verbal snapshots, haikus and haiku-like poems, puns, evocations of places and moments, poems that read like a visual artist’s notes for a painting – all of them, with one exception, remarkable for their brevity. (The exception is ‘Six notes for John Forbes’, almost expansive enough to be called a letter, affectionately addressed to Duggan’s poet friend, who died in 1998.)
Duggan has two long-running sequences of poems on the go, ‘Blue Hills’, named for the ABC radio serial that ran from 1949 to 1976, and ‘Allotments’, probably named for those individual vegetable patches in English towns. Both series, the Australian and the English, have been gathered into books: The Collected Blue Hills by Puncher & Wattmann in 2012, and Allotments by Fewer and Fewer Press in 2011. Those collections, it turns out, weren’t definitive: both series live on in Homer Street, ‘Allotments 101–125’ and ‘Blue Hills 76–110’. There is a third sequence of short poems, ‘Homer Street’ – named for the street in an inner western suburb of Sydney, presumably Duggan’s current address. And I guess the book’s third section, ‘Afterimages’, could be seen as a fourth sequence, though it doesn’t have the same strong sense of place(s) as the others
In writing about these poems I decided to take my cue from the blurb, and googled (actually duck-duck-goed) minimalism and poetry. What I found on a Pen and the Pad was to the point:
Minimalist poetry does not rely on story or narrative; it is as concise as possible and seeks to convey meaning while eliminating any unnecessary words. Minimalist poems do not seek to set scenes, introduce characters or provide descriptions of specific actions or events.
The site goes on to talk about typographic devices and other things that aren’t so relevant, and the examples that it gives make minimalism seem, if not dull, then certainly a bit clever-dicky highbrow and esoteric. By contrast, Duggan’s poetry generally has a genial, inclusive feel. Even when I had to look things up, it felt more of a pleasure than a chore. For example, here’s a complete poem:
Arcimboldo She's apples
Incomprehensible until you remember/discover that Arcimboldo is the 16th century Italian painter who did portraits made up of fruit and vegetables, this isn’t profound, but it’s fun, and companionable: reading it, you feel that you could have been with Duggan in a museum when he muttered this as an aside in front of a painting.
The book’s title – Homer Street – is itself a kind of minimalist poem. It could be every poet’s address, just down the road from where the playwrights live, on Shakespeare Avenue. And it reflects ironically on Duggan’s poetry: The Odyssey it’s not, though maybe, just maybe, ‘Blue Hills’ and ‘Allotments’ can be seen as developing an epic quality as they accumulate over the decades. Many drops to turn a mill.
Usually when I blog about poetry books I spend time on a single poem. Many of these poems relate to places near where I live. In fact, yesterday I drove the length of Homer Street and admired the view Duggan evokes. But I’ll choose elsewhere. The first poem in the book, ‘A Preface’, is not only a good example of a Duggan poem, it also reflects on the kind of poetry he writes.
I just love this. Perhaps unnecessarily, I’ll walk through my reading of it – though first I must mention how beautifully it sounds. There’s not a word or syllable out of place.
It’s certainly concise, and doesn’t waste any words giving context or explanation. Nine lines including the title. The first four lines, in two couplets, make a statement about American poetry; the next three lines quote an American on Duggan’s work; the last line is his response.
The title invites us to read the poem as an introduction to the book, an indication of what kind of poetry to expect.
The first line echoes the title of one of Walt Whitman’s best known poems. ‘Song of Myself’, Wikipedia tells us, ‘has been credited as “representing the core of Whitman’s poetic vision”.’ The opening couplet suggests that singing of oneself represents a core practice of ‘the Americans’, which in this context probably means specifically US poets, but perhaps something more general in US culture: the individual is paramount, and self-promotion is a necessary and pervasive virtue.
The beautiful double negative of the second couplet – ‘no sense / of insignificance’ – suggests a criticism. It’s one thing to be aware of one’s own significance. It’s quite another to have no sense of one’s own insignificance. This is wide open to interpretation. At least, that’s what I tell myself, but I can’t get past my own train of thought that it sets off: something in Australian culture, or at least the part of it where I live, tends to be self-effacing, self-mocking, self-deprecating. Last night on the TV news, for example, Mark Rapley, who had wrestled a great white shark to make it let go of his wife’s leg, made no claims to heroism: ‘When you see the mother of your child, and your support, everything that’s who you are, you just react.’ And there are hundreds of examples of firefighters who respond with similar ‘sense of insignificance’ when asked about heroic acts – not that their actions lack significance, but they deflect any attention to themselves. This quality could be called humility, or a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself. It’s not always a positive thing – the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is another aspect of the same thing. But it’s real, and ‘sense /of insignificance’ is a terrific way of describing it.
I read that second couplet as saying that, for good or ill, ‘the Americans’ lack a quality that, by implication, perhaps the speaker-poet possesses.
We then switch to the quote from ‘Basil’. I don’t suppose it matters who Basil is, beyond what we know and can deduce from the poem: he’s a man from Brooklyn, probably a poet, and his line ‘you’re not there’ is quoted as a response to what has just been said about US poets, presumably including him: We may go on about ourselves, but you’re not there in your poems at all.
And Duggan agrees. Or at least, the speaker of the poem does. It’s worth noticing the exact words. Not ‘I agree’, but the impersonal ‘he was right’. Right here in this poem, Basil’s description is accurate. And the same is true for almost everything in this book (‘Six notes for John Forbes’ is again an exception). Flipping through the pages, I see place after place where something is seen or heard, and the position or movement of the observer is to be deduced by a kind of triangulation. In ‘Allotment 110’ a track ‘marked / by broken branches / traverses Redhill Wood / to the pheasant farm’; ‘Blue Hills 77’ has ‘at night the clatter of freight trucks / on the Bankstown line’. Nowhere in the sequence ‘Homer Street’ are we told that the speaker/poet lives there. It’s like a person with camera: we see what the camera sees, and can tell where the photographer/cinematographer is, but never see the actual person.
‘A Preface’ holds up this quality as distinctively un-American, perhaps hinting that it’s distinctively Australian.
So who is ‘Basil’? In the age of Google and Duck Duck Go such questions can be answered. Searching Basil, poet, Brooklyn gave me Basil King (link is to his Wikipedia page), painter and poet, whose ongoing project Learning To Draw/A History, sounds eerily similar to Duggan’s long-term sequences, though King’s work, I gather, is telling his life story, very much songs of himself. An article by Laurie Duggan is cited on King’s Wikipedia page, and on King’s own website I discovered that King did the cover image for Duggan’s Allotments, which he reviewed, describing the poems beautifully:
Portable. Almost invisible. They reflect, replay, compress and then call a reader back to think again.(http://www.blog.basilking.net/new-laurie-duggan-chapbook-with-cover-by-baz-published/)
So Basil is a real person, a friend it would seem. The inclusion of the date clarifies that a real utterance is being remembered. ‘A Preface’ is, among other things, part of a friendship: two poets talking to each other about their work. If the line had gone, ‘said Basil King’, or even if there had been an explanatory note, the web-searching would have been marginally easier, but the tone of the poem would have changed: it would have become a learned allusion, or a bit of name-dropping, rather than a report on a conversation. And yet, for all that, Duggan isn’t there except as the recorder.
I first met Laurie Duggan’s poetry when I was a postgrad Eng Lit student at Sydney University in the early 1970s. His was an amiable, wry, self-deprecatory voice among the young poets who read to us in those heady days. I’ll spare you my own boomer recollections, but you might be interested to read Laurie’s, in his contribution to the webpage commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Martin Johnston, perhaps the most erudite of those young poets. Here’s a link to the webpage, and a link to Laurie’s contribution.
You might also be interested in my blog post about his New and Selected Poems 1971–1993 (at this link).
I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my complimentary copy of Homer Street.