Laurie Duggan, ‘Collected Blue Hills’ in The Australian

Artists sketched in verse

Geoff Page reviews ‘Collected Blue Hills’ in The Australian 2013


As Duggan points out in a short introduction, the Blue Hills poems were written from 1980 to 2006 and published intermittently as an ongoing series in his successive collections. Duggan also admits having begun them by “jot(ting) down various pieces that were not at all constrained by imagined criticisms”. On the back cover, however, the poet is quoted as seeing these jotted poems as being “at the heart … of (my) poetic work”. Strangely enough, both these statements are true.

The poems do, for the most part, have a strongly diaristic quality, as if the poet were making notes for a poem rather than writing the poem. They can also seem like sketches for a painting he’d create if he had the talent for paint that he does with words.

Certainly, most of Duggan’s work (barring his translations from Martial and a number of parodies) do have a strong feeling for the visual – and for the transient.

The poems are serious but make no great claims for themselves. That is an important part of their charm.

All 75 of them are set in Australia and, since Melbourne-born Duggan has now lived in Britain since 2006, they must also comprise a sort of visual journal, a memento perhaps from his decades in Australia. Certainly they are Australian in many ways, not only in their use of characteristic place names and evocation of landscapes but also in the way the poems are so often laconic, minimal, refusing to big-note themselves. A few are defiantly slight but many go deeper than may appear at first.

A reasonably typical poem (and short enough to quote in full) is Blue Hills 52: “night lights / the 191 bus / down Vernon Terrace / half-lit books / in the hall / a rattle of venetians / as the change moves in”.

This seemingly minimal poem, almost certainly set in Brisbane (though there is a Vernon Terrace in Sydney), is characteristically rich with echoes of the American poet William Carlos Williams – and with the painters who, in turn, influenced him (Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth et al). The explicit number of the bus here contrasts nicely with the unspecified potential of the “half-lit books / in the hall”. The “venetians” have a nicely sardonic touch, typical of Duggan. Australian venetians are a long distance from anything the Venetians might recognise as venetian. As Australians, we don’t need to be told what they are. Similarly, we don’t need to be told that the “change” is from hot to cool rather than the other way around.

It’s a poem that, with a quiet confidence, relies on shared assumptions.

Those who read this book too fast may dismiss it as minor and self-absorbed. Taken at the right speed, however, The Collected Blue Hills has quite a bit to say (or, rather, imply) about the (undoubtedly mixed) blessings of living in contemporary Australia.

Geoff Page

Read the review in The Australian

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