Laurie Duggan, ‘The Collected Blue Hills’ in Australian Book Review

Intense poetic moments of insight and evocation

David McCooey reviews Laurie Duggan's The Collected Blue Hills in Australian Book Review June 2013

In The Resistance to Poetry (2004), James Longenbach claims that ‘Distrust of poetry (its potential for inconsequence, its pretensions to consequence) is the stuff of poetry.’ The Australian poet Laurie Duggan has based a career on a creative distrust of poetry, or at least a certain kind of attitude to poets and poetry. Duggan is especially suspicious of the idea of the poet as inherently interesting. As he said in an interview in 2001, ‘I really don’t think I’m very interesting in any broader sense than my friends must feel. Partly there’s just the sheer amazement that a life – my life – can be written out like this.’

In The Collected Blue Hills, life is ‘written out’ by Duggan in ways that avoid large claims about the poet, while also avoiding inconsequentiality. In part this is done through showing how the particulars of ordinary life lend themselves to interpretation and transformation. ‘Blue Hills 18’ offers both of these in four lines: ‘Wattle yellow and candy pink: / colours of the 1950’s. // A green check dressing gown / waves goodbye to an EK Holden.’ Like haiku – but without the spurious japonaiserie of many of its anglophone practitioners – these lines employ minimalism and imagism to present intense moments of insight and evocation. But as this example shows, Duggan is far more attuned to the sociological (one might even say ‘the theoretical’) than is the case with most haiku practitioners.

Duggan’s long career has been notable for the way it has relied on a large repertoire of formal approaches for a surprisingly coherent ‘project’. These approaches range from documentary poetics (The Ash Range[1987]), parodies (such as ‘(Do) the Modernism’), satire and translation (seen together in The Epigrams of Martial [1989]), and anti-confessional autobiographical works (such as Memorials [1996]). Like all of those works, The Collected Blue Hills is an inherently additive work, using discrete parts to fashion a whole. That this whole seems so coherent is surprising, given its long, discontinuous composition across decades and individual collections of poetry. As Duggan’s introductory note explains, ‘Blue Hills’ is a ‘serial poem’ – jokingly named after the ABC radio program broadcast from 1949 to 1976 – that ‘ran for almost as long as its name-sake, much to my surprise’. (It was composed between 1980 and 2006.) Duggan writes that the only generalisation that could be made about his serial poem is that ‘it all happens in Australia, though some of the things that happen involve looking at art and listening to music made elsewhere’. But this downplays the work’s coherence, with its constituent poems being concerned with the relationship between experiences of place and representation, as the title might suggest.

However ‘Australian’ the work might seem – and Philip Salom is quoted on the back of the book noting that Duggan’s ‘voice feels very Australian’ – Duggan’s interest in art and music gives the attention to locality a ‘trans-national’ tenor. The numerous intertextual references – to Mozart, Turner, Blake, 1930s science fiction, Burning Spear, Wang Zhen, Mark Rothko, Michael Chapman, and so on – show that ‘Australia’ is as much an intersection of various and unpredictable transnational flows as a geographical entity.

A transnationalism of this kind is not, however, the same as a cosmopolitan sophistication, which tends towards a homogenising internationalism. The Collected Blue Hills avoids such cosmopolitanism through its concentrated attention to both particular places and unnamed liminal spaces, all of which are notably uncosmopolitan: ‘the home paddock’, ‘Layered mountains’, ‘the hump / of Mt Wills’, deserts, backroom bars, ‘distant farmhouses’, named highways and anonymous roads, and ‘bald hills and dirty farms’. Indeed, what is notable about this serial poem’s milieux is how they are realised through the mixing of numerous proper nouns and the anonymously general: ‘At Poowong, dairy farms / overlook a flat land of chicken roosts; / the foothills between carry the full force of wind, / its onrush from Western Port up Heath Hill’ (‘Blue Hills 35’).

Such a poetic is another form of resistance, this time a resistance to simplistic and spurious ideas of national ‘identity’. These Australian locales are at once sites of transnationalism, ordinary experience, personal memory, and the various competing discourses of cartography, geography, local history, and climatology. This is seen in ‘Blue Hills 52’, a poem (quoted here in full) that actively thematises the inconsequential:

night lights
        the 191 bus
down Vernon Terrace
        half-lit books
in the hall
       a rattle of venetians
as the change moves in.

This poem is ‘Australian’ inasmuch as a local reader will understand ‘the venetians’ and ‘the change’. But elucidating the poem in this way is embarrassingly clumsy. The ‘local reader’ (whatever part of the globe she or he might be on) understands such things in a pre-conceptual, intuitive way. And the poem in any case, dealing as it does with the local and the momentary, resists merely nationalist readings of it.

As ‘Blue Hills 52’ also illustrates, Duggan is a master of mood (‘atmosphere’ being a synonym for the weather). Like so many other poems in this collection, it is structured like an assemblage, adding disparate elements to form an effective whole. While not ‘found poems’ as such, the assemblage-like poems of The Collected Blue Hills routinely incorporate the ‘found’ elements of any given time and place. Often such a technique involves incorporating the found image with sensory data, as seen in ‘Blue Hills 7’ (also quoted in full):

        Waterloo Sunset (Ted Berrigan)
        the F6 below


                Yogi Bear smiling
                in a paddock

As a description of a place (Waterfall, the northern extremity of Sydney) or a highway (the F6) or experiences there (like reading or remembering a poem called ‘Waterloo Sunset’, not the Kinks song, as the parenthesis makes clear), this poem is impressively elliptical. Duggan’s attention to the visual and the sonic, as well as his use of montage, might suggest that he is an especially filmic poet, but such things in a poetic context engage a form of ambiguity that means these poems are more than just verbal descriptions of virtual short films. Presumably, the poet sees a church sign and a picture, or model, of Yogi Bear, within the context of Waterfall and/or the F6, but it is up to the reader to intuit this. A film would simply show the viewer these things in a series of related shots, but Duggan’s linguistic rendering of them places them in the strange no-place of the white page from which the reader must bring them into being as ‘images’.

The Collected Blue Hills, then, might evoke the inconsequential, but it never suffers from inconsequentiality itself. It is an exciting work to read, however undramatic it might appear. The Collected Blue Hills – in resisting the very materials of its existence – occupies a space that is neither merely ‘the everyday’ nor ‘the artwork’. In this sense, Duggan’s book, so obsessed with place, produces a virtual place of its own, one that is marked by strangeness and insight.

David McCooey

Read this review in The Australian Book Review

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