Friday, August 26

An Australian poet reviewed. It makes a change.

Review by John Lucas

The Ash Range and Compared to What: Selected Poems 1971-2003 both by Laurie Duggan (both Shearsman Books, £11.95 & £12.95 respectively)

In "Spirit in Exile", his excellent study of Peter Porter’s poetry, Bruce Bennett reports Germaine Greer as having observed on an American TV channel that Australians, unlike Americans, don’t give “a shit” about their past. This has all the charm and accuracy you’d expect of the author of "Slipshod Sybils", in which Greer argues that most women poets are no good and, in order to prove her case, manages to avoid discussing any of Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Marianne Moore or Elizabeth Bishop. (On the other hand, given the level of her comments on those she does discuss we should probably be grateful for small mercies.) Although her contention scarcely avoids being ridiculous it may be worth setting her words against the American Charles Olson’s well-known claim that where other nations had history, America had Geography. I suspect that both Greer and Olson are in their different ways testifying to that distinctively modern sense (anxiety?) that the present is not merely ignorant of the past, but is rootless, isn’t bedded into the “soil” of its own culture, although this bothers Greer more than it does Olson.

Laurie Duggan’s concern with Australian history can’t be characterised as bother. But "The Ash Range" is about a place that in its time knew more than a spot of bother, and his claim is, I take it, to draw this to our attention by telling us what happened to those who settled the area of SW Victoria known as Gippsland (pronounced with a hard G). It’s a tale well worth telling, involving as it does shipwrecks (numerous), heroic journeys over inhospitable terrain, the hacking of settlements out of forest and scrub (after due lapse of years more than one reverted to its original state), the discovery of gold and then the fights – and murders – over land claims, plus drought, flood, and survival against the odds. To adapt the comment of the nineteenth-century English lady who witnessed the goings-on at Cleopatra’s court: very unlike the home life of our own dear people.

But of course they were our own. Whether settlers or deported convicts who’d worked their freedom, those people whose stories Duggan touches on for the most part originate from the UK. Aboriginals are largely absent. I don’t think this greatly matters: "The Ash Range" is, after all, a story of pioneers, and although this story involves the murders of people who had been in Australia for thousands of years before the white men arrived, (murders which are given their place in Duggan’s book) what happened at Gippsland doesn’t compare with the organised horror of what, at about the same time, was being done to the Tasmanian aboriginals. (Even if the melancholy explanation for this is that there weren’t so many aboriginals in the particular part of Australia that engages Duggan.) And for all the back-sliding, the brutality, the descents in lawlessness, I can understand why the story of the pioneers is one Australians are proud of, whether it is evoked in the numerous “can-do” tales that between them create a folk-epic of survival against all odds, or whether it is saluted through the affirmation of “mateship”, that laconic, even unspoken avowal of allegiance exemplified in Les Murray’s marvellous poem, “The Mitchells”. You have only to look at the photographs on the front cover and then frontispiece of "The Ash Range" to get some sense of the improbable achievement of those who, much later than the American settlers Scott Fitzgerald extols in one of the most famous of fictional sentences, came face to face with something commensurate to man’s capacity for wonder.

The difference is, of course, that those who stepped ashore from the Mayflower were, they believed, entering a chosen land. Most Europeans who found themselves in Australia had no choice in the matter. Even for those who went as free men went not so much to make a new life as in a last, desperate hope to retrieve the wreckage of their former lives. If you truly wanted to discover Utopia under the southern cross, New Zealand was your destination, whether you were Tom Arnold (for which see Clough’s great poem, "The Bothie of Tober na Vuolich"), or those who came to the land of W.H. Hudson’s The Crystal Age. Australia was more likely to feature as last-chance saloon. It is where the Micawbers and the Peggottys sail to at the end of "David Copperfield", (1850), at which moment Nottingham’s own William Howitt was setting off Down Under with his son, hoping to find gold and so fill a purse emptied by publishing and other ventures.

As was customary with him, Howitt failed to make his fortune, and before long he was back in England. The son, however, stayed on. Indeed, he features in "The Ash Range", though if you didn’t know who he was you’d have no means of discovering from Duggan’s book. And it’s here that I find myself not entirely in sympathy with what is undoubtedly an ambitious attempt to make a particular history come alive. In his Introduction, Duggan recalls that in 1973 he read about Walter Benjamin’s Project: “to realise an ambition to compose a work entirely out of the writings of others. Unlike an anthology this work would present itself as a cohesive argument where the assembled passages would complicate and develop lines of thought through their placement.” There is a contradiction here which I think Duggan doesn’t spot and which certainly can’t be resolved by his decision to add in “sections of my own composition (roughly 10% of the book) and [annotate] its sources.” Benjamin’s idea after all was to disrupt the notion of cohesiveness. As a Marxist, he thought there were major narratives but that these were discoverable only through the dialectic process of history itself: they couldn’t be imposed because such imposition would imply that whoever formulated the imposed, “cohesive argument” was somehow outside history.

Nevertheless, Marxist historians have to take responsibility for the voices they produce which between them challenge the “single line” narratives of liberal or conservative historians. They have, that is, to explain why and how they have chosen these voices. Duggan may think he is following Benjamin’s example but in fact "The Ash Range" is post-modernist in its arbitrary presentation of different voices: reports from newspapers, letters, speeches, journals etc. each of which is set out differently, so that each pages takes on a collagist aspect. Collagism, it’s true, is part of Modernism (it complicates and even confuses narrative and other perspectives) and is used deliberately in order to dismantle and disrupt. But this is in order to clear the way for a new look at the world. It’s overall effect is not negative. Nor can it be applied to historical narrative. A purportedly historical work that is merely collagist merely baffles. We are left with the disjecta membra of narratives, and for all Duggan’s appeal to “cohesive argument” and his apparent belief that his narrative interpolations can act as guidelines (and if they aren’t meant to do this then why are they there at all?), the fact is we don’t know how to put the parts together again. The book’s twelve chapters move in roughly chronological order but are often given organising themes that cut across chronology. The result is that we frequently don’t know why we are being given information here rather than there, now rather than then. (I don’t think it a coincidence that the maps on offer should be totally bloody useless.) This isn’t to deny that "The Ash Range" is full of fascinating material. But I can’t go along with the claim, made by a reviewer of "The Age", and quoted on the back cover, that “Such is Duggan’s skill in snipping and pasting that the whole thing reads like a rapturous experience, even when crime and disaster are its subject matter.” In my dictionary “rapturous” means “experiencing or manifesting ecstatic joy or delight.” If Duggan experienced this, then good luck to him. But my guess is that most readers, at all events those who have no immediate access to the ethos on which Duggan is able to call, will have to make do with a rather cooler response.

Such readers are however likely to feel much warmer towards the poems, though they will almost certainly make others hot under the collar. Duggan makes no bones about his own preferences: there are poems dedicated to or including appreciative comments on the Americans Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Ted Berigan, and, on this side of the Atlantic, Roy Fisher and Gael Turnbull. As to dislikes:

“This country is my mind”
just two minutes after
Les Murray became a republic
somebody cancelled my visa

Murray famously declared Australia a republic of sprawl, and for him the true Australia, from first to last, is to be found in the outback. Duggan is a city poet, sceptical, even contemptuous, of the Bard of Bunyah’s professed ruralism; anyone wanting to understand something of the Australian poetry wars – again, very unlike the home life of our own dear poets – will find much to entertain them in "Compared to What". Not that there is anything here to rival Porter’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod”, with its urbane suggestion that Australians “are Boeotians,/Hard as headlands”, and that though “The Age of Iron is here … oh the memories/of Gold – pioneers preaching to the stringy barks,/Boring the land to death with verses”, but then Porter’s is quite simply a great poem, as even Les Murray, the poet who is bound to feel most uncomfortable with it, is generous enough to accept.

Having said this, however, I must add that Duggan’s "Martial" can certainly stand comparison with Porter’s "After Martial", and in some ways outstrips his fellow countryman’s versions by going the whole hog and cutting free of the bonds that might be thought to constrain any translation no matter how loosely tied to the original. Duggan opts for “imitation”. His versions are determinedly contemporary, although they retain the kind of rasping, anti-rhetorical note which as Michael Grant notes in his study of Roman Literature sets Martial apart from other poets of his age. Porter, it should go without saying, is also able to sound this note, and he is moreover the master of witty concision, as here:

Lycoris darling, once I burned for you.
Today Glycera heats me like a stew.
She’s what you were then but are not now –
a change of name requires no change of vow. (VI. Xi)

Because Duggan doesn’t translate any of the Martial to be found in Porter, exact comparison between the two is impossible. But here, to give a taste of just how good Duggan is, and how well he’s caught one side of Martial, are a couple of examples of what he can do:

Borrowing a poet’s name O’Connor
you think yourself a poet;
a set of dentures
might call itself a smile. (I lxxii)

Dransfield who wrote
200 poems each day,
was wiser than his editor
who printed them.

For non-Australian readers I should perhaps explain that the O’Connor here excoriated is Mark O’Connor who produced what certain Australian poets of my acquaintance think must be among the top ten worst lines of all time: “severe and nookless in the midday sun.” (My own view is that this comes some way below the intendedly reverential obeisance to the Cross in Richard Eberhart’s opener: “Oh, Christ, I have walked around your erection”, but readers will no doubt wish to nominate their own favourite – Ed. please note). Dransfield is Michael Dransfield, who in 1973 died aged 25 from a heroin overdose. He was a poet whose image as the tearaway Rimbaud of New South Wales greatly exceeds his actual accomplishment. (Although the manner of his death inspired John Forbes’ great poem, “Speed, A Pastoral”.) Like other Australian poets who between them seem to have cornered the market in laconic insult, Duggan is a master of this kind of epigram. It goes with the determination to cut down all “tall poppies”, and, although by no means confined to the urban experience, is undoubtedly honed by what Porter calls “the permanently upright city where/Speech is nature and plants conceive in pots”.

But Duggan is by no means confined to or by Australian experience. Many pages of his Selected Poems are taken up with diary-like jottings of wanderings about America and Europe. He is a good deal more open to such experiences than the speaker of John Forbes’ scabrously funny “Europe: A Guide for Ken Searle” (“we pity the English though they get on/our wick, pretending to understand us//& Scotland is old-fashioned like a dowry/ but unusual, like nice police.”) In this context I especially recommend the prose of “West” and the loose free verse of “Irwell & Medlock or Darkness Visible”, though I wish Duggan hadn’t bothered to quote Stephen Spender’s ludicrous image of pylons as “nude giant girls”. (Perhaps he doesn’t realise how ghastly it is.) And as he records going to Liverpool to meet Matt Simpson he might have said more than that his host is “poet of these parts”, which is about as sharp as Longfellow who, gazing on Monte Casino after he’d crossed the Atlantic in order to see the place, called it a “venerable pile”. Was his journey really necessary? Simpson is not merely a very good poet, he has a follow-my-nose indifference to reputation that Duggan ought to admire. Still, there’s more in "Compared to What" to enjoy than there is to complain about, and while I tire of the almost obsessive preoccupation with other poets and their poems – there is a world elsewhere, honest – if you’re going to hand a Grigson-like billhook to anyone, you can be sure that Duggan will wield it pretty efficiently.

© John Lucas, 2005

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