Allotments By Laurie Duggan, Fewer and Fewer Press 2011.
I first came across Laurie Duggan when, as a teenager, I found a poem of his in an issue of New Poetry (Volume 25, Number 1, 1976) which I had bought at Abbey’s Bookshop in Sydney. Even among the explosion of talent that populated the pages of New Poetry in the mid to late seventies Duggan’s work seemed somehow unique. Many of his poems where much longer than what I was used to and they flowed/spilled across the page in unexpected, yet exciting ways. The poem in that edition of New Poetry, ‘Marijuana Christmas’ flowed over 8 pages and moved between many different styles and tones – there were sections that felt like stoned raves, other sections with a naturalistic intensity which then moved into an easy descriptive tone. The last two lines of the poem intrigued me:
above a shop, West Ryde:
At the time I was going to a high school near the train line next to West Ryde (Meadowbank Boys High School). I was fascinated by the ending of this poem, what did it mean? Why end long poem this way? A month or so later I was on a train going through West Ryde station and looked out the window at the shops on the Ryde side. Something caught my eye…above the awning of a shop there was a large sign ‘NO PIANOS’. Suddenly the entire poem made sense.
Over thirty years later I remembered my reaction to ‘Marijuana Christmas’ as I read through Duggan’s latest collection, Allotments, – a beautifully produced chapbook published by Fewer & Further Press, a small publisher based in the USA.. The poems in Allotments are, for the most part much shorter, but I couldn’t help but notice some points of similarity. Flicking through the collection I noticed that the poems almost seem to breathe. Some sit tight on the page, justified on the left, a straight line formed by the first letter of each line – turn the page and the next poem literally explodes across the page, words flying everywhere. Before the next poem begins to retreat back in a slightly tighter form.
There is also that attention to the unexpected detail of everyday life. At the end of ‘Allotment #1’ Duggan makes the observation that, at his local pub
an old door
leads through to a French delicatessen,
bolted, probably, for decades
This ending, while effective, does seem to recall the ‘NO PIANOS’ sign above the shop in West Ryde.
On one level this suggest one of the strengths of this little collection. While Duggan, for the most part, is no longer writing about Australia in this collection, there is still something very familiar about the tone and style of the poems. They represent England, or at least a street level view of England, as told through an Australian poetic consciousness. This is perhaps, in part, because the local pub plays a central role in these poems. The first ‘allotment’ is set “Live, at the local. the second “At the Norfolk Arms”. the fourth at “William iV, Shoreditch” and so on. But while pints are consumed, there is poetry, and food and the careful but witty observations which brings these poems to life:
The Spanish barman says
of he wine list I stare at
‘the most expensive is the best’
I remember instead the edict
on an album cover
(The Dictators Go Girl Crazy):
‘quanitity is quality’
While it is easy to read each ‘allotment’ as a stand alone poem, there are indeed threads running through this little collection. The different pubs is an obvious one, but there are others – ‘Allotment #8 refers to:
of The Sun
closed to the street, renovators
still at work
The ‘Allotment #10 begins:
The Sun half-full of builders
the back bar sheeted off with plastic
These touch-points link the poems together, hinting at a greater complexity tantalisingly just out of reach.
The best poems, however, stop you in your tracks and make you think by presenting things in a new way or creating an image which encapsulates a particular issue or situation. In Allotments such a moment for me occurred in ‘Allotment #17’. Duggan is not a overtly political poet, for the most part the poems in this collection capture the comings and going of everyday life and record memories that float to the surface. Then, at the end of ‘Allotment #17, Duggan suddenly and effortlessly sums up what he sees as the political reality of Conservative Britain:
Cameron’s Britain is
dark shapes beyond double-glazing
an imaginary space
where imagination is redundant
In the end it is these poetic jewels scattered throughout this beautifully produced little volume which once again proves Duggan’s status as one of the leading contemporary Australian poets. Allotments has been published in a very limited edition and you may need to hurry if you want to pick up a copy. For details contact Fewer and Fewer Press.
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.
Mark’s review of Laurie Duggan’s The Ash Range (Picador, 1987) can be found on the Printed Shadow’s website.