The Pursuit of Happiness by Laurie Duggan. Shearsman Books (UK) 2012.
Laurie Duggan was one of the first Australian poets who captured my imagination when, as a seventeen year old, I came across ‘Marijuana Christmas’ in an issue of New Poetry. Forgetting for a minute how exciting the title ‘Marijuana Christmas’ was to a 17 year old, Duggan’s poem was expansive, both in subject matter and the way it spread across the page. It was also much longer than the poetry I was used to, spreading across 8 pages of New Poetry. But while it was long, it was also fragmentary, as Duggan took notices stuck to the wall of a post office, quotes from newspapers and friends, signs glimpsed from a train and worked them into the poem with some beautiful descriptive and lyrically rich poetry.
This fragmentary nature of Duggan’s writing has been has been commented on before and there are some obvious parallels to the visual arts – the use of collage and bricolage for example. For me, one of the keys to understanding this part of Duggan’s writing became apparent in an interview David McCooey conducted with him in 2003 (Double Dialogues Issue 5 2003. http://www.doubledialogues.com/archive/issue_five/duggan_mccooey.htm). In this interview Duggan talks about how a childhood illness, which resulted in a collapse at school, hospitalisation and substantial memory loss, impacted how he approached writing one of his early books, Adventures in Paradise (1982):
“One of the problems I have with my childhood—and this affects the way the poem gets going and its compositional process—is that I have very few real memories of it. I did, as Adventures suggests, have a stroke when I was sixteen, and I think I suffered a good deal of memory loss as a side-effect. So what the poem presents is really a disparate group of snapshots (often things I think are memory are memories of photographs viewed later rather than the actual events).
He then goes on to describe memory and autobiography as “ridiculous constructs, made out of all sorts of odd pieces of information”. While he might be talking about a specific book and process it is possible to see this early approach to writing reflected through much of his subsequent work. It is at its most obvious, perhaps in the powerful book length poetic narrative The Ash Range (1987) where he welds together fragments of historical documents with descriptions and analysis in both prose and poetry to create a powerful narrative of place (the Gippsland area of Victoria), both real and imagined.
I began reading The Pursuit of Happiness at the same time I came across the notion of ‘fragmentary literature’ through the US based on-line literary journal Qarrtsiluni (http://qarrtsiluni.com/about/). The journal was having a literary ‘Fragments’ themed issue and, through the guest editors, Olivia Dresher and Catherine Ednie, I discovered the ‘manifesto’ of the Fragmentary Literature movement in the shape of Olivia Dresher’s introduction to the anthology In Pieces An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing (Impassio Press 2006). In this she writes:
One quality of fragmentary writing is the lack of a traditional beginning or end. Instead, the two are merged into a brief and concentrated middle……. Fragments can stand alone, separate from one another; they are written (and can be read) in quick, illuminating bursts and can feel complete just as they are. There’s an energy within a fragment that gives the writer and reader a sense of freedom’
This notion of ‘fragmentary writing’ made me recall McCooey’s comments around Duggan’s use of bricolage in his Double Dialogues interview. Indeed in The Pursuit of Happiness we can see Duggan experimenting with fragments, both as stand alone extremely small poetic structures and also as components in much larger pieces.
Perhaps the most obvious use of the small fragmentary structures in the collection can be seen in the two Angles sequences, ‘Angles 1-18’ and Angles 19-32. Interesting the two sequences occur towards the beginning and the end of the collection, effectively providing bookends for the majority of the poems in the book.
The ‘Angles themselves range from simple ‘found poems’:
on Clapham High Street
– VOLTAIR –
– drycleaners of distinction – “
Which recall a much earlier fragments of found poetry such as:
In Herani, the Post Office
“Counter-cultural Americans are
just as mad as straight Americans” ”
‘Marijuana Christmas (1976)’
to almost haiku like sequences:
the door knob
cold to touch
frost on the western rooftops
ethereal blue plastic
on rows of vegetables”
On one level these short fragments almost seem to be pieces that Duggan couldn’t expand or place in a larger piece, but liked too much to discard. As Dresher says they can be read “in quick, illuminating bursts and can feel complete just as they are”. They may also be working however, on another level. The title ‘Angles’ perhaps provides a hint. Each fragment provides a different view, a different angle of looking at the poet’s surroundings – in the this case the different social and physical landscapes of England. While there are longer poems here that examine different aspects of Duggan’s experience of England (and indeed Europe), there is an immediacy to these shorter pieces which suggests perhaps an outsider attempting to come to terms with a new environment which, while familiar on may levels, still has many points of difference from the familiar Australian context.
This notion of the post-colonial returning to the colonial centre, the ‘empire writing back’ (to borrow a phrase from Bill Ashcroft and Helen Triffin), is an interesting way to approach Duggan’s recent English based writing. There is definitely something very ‘un-English’ about much of the work in The Pursuit of Happiness and his previous two collections, the chapbook Allotments (2011) and Crab & Winkle (2009). Duggan approaches the English landscape with a lightness and brightness which perhaps springs from his descriptions of the Australian landscape. In the same way that the early colonial painters painted the Australian landscape through an English/European perspective, Duggan brings to his observations of England a sensibility that has been shaped by a very Australian consciousness.
It is interesting to approach the longest poem on this collection, ‘The Nathan Papers’, with this understanding in mind. ‘The Nathan Papers’, we are told, is older than the other poems in the book, having been written during an eighteen month residency at Griffith University during 2005-2006. The poem begins centred firmly in a Australia described by an artist:
eucalyptus after rain, even this , trunks straight or sinuous,
reminds of Sydney Long, art has made this environment, its
pathways, marked, curve towards the dormitories”
It is a familiar landscape, populated with familiar people and places. Bus connections are described in detail and Duggan describes places once familiar to him which have now been lost:
the Green Iguana (Newtown)
the Prince Edward Hotel (Darlington)
Nicholas Ponder Bookseller (Double Bay)
But not Nicholas Ponder.
For someone not familiar with the Sydney literary scent of a certain period then perhaps some notes would have been appreciated at this point, but this naming of place is a technique that Duggan is continuing to employ in his more recent English writing.
Indeed the conclusion of this poem finds Duggan in England “in the dining hall, Eliot College, Kent”. ‘The Nathan Papers’ details an important journey for Duggan, from the familiar and comfortable to the new which, at the same time, is much older than the post-colonial Australia he has left behind. It is a journey that has been at the centre of his recent work and which he has further developed with skill in The Pursuit of Happiness. It has provided an extra dimension to Duggan’s work and one which I will be interested to see develop over the next few years.
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and is working on a collection of poetry.
The Pursuit of Happiness is available from http://www.shearsman.com/pages/books/catalog/2012/dugganPoH.html