Laurie Duggan’s The Collected Blue Hills Puncher & Wattmann 2012. Reviewed by Rebecca Kylie Law
When I first read Laurie Duggan’s The Collected Blue Hills, I thought what a marvellous marketing campaign, every poem a blue hill, sequentially numbered. It’s the panoramic view sales agents in Real Estate exploit in attracting interest, the painting that sells at a higher price for its scale, the maquette and the blown up sculpture. And indeed, this is the pattern Duggan followed in initiating the collection, the individual poems published singularly in various anthologies and in small clusters as separate books. What a joy it is, I thought, to view the whole mountain range at once, as you might in your travels, drive or walk that little further to see more, to live and breathe the view. Someone might just as well have handed me a small pocket book of Rembrandt’s paintings in the original for the luck at owning a view of the hills I could return to any time I liked. And the Renaissance was on my mind in my reading of the collection as it might be to each blue hill if a poem could possess such a capacity. I started reading Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, Johnson, Donne because the ‘blue’ of hills is actually a haze of oil from the leaves of trees meeting the atmosphere, the hotter the day the more pronounced the blue. Which is quite the opposite to oil paintings of the Renaissance but in hue and depth heads in this direction as knowledge of a past as a dark background to the present.
Duggan had a stroke as a child and subsequently his memory was impaired. So the past in all respects, for practical purposes, is a dark background to the blue hills individual presences which is irrefutable. Occupying each poem as the principal observer and narrator of all the poet sees and thinks by way of thought association, Duggan authenticates the reality of the experience. Reading Blue Hills 1 to 75 it is easy to lose a sense of time and place for the action and visuals of each ‘captured’ moment. Nature, culture, art appreciation and human interaction all vie for the singular attention no one wins out. Except the dwindling of the collection into vagaries of rain, hot skies, the scent of wet leaves and morning light suggest Duggan’s reverence for his subject matter. Even earlier, leaning back to see a ‘bright orange nasturtium flower in a milk bottle’ in Blue Hills 11, we see Duggan is serious in his rescue efforts with respect the ongoing difficulties between nature and culture.
In his introduction, Duggan presents the poems as poems which don’t ‘make promises’ and they don’t in the way a traditional narrative poem might in the expectations inherent in its sequential patterning. The poems are assemblages of the found objects experienced by the mind and body and are random in this respect, Duggan moving about in the poems at his whim both in the bulk of his form and in his thoughts, his gaze settling on something that reminds him of something else (again, memory and never great clarity here, the ‘..grey haired art historian type/ who looks like a suave version of Bertrand Russell/ – maybe it’s Bernard Smith?’). He tells us the material for the poems is entirely Australian apart from commentaries on art and music viewed or listened to elsewhere. So that, as a collection, the poems have some sense of a ‘locale’; and they do, for example in Blue Hills 35, dairy farms, canals and McDonald’s all occupy the one space of the poem finishing in the ‘home paddock’.
In “Blue Hills 18”, the ‘shape of a mountain becomes a mountain’ and things are true to their form. Language is not complicated or convoluted but Duggan’s artistic tool used for the purposes of communicating a visual observation, thought or moment in time appealing for its correlation or conversation with other notations. Reading a single poem in The Collected Blue Hills is an intimate experience as Duggan single-handedly paints his world in his part of the universe in one particular moment in time so exactly you are in the space with him, in the room looking out a window or walking beside him in the street. And at the same time, it is the exact opposite of this as Duggan can amuse himself so well your presence as a reader is unimportant, though I sense, welcome , in the sometimes underspoken tones of his speech.
There are moments in reading this collection when I can’t help wondering how Duggan gets around, the distance he can travel in one poem and the slowness of this travel to facilitate such accurate observations seeming to suggest he is in a vehicle of some sorts…a car, driving slowly? In Blue Hills 19 I don’t know if he is ‘the man in a hire car’ the ‘hippy couple’ are “reluctant to wave/ to..” or the motorcyclist on the bike that groans ‘across the dip behind tin huts’. I know in Blue Hills 17 he is on a train and at other times he is walking, that there are roads, streets, ‘lanes I will never trace/ of sheoak and flowering gum’, ‘paths…crackling with twigs’ and the notion of vehicles in poetry is interesting in terms of writing about contemporary culture. In a car, on a train or motorbike, Duggan hasn’t lost poetry, he simply found he can see more and put more seemingly incongruent information into a single poem.
The poems I like most, however, are the quieter, meditative hills: Blue Hills 59 and 60 for instance, where Duggan absents himself and we see a picture of a city, a room or even a world subservient to nature. Then in Blue Hills 53 the two together in one harmonious picture, technology and nature almost the beautiful and picturesque.
In The Collected Blue Hills a poem is a view, a sound, a feeling, a perspective, a commentary or a meditation. Or all these things at once. The seven previous productions that lead to this compilation of hills lend the work a vigour that any sustained piece of writing in the one panoramic space would find a challenge. The mountain range rises and falls, meets the mist, thunder and lightning with the strength you would expect nature to possess. And coupled with the world of art, culture, music and poetry of Laurie Duggan, the blue hills are pronounced vast and definitive.
– Rebecca Kylie Law
Rebecca Kylie Law is a Sydney based poet, essayist and reviewer. Published by Picaro Press, her poetry collections include Offset, Lilies and Stars and The Arrow & The Lyre.She was short-listed for the Judith Wright Prize in 2012 and holds a Masters Degree in Poetry from Melbourne University.
The Collected Blue Hills is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/the-collected-blue-hills/
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This is a terrific review with a different perspective on Laurie Duggan. I’ve been reading this book on and off for a couple of months now, however this review made me reach for ‘The Collected Blue Hills’ and read it once more. I’m looking forward to more reviews by Rebecca Kylie Law.