Poetry as Needlework: Simon Patton Reviews Lucy Dougan’s ‘The Guardians’

Lucy Dougan’s The Guardians Giramondo Press, 2015. 

GuardiansThe Guardians is Lucy Dougan’s seventh book and in it there are a surprising number of poems featuring the motif of sewing. It comes to the fore in “Sewing the Dog”, a tender presentation of a boy’s interest in needle and thread, while another poem, “Bump and Grind”, mentions “the rose buds / of which the sewing on / gave me so many small wounds”. In “A Renovation (Girl’s Work)”, the speaker declares that she will devote herself to mending things, for “there is something so / beautiful about the flawed work / human hands can do”. Significantly, the same poem also quotes the artist Louise Bourgeois in an epigraph: “I’ve always had a fascination with the needle. . . . The magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair the damage.”

Dougan’s evident delight in needlework seems to influence her own conception of poetry as a kind of stitching together of two dimensions: an event or life situation (sometimes, but not all ways, damaging) on the one hand, and some reflection on the broader meaning. Although not all her poems are written this way, many of the ones that appealed to me made use of this approach.

A simple example of this procedure is provided by “At Villa Bruno”:

At Villa Bruno
the presiding nymph
has black texta circles
around all her bits.
She watches us
with her nipples, her navel,
as we trail on opposite sides
of the long garden bed,
swapping names:
my bay for your lauro,
your arancia for my orange,
until our paths meet.
We fall into the spaciousness
of another century.
We might have trailing skirts, masks.
I take the crushed leaves, the proffered fruit,
and feel the blind nymph’s
cool bemusement
as we step outside all drawn rings.
Nothing before
has tasted so close
to its wild estate.

In this gently exultant poem, a kind of geometry of correspondences is sketched out to make sense of the bare facts of what happened. Firstly, the “black texta circles” of the opening become much more meaningful in the conclusion when they are echoed in the phrase “as we step outside all drawn rings”, a reference to the charmed circle of conventional behaviour that the speaker is inspired by her feelings to transgress. Secondly, as the speaker and her friend walk on opposite sides of the garden, they swap names in English and Italian for the trees they see there, an act that involves a simple linguistic stitching together. With the line “until our paths meet”, the central moment of the poem is literally sewn up, and the two people come together to exchange gifts in a manner that hints at a strongly intimate bond.

Apart from the skilful embroidering of correspondences, Dougan employs another device to heighten the significance of her work: tension between opposites. In “At Villa Bruno”, there is an understated tautness throughout the poem between the conspicuous, civilized splendour of the setting with its classical sculpture and formal gardens, and private, passionate feelings. Dougan is also often able to encapsulate such tensions in a single word or phrase: in this case, “wild estate” merges with impressive inventiveness the “wild state” of untamed human nature with the “country estate” in which urbane values predominate. We see the same thing in “Guillemots”, where the word “clutches” refers to both the menacing “seeker of eggs” as well as the set of eggs in their own right.

This thoughtful organization of the text is the prime means by which Dougan adds significance to the low-key incidents described in the poem and brings out their deeper meaning. In contrast, the rhythms of the poem are strictly controlled in the use of short line-lengths, and the diction throughout is insistently plain. The only real source of verbal excitement is provided by the use of Italian words and by the occasional abrupt switch of register: once in the form of the crudely colloquial “all her bits”, and a second time with the elevated “proffered”, a word-choice which effectively complements the shift back in time to a presumably more formal age of “trailing skirts”. On the whole, the voice of the poem is quiet but exact, considered and contained rather than unguarded and expansive

Dougan’s sewing dynamic often involves the creation of a key image or symbol that is at once concrete and emblematic. Such images serve as a bridge between Dougan’s two dimensions. “Nettle Soup”, for example, makes use of such a bridging sign in its presentation of the theme of discord between a parent and her child:

And then I think
I will just take off
because I am sick of your merde.
What gives me the idea?
You’re running with a bad crowd,
who think the word juvie
has a cute ring to it
but at least they are stylish.
You bring home Vogue Uomo
and there’s my escape
in a spread of pages:
nettle soup in big white bowls
with the sting cooked out.
I rewrite my life
in grass-green drizzle round the rim
as the hedgerows beckon.
The other ingredients
are not so hard on the hands.
A big skirt and a lupine-looking man,
an art-directed caravan
with Tom-Tom on tap
so that when the soup gets thin
(and believe me, it will)
we can find our way
to the next stinging patch.

Just as the sting of the nettles can be removed by cooking, the speaker of the poem imagines that the irritation of her family situation can be eased by a flight into fantasy — in this case a fantasy of a Romantic pseudo-gypsy lifestyle where “hedgerows beckon”. This withdrawal from reality, complete here with “lupine-looking man” and “an art directed caravan”, allows her to rewrite her life and so find temporary relief from her problem. The poem carefully prepares for the appearance of the emblem; there is no unnatural forcing of it into the poem. What is more, it conveniently lends itself to the elaboration of a series of other images and phrases in the manner of an extended metaphor: relief is implied by “with the sting cooked out”; the artful drizzle of soup on the rim of the bowl links up with the idea of re-writing one’s life-story; and “the soup gets thin” neatly conveys the idea that the irritating problem is bound to return. In other words, most of the key moments of the situation are “sewn up” with the text’s central image.

In the final lines, the speaker is forced to acknowledge that her nettle-soup daydream will not make her frustration go away. Dougan is generally very attentive to the formulation of her conclusions, and in this poem, the lines “we can find our way / to the next stinging patch” add one final element to the overall meaning, presenting the bitter, double-edged realization that the desire to escape into the dream-reality represented by the bowl of nettle soup is as sure to return as the trouble is.

Readers particularly interested in the push and shove of family relations will enjoy other poems in this vein, including “The Patch”, “The Ties My Sister Makes”, and “Guillemots”. Elsewhere, this approach, reminiscent of the to-ing and fro-ing of a sewing needle in action, lends itself to the deft contemplation of more intellectual topics. For me, “Tate Modern” is one of the most memorable poems in The Guardians:

Bourgeois’ Maman
her spider mother
crouches diabolically over London
you can walk right in to the gallery
through the sinister entrance
of her legs
it’s that game all children play
making the miniature monstrous
inside you can line up
and buy handkerchiefs
bearing the legend
I’ve been to hell
and back
and I can tell you
it was wonderful
all that satin stitch
would be hard on a nose
with a cold I thought
and then of coffee long ago
with an arts bureaucrat
sod the exhibition
let’s cut to the merch
merch here, I discover,
is a kind of love talk
and I am requisitely seduced
by two pink magnets
art is a guarantee of sanity claims one,
the other commands be calm
then joke with the man in the line
behind me who wants to buy
be calm too
that we got spat out of the exhibition
at a video spool of the artist
dismantling her studio
in rock-god style
he holds the magnet up
to the glossy indifference
of the Thames
like I need this
he laughs
do you?

Again, the organization is of great importance here. Art — at least as it is exemplified by an influential contemporary gallery — is largely reduced to horror and ugliness (Bourgeois’ spooky spider sculpture, handkerchiefs embroidered with a message from hell, mindless studio destruction) in the exhibits and to the avid consumption of trite, ruthlessly marketed “merch”, a term alphabetically so close to Dougan’s merde in “Nettle Soup”. As the speaker negotiates her way through the Tate, she is at the same time surreptitiously threading a course between these two despairing notions in search of what her own art could mean. She seems to find an answer of sorts in a kitsch pink magnet proclaiming art to be a kind of safeguard of sanity. Although she is “requisitely” seduced — the formal register of the word signals that her acquiescence is not mindless — and although the form of the object is designed to demean the meaning of the message it conveys — she manages to write a poem that achieves a less deranged point of view. Acknowledging some of the conspicuous problems that plague art, as well as the atmosphere of indifference that pervades a profit-obsessed society, is at least a step towards a basic level of sanity.

Lucy Dougan - Photograph University of Western Australian

Lucy Dougan – Photograph University of Western Australian

Guardianship serves as the umbrella concept for this book, and some of Dougan’s reflections on it are touched on in these three examples. We see it perhaps primarily in the relationship between parents and their children, as well as in the interrelationship of generations. For instance, Dougan writes in her opening poem “The Mask” of “each of her mother’s mothers / stretching right back”, while in “Old Sarum” she writes of her childhood self looking forward to becoming a grandmother with a wallet lined “with the concertinaed faces of grandchildren”. Elsewhere, in “Fritz”, the young girl who speaks the poem recalls an incident which brought out in her a precocious maternity, and in another poem she has a brief vision of a river of heredity: “the dazzling way in which / the lights halo now on the river, / the dazzling way in which / genes that stretch right back / perpetuate . . .” (“Tower Bridge to Greenwich, 24.01.11). Dougan is oddly haunted by the idea of inherited traits and the sweep of human continuity, and feels spooked by this inheritance: “foolish to think / that your stubborn body / with its genetic hand-me-downs / is not implicated, / is not the haunted house” (“Poem on All Souls’ Day”). This heightened generational awareness has both positive and negative sides to it: it is certainly a factor in human solidarity, but it can also undermine individuality, reducing us largely to a set of inherited traits. It seems to me to be one of Dougan’s most original contributions to Australian poetry.

Secondly, Dougan explores the notion of guardianship with regard to the wild. As we have seen in the poem on Villa Bruno, wilderness can also be a quality that belongs to human beings, especially in terms of their bodies and physical desires. A childhood memory — the release of some pet mice — serves as the impetus for “The Mice”. When the speaker returns to the scene of this incident as an adult, she finds a man sitting “just at the edge / of where it used to be wild” and this loss of some link with nature brings with it a palpable sense of artificiality: “from the poshed-up frontage / there was something wrong / with the man / he seemed to be doing an imitation / of a man sitting in the sun”. A pair of foxes glimpsed from a window in Westbourne Grove impresses the speaker with “candour”; at the same time, she is reminded of the less remarkable wildness of “those unknown other lives” happening in the flats across the road (“The Foxes”). If we fail to protect this wild quality, we lose something fundamental to our make-up.

Finally, as the title poem makes clear, the idea also takes us into the territory of “guardian angels” and their role as a source of consolation in the encounter with serious pain and death:

I could not bear the empyrean capped,
not after living so long under the ground.

You were away
when I found the lump.
You came back with a wooden duck
and a black toy dog.
In the thick of it
the duck would come to live
with the small plastic shepherd
and the stone our daughter found out in the river —
its shape sat safe in my hands.
The piggy bank was another gift.
My friend said put a coin in it a day
and smash it when you need to buy the dress
for your daughter’s wedding.
But the dog — the dog was quite something.
Being stuffed, it said nothing.
In a dream it sat quietly by our own living dog
and she looked at me straight out of her old eyes and said
Go on — it’s OK to pick it up.

I’m not sure what to make of this. The opening underworldly lines about not being able to bear “the empyrean capped” seem mythological in tone, but the texture of the rest of the poem is resolutely mundane. The unengaging description of an incongruous set of objects — wooden duck, toy dog, piggy bank — may indicate an overwhelming yearning for privacy; the focus on such objects also suggests an unusually intense state of mind, an intensity perhaps triggered by anxieties about her health. To me, the poem reads like an attempt to commemorate a very strange and extremely crucial experience, but both the privacy and the particularity of the experience have resisted any attempts to sew any broader pattern of sense in to it. Privacy itself constitutes another important part of the notion of guardianship in this book and, in an age of advanced technologies of surveillance and data collection, it too is another aspect of our lives that needs to be looked after. Writing privately, however, brings with it some technical challenges: personal references and memories can work to exclude the reader, especially in the case of poems explicitly dedicated and or addressed to family members and friends. They can also seem trivial when the significance they so obviously hold for the poet is not matched by any pressure or vitality of the phrase-making: “Now your feet have outgrown / these kitten heels, / sensible purchase from a stalwart aunt, / so I wore them all next winter / in another hemisphere [ . . . ] / They are good for gardening, / dashes to the shops . . .” (“Julia, Reading”).

T. S. Eliot’s well-known theory of the objective correlative — “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” — may be an influence here. Eliot’s idea may help to explain several conspicuous features of Dougan’s poetry. First of all, there is the general staidness of the language. It seems that verbal excitement of any kind is equated with an undesirable emotionalism and so is suppressed in favour of an objective “formula”. This restraint is clearly present in the poetry’s presentation of objects, often characterized by a fairly banal use of adjectives:

“her mother had dragged out an old brown trunk”

(“The Mask”)
.

“I laugh and say nothing / as he hands me the little green slip”

(“The Forge”)
.

“Small white flowers dot the lawn / and the gravestones, leaning / willy-nilly like bad old teeth, / stretch beyond you”

(“Julia, Reading”)

.
“I was getting to know the cramped proportions / of old lives in this little eyrie”

(“London, Misbooked”)

.
“Their gaze was not territorial / or neutral but simply there / as the grass was there, the trees / were there, and the old summer furniture”

(“The Foxes”)

.
“Too soon it would be time to move on / and sit on the wheel humps / inside the old red postie’s van”

(“Fritz”)

.
“The dog ran in there. / It had been a mistake / to take his old trail. / He had picked up the scent / and bolted; / down the loved path, / through the painted green door / and the black and white tiled hall.”

(“The Old House”)

.

This subordination of detail to design has the advantage of focusing the reader’s attention on what the back-cover blurb calls “cumulative effects”, but at the same time results in a lack of intensity, since the images are often generic and anonymous rather than keenly perceived and registered. This in turn ultimately weakens the overall appeal of the work, even when the design is strong. Unity, or what Jane Hirshfield calls “a glittering, multifaceted expression of interconnectedness”, is for this reason not achieved.¹

Pre-eminence of design together with documentary diction may also explain the weakness of the openings of many of the poems. There are exceptions here and there — “Belly down on the graveyard lawn” makes for a memorable start to “Julia, Reading” — but frequently Dougan’s beginnings are workaday, to be read through quickly so that the links of central chain of events can be put in place. Titles too tend to function as simple short-hand labels without any true poetic function of their own, forgetting that they too can be whole poems in miniature.

Of course, any book of poems will also contain things do not conform to the established techniques and explicit concerns of the bulk of its contents. Poems such as “Wayside”, “A Bourne”, “Dearest” and “From the Queensway” operate in other, sometimes more lyrical, modes. In my view, a very interesting moment is provided by “Atavism II”:

That boy lazing
in the truth
of his tattoos
(deep inside himself
deep inside the way light
from the sheet of water
talks to the ceiling)
and in the change-room
small shoes
side by side
with the larger pair
that walked here
with them.

Bodies tiled in placed:
a man mid-dive,
a woman alert to a child,
each attitude repeating
an anonymous civic grace
old as mosaics
we have uncovered.

I don’t think there is anything else in The Guardians like the first part of this poem. It has a powerful suggestive quality, a quality supported by the freshness of some of the phrasing (“lazing / in the truth / of his tattoos”; “the way light / from the sheets of water / talks to the ceiling”; “side by side / with the larger pair / that walked here”), as well as the wonderful power of “change-room”. There is also greater “musicality” in the lines, with the repetition of vowel sounds in the pairs “truth/tattoo” and “water/talks”, as well as the occurrence of off-rhymes such as “light/sheet” and “pair/here”. The images seemed charged with meaning, but it is difficult to narrow that meaning down to a single simple idea. In his Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain writes of the “humble revelation”, “a particular flash of reality bursting forth in its unforgettable individuality, but infinite in its meaning and echoing capacity”.² I feel that Dougan achieves this here: the details are realized with precision and distinctness and at the same time they are imbued with a paradoxical resonance that gets the reader thinking.

In contrast, the second part of the poem resorts to her more familiar stitching and depends mainly on the ingenious linking of images and ideas, especially through the verb “tiled in” which at once evokes a crowd of bodies gathered around a public swimming pool, and prepares the way for the reference to the old “mosaics” of ancient cities. Again though, the details possess no real individuality or immediacy, and I can’t help feeling that the abstract theme of atavism tends to overpower them: to me a dive is not really suggestive of a civic grace, even though it may be graceful as an athletic gesture.

Importantly, this poem hints at two different orders of poetry: infinite echoing capacity in the first stanza, and a conscientious embroidery of events with an externally-derived significance in the second. I prefer the first type: it doesn’t reduce the specifics of the poem to a secondary position, nor does it pin the meaning too insistently onto one clearly defined idea. The two dimensions are fused in a way that seems seamless. What’s more, readers are left with more scope to savour the possibilities of the poems for themselves, in their own unguarded ways.

.
¹ Jane Hirschfield: Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry: 8.
² Jacques Maritain: Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry: 115.

 – Simon Patton

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Simon Patton translates Chinese literature. He lives with his partner, two cats and Sealyham the Terrier near Chinaman Creek in Central Victoria. Three of his Hong Kong poems appeared in Australian Poetry Journal 5.1 and another four are about to come out in the “Long Distance” issue of Contrappasso.

The Guardians is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/poetry/the-guardians/

Lucy Dougan’s previous collection, On the Circumvesuviana, has previously been reviewed on Rochford Street Review:  Searching for the Past: Robbie Coburn reviews On the Circumvesuviana by Lucy Dougan

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