The Picturesque, The Haze and Other Thoughts: Rebecca Kylie Law reviews ‘The Collected Blue Hills’ by Laurie Duggan

Laurie Duggan’s The Collected Blue Hills Puncher & Wattmann 2012. Reviewed by Rebecca Kylie Law

the_collected_blue_hills_310_438_sWhen 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


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Fragments and the Whole: Mark Roberts reviews ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ by Laurie Duggan

The Pursuit of Happiness by Laurie Duggan. Shearsman Books (UK) 2012.

dugganLaurie 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. 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 ( 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
– drycleaners of distinction – “

Angles (4)

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”

Angles (7)

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


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

Issue 2: January – February 2012 Contents.

Rochford Street Press

Scattered Jewels: Mark Roberts Reviews Allotments by Laurie Duggan

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’

‘Allotment #2’

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:

front doors

of The Sun

closed to the street, renovators

still at work

The ‘Allotment #10 begins:

The Sun half-full of builders

ceilings repainted

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.