Essay: Ali Jane Smithon Laurie Duggan

The Way Home: Laurie Duggan

Ali Jane Smith is a recipient of a 2016 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the first of three essays by Smith on Australian poetry that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, James Halford and Ben Brooker.

Graveney Marsh is the site of the last battle with an invading force on mainland Great Britain. From the air, Graveney Marsh appears as an empty expanse of green, and because of this, pilots in trouble often put their planes down in the marsh. In 1940, during the second world war, a German aircrew made an emergency landing. From a pub in nearby Seasalter, a group of British soldiers saw the plane land. The German aircrew did their best to blow up their plane. The British soldiers did their best to stop them – the plane was new technology to their side – and gunfire was exchanged. Two of the air crew were slightly injured, noone was killed. The plane was preserved, the aircrew captured. The British soldiers and their German prisoners then retired to the pub and had a pint together.

Graveney Marsh is also the name of Australian poet Laurie Duggan’s blog. When Duggan started blogging in 2008, he explained that his office was close to Graveney Marsh, wetlands near Faversham in Kent, England. That Duggan chose a place name for his blog is consistent with his longstanding interest in the minute and contingent interactions between people and place. His poetic has much in common with the branch of knowledge known as human geography, the study of the ways that our species interacts with its environment. ‘Localities’ is a word that Duggan uses in interviews and his own commentary on his work, carefully separating his ongoing interest in place from nation. Aside from the fact that it’s the story of a battle – I’d venture Duggan’s not interested in derring-do – the mix of terrain, contradictory human behaviour and a pub in this fragment of history make Graveney Marsh the ideal name for Laurie Duggan’s blog, however near or far his office.

In 1987, Laurie Duggan published his fifth book, a long poem called The Ash Range. Duggan is consistently contradictory, and The Ash Range was both a continuation and a departure from his previous work. It took up the subject and something of the strategy of his first book, East (1976), a sustained poem set in Gippsland, Victoria that mixed documentary material like newspaper stories, advertising copy and signage with lines and phrases of his own composition. After East came Under the Weather (1978), with its initial attractants of counterculture references and Australian place names – Armidale, Bembooka, Coffs Harbour, Dapto – plus spare, intense description mashed up with bits of art and literature,

ink blots on a transparent sheet
- japanese travellers down a mountainside
bridges & bamboo groves
                                        banks of the Richmond, Lismore
Lesley & I pass the bowling club,
pack back across town
at the Nimbin terminus

                iron bridge on the Richmond
                a pool of watery tea

After Under the Weather came Adventures in Paradise (1982), loaded up with satires and parodies that were, as Duggan has said, to some extent written to show those critics who had dismissed Under the Weather as slight or incoherent that he had the chops to fiddle around with form if he felt like it. His next book was The Great Divide (1985), a book that included the first group of Blue Hills poems. He kept writing Blue Hills poems for twenty years, using fragments to build up a picture, as in these lines from one of the earlier poems, ‘Blue Hills 11’,

the head bounces up & down
full of words. Buy shortbread biscuits.

Collect magazine from newsagents.
Phone sickness excuse to the library.

A bag full of funny gas
gathers itself on the pavement.

The Blue Hills series appeared in several books and was eventually published as a discrete collection in 2012. They revelled in the textual freedoms that Duggan had made use of in Under the Weather, leveraging both intense visual description and the pleasures of collage. Reading the Blue Hills poems is like having a wonderful penpal who doesn’t bother with gossip, just tells you what he can see out the window, what it reminds him of (which may be tangential) and perhaps a tight-packed joke you almost miss, as in ‘Blue Hills 35,’

At Poowong, dairy farms
overlook a flat land of chicken roosts;
the foothills between carry the full force of wind,
its onrush from Western Port up Heath Hill.

On the surveys, blue hatch of marshland
gives way to brown grids,
                                                                   names alter
from Drain Rd. No. 4 to McDonald's Track;
canals …

Though maps fail to register a prevalence
round here, of trams balanced on blocks

The ampersand and the indented line are not used so much in the later numbers of the Blue Hills series, but there’s still the subtle oddity of semi-colons placed at the end of lines and the documentary-style use of abbreviations like Rd. and No. 4. The Collected Blue Hills was knowledgeably and appreciatively reviewed by David McCooey in Australian Book Review, and Martin Duwell has made a careful analysis of Duggan’s long running Blue Hills project in the Sydney Review of Books. These poems work with localities in that imagistic free verse style – Duwell called it ‘post-Poundian’ that has been a reliable feature of Duggan’s work.

The Ash Range is something else again, a long poem, made up, at Duggan’s own reckoning, of about ten per cent original material, and ninety per cent edited text from other sources; journals, letters, memoirs, histories, anthropological studies, oral histories, local papers, tourist bumpf, alongside black and white reproductions of photographs, maps and paintings. The book is divided thematically into twelve parts. Though chronology is not strictly maintained, there is an overall arc from a geological and mythological, even astronomical past, in the first section ‘Stars’, then the colonial era through to the Modern period, and up until the time Duggan was working on the book.

Sometimes, the material is arranged like a poem, with line breaks. There’s also text that appears on the page as slabs of prose, selections that move in and out of italics, letters with addresses intact, a list of exports presented as it might be in a ledger or ship’s manifest. But what use did a poet like Laurie Duggan have for this history? For old surveyor’s reports and maps of mining leases and accounts of bushfires? In his own journals, Duggan would observe that,

Henry Lawson was a good prose writer, but I can’t see how he, ‘Banjo’ Patterson and the rest of these poets can be resuscitated, ever. I would much rather read the diaries of the 19th century colonists than the poems.

Duggan makes poetry from those diaries and other archival material, looking hard at apparent irrelevancies that tell the reader more than foregrounded events, the inconsistencies in the colonial narrative of an empty land felled, grazed and mined into prosperity. In The Ash Range, Duggan shows that writing about place in Australia can’t be innocent. He closes his first section, ‘Stars’, with these lines,

                                             And a message
passed from tribe to tribe
that the sky's props were rotten,
and unless men were sent
                        to cut new poles
the sky would cave in and kill everybody.

The image of calamity is apt for Gippsland’s Aboriginal people, but lest we allow this idea of the sky falling in to prop up the myth of Aboriginal people ‘dying out’, later sections are peppered with reminders of frontier violence.

Within sight of the hut the boy
noticed the white man signalling them off.
The old man took no notice.
The boy heard a gun fire:
saw the old man fall.
He dropped his fish
and ran to tell the tribe.

Duggan has written that The Ash Range came out of the feeling that, even after writing East, he wasn’t done with Gippsland, a place he knew from holidays with his grandparents in childhood. He found the approach he needed when he read a description of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project,

a work entirely [made] out of the writings of others. Unlike an anthology this work would present itself as a cohesive argument where the assembled passages would complicate and develop lines of thought through their placement.

Duggan uses those strategies of assemblage and placement to strong effect. In one startling section of the book, Duggan runs text written by Angus McMillan, a key figure in the colonisation of Gippsland, in columns down the page. In his introduction to a new 2005 edition of The Ash Range, he explains:

Dealing with the figure of Angus McMillan, I adopted a different strategy. Rather than attempt to cut a single track through the McMillan legends as rehearsed by local historians, I thought it would be more interesting to allow the ‘explorer’ to speak for, or rather, against himself. I was able to find four different accounts of his journey and I edited each of these down and arranged them in columns so the discrepancies would be clearly apparent.

When placed side by side, McMillan’s diaries, written at different times, for different reasons, and different audiences, take apart the picture of the heroic explorer, motivated by the desire for discovery, and make explicit the economic imperatives behind such an expedition. They scrape off the gloss of hardship to reveal difficulties created by lack of knowledge and inadequate preparation, reveal the presence of the Aboriginal people working for him, helping him to find his way, and they hint at frontier violence.

Thinking about this, I went to my bookshelf and took down Bruce Pascoe’s Convincing Ground, published in 2007, twenty years after The Ash Range. It’s a book about Australian history, culture and society that offers Australians a release from the ignorance that has been fostered by passing over or wildly contorting the evidence available in archives and archaeology. I looked up Angus McMillan in the index, and turned to page 159 to read Pascoe’s description of the formation of a militia known as the Highland Brigade, reported to have massacred sixty people (though one witness put it at 150), including children. Pascoe writes that this militia was formed by Angus McMillan and his friend and employer, the pastoralist Lachlan Macalister, purportedly as a means of seeking justice following the spearing of Macalister’s nephew.

The Ash Range isn’t written from an Aboriginal perspective. The poem includes the handful of men like Lachlan Macalister that took up land, it includes miners, selectors, business people, workers employed and unemployed. But when a poet like Duggan writes about place, with his ability to frame moments of irony and inconsistency, an ability that he often uses in the service of jokes, alongside his decision to let the colonists speak for themselves, the rapidly spreading cracks in national myths show up.

In 2006, almost thirty years and ten books after the publication of The Ash Range, Laurie Duggan moved to England, so that his partner could take up a job at the University of Kent. Duggan’s book of short poems, Allotments, was published in 2014. The poems are numbered: Allotment #1 through to Allotment #100. There’s a clear comparison to be made with Duggan’s other numbered series, the Blue Hills poems, though the numbering of the Allotment poems includes a hashtag. Whether this is a nod to social media, an accounting reference or the sheer pleasure of typography, I can’t tell. When I first read about the book, the use of the word ‘allotment’ sparked joy in me, like the pleasure you feel when you add a piece to a jigsaw puzzle. The title fits so well, with its associations of conflict over land based on class difference rather than the process of colonisation, and simultaneously with a bounded and cultivated sense of security. In these poems, Duggan assembles a series of brief descriptive lines into a piece of human geography. Sitting in a pub he listens, and hears himself eating crisps, a monosyllabic conversation between a man with an Irish accent and his son, and women singing in the back bar. This is England,

                                         not, I imagine

like the bar in Rome Ken went to

and there are hops hanging from rafters, ‘dark wood’ that is distinguished from ‘the dark wood’, woodland. Just as there are different kinds of wood, there are different kinds of darkness. It gets dark early, ‘the light gone by four’, a ‘gent’ reads The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that readers of Duggan will recognise as the antithesis of his political position. Bracketed and in quotes is the phrase ‘the darkness surrounds us’ – whether or not this is an actual quote from The Daily Telegraph, it describes the paranoia of the Telegraph reader, and simultaneously, Duggan’s reaction to the presence of the Telegraph reader in the pub. In the last lines, Duggan tells us that there is a door through to a French delicatessen, ‘bolted probably for decades’. But the claustrophobia doesn’t last. Duggan’s favourite pub, The Sun is a recurrent setting in Allotments, often serving as a frame for what’s going on inside or outside, a place that is restorative and enjoyable despite the renovations it is undergoing. These poems are gentle, even at times, personal, though not confessional. The poet’s claims are modest,

(I myself am a bracket,
a footnote
                           but this is as it should be

the smudge of a glass
set down on paper

this this this

but he is secure in asserting his vision. When I read Allotments that first time I felt a small sensation of shock. The narrator of the events in these poems sounded happy, and at home. Duggan’s work was often funny, but tended toward irony and absurdity rather than contentment. I read more closely, trying to work out what it was that suggested happiness. Predictably, it’s in the little things, conjunctions, an ‘although’, or a ‘but’, that tempers complaint, a sense of anonymous kinship, rather than alienation,

someone else writes in this room, or types
on a notebook
                                              a poem
a report (or both)
a man with a black hat and cloak enters
(also with a folder)
                                               so the room has now three (3)
readers, writers, reporters

It’s not all beer and skittles. Frustration, irritation and anger are not absent from the poems, and irony is still there, as Michael Farrell pointed out when he reviewed the book, describing the ‘negative allusion to the nightingale’ in Allotment #43, a poem of just two lines,

birdsong in the dark:
ruddock, not nightingale

but the poet who has the confidence to write two lines and leave it at that also experiences delight, in another two line poem ‘Allotment #48’,

a goldfinch in
the herb garden

It’s almost thirty years since The Ash Range was first published. Things change, politically and personally, in thirty years. Are the places that Duggan describes in Allotments inflected with a happiness that comes from biographical circumstance? It’s not my intention to make a biographical reading of the poems. The poet’s real life is none of my business. But reading Allotments, I thought about The Ash Range, and the way that place in Australia is still, thirty years on from that book, a subject that uncovers trauma. Localities are the common factor in the long documentary piece The Ash Range, the fragmented, occasional, imagistic Blue Hills series, and the gentler poems in Allotments. For a poet who has worked with localities for more than forty years, is the difference, at least in part, to be found in his relationship with the place he writes.

The SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowships are supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.


Works Cited

Laurie Duggan, Under the Weather, Glebe: Wild & Woolley, 1978.
– Adventures in Paradise, Darlington: Magic Sam/Experimental Art Foundation, 1982.
– The Great Divide, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1985.
– The Ash Range, Sydney: Picador, 1987.
– ‘Introduction,’ The Ash Range, Bristol: Shearsman Books 2005.
– ‘Amaze Your Friends!’ ka mate ka ora, A New Zealand journal of poetry and poetics. Issue 2, July 2006., Last accessed 2 October 2016.
– The Collected Blue Hills, Glebe: Puncher & Wattman, 2012.
– Allotments, Bristol: Shearsman Books 2014.
Martin Duwell, ‘Post-Poundian Places’ Sydney Review of Books, 16 April 2013,
Michael Farrell, ‘Questions of concept in Australian Poetry’, The Australian, 31 January 2015.
‘The Battle of Graveney Marsh 27 September 1940,’ London Irish Rifles Association website,, Last accessed 2 October 2016.
David McCooey. ‘Intense poetic moments of insight and evocation: David McCooey reviews Laurie Duggan’s The Collected Blue Hills in Australian Book Review June 2013.’ Puncher and Wattman website. Last accessed 2 October 2016.
Bruce Pascoe, Convincing Ground: Learning to fall in love with your country, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007.