The first of Laurie Duggan’s Blue Hills sequence was written, he tells us, in September 1980 and first appeared in his third book, The Great Divide, in 1985. By then there were fifteen others in the sequence. ‘Blue Hills 75’, the last, was written in March 2006, a few months before Duggan moved to England. The Collected Blue Hills, in other words, was composed over a quarter of a century: the same length of time as the interminable radio soap opera from which it derives its name or, to raise the aesthetic stakes, the same length of time it took Richard Wagner to write the Ring of the Nibelungen. Works composed over such a long period are usually marked by steady changes in style which match changes in its author’s notions of what he or she is doing, but the Blue Hills poems have always been done in several very different styles. If anything is consistent about them it is the impurity of their method.
As Duggan says in his introductory note, the Blue Hills poems are too ‘intermittent and occasional’ to be thought of as a single long poem and perhaps ‘the only generalization that could be made about it is that it all happens in Australia, though some of the things that happen involve looking at art and listening to music made elsewhere’. One can understand how what might have begun as lightly reworked jottings (the diary mode is one of Duggan’s ‘styles’) gradually, as much by their cumulative volume as anything else, become more significant to their author, each poem supported by all the others without claiming any kind of aesthetic unity. They perhaps belong to an unusual kind of breakthrough where poems retrospectively seem more important to an author than they did at the time of writing. The eventual number of them is one indicator that their author is pleased with what they amount to and what they can do, but another is the fact that, since moving to England seven years ago, Duggan has produced an equivalent number of poems in a similar mode. This sequence is called ‘Allotments’, a very English title to match the Australianness of ‘Blue Hills’. When they are published in book form, critics will want to do careful comparisons, but initial impressions of the latter sequence are that they are full of interiors, usually the interiors of English pubs.
The Blue Hills poems are so palpably about place that one needs to try to ‘place’ their author before going any farther. If the English language poetry of (almost exactly) the last one hundred years falls into two broad groups – the Non-Poundian and the Post-Poundian – then Duggan belongs to the latter. As an outsider to poetic debates, I might make the point here that each of these camps errs in seeing the other as a simple phenomenon, or a varied group of poetries sharing simply described assumptions. The way in which the poetries of the writers of the ‘generation of 1968’ were misunderstood is comical in retrospect, but it is no more comical than (say) the Language poets’ assumptions about the nature of ‘mainstream’ verse. The poetics of the Post-Poundian writers are immensely complex and often contradictory, but a lot of the history of American, English and Australian poetry is contained in teasing out the relationships between people like Pound, Williams, Zukofsky and Olson, and the poetic generations after them. Far from being a fixed ideology, it is a field in which experimentation continually takes place, the ultimate aim being to make poetry engage more fiercely with the reality of the world.
In Duggan’s case, this means precise detail, dealt with denotatively – ‘axe sounds from the fire trail’ (‘Blue Hills 4’), ‘North wind eddies on the Old Sale Rd.’ (‘Blue Hills 30’), ‘White heat haze on the far bank’ (‘Blue Hills 47’). But every poet has to work out the details of practice themselves and Duggan’s poetry shows a continuous process of experimentation, from the monumental bricolage of The Ash Range (1987) – where the aim seems to be, with only a few authorial additions, to allow an area of country (Gippsland) and its history to speak for themselves – to his translations of Martial and Soffici. As he said once in conversation, ‘I’m a minimalist with a lot of content. I don’t like to mess with things.’ The implication is that that observations of the natural world should not be fiddled with in the name of pleasing poetic shapes and juxtapositions.
As I have said, one would not want to give the impression that these poems are resolutely and exclusively chosiste in their method. They are much too interestingly ‘impure’ for that. For a start, this is not a poetry which declares war on the mind-which-processes in favour of the senses-which- register. A lot of mental activity appears in Duggan’s poetry. But the favoured mode is cultural analysis rather than, say, theology or psychoanalysis. Thus, for example, ‘Blue Hills 22’, about Bairnsdale:
As though local history were
an endless succession of ownerships,
boundaries drawn and redrawn,
fresh sugnatures, the families mapped
from highland chieftains to shire presidents,
the electrical goods salesman drinks
to Kenny Rogers in the back bar.
The country cannot come to terms
with its suburbanism; parks named
after a man who discovered nothing more
than property, as fires burn east
and wood falls: the process
of clear felling or the process of nature,
Kenny Rogers can sing about it.
The analytical element in these poems is far more restrained than in other Duggan modes. Sequences like ‘British Columbia Field Notes’ or ‘Ten Days’ from The Passenger (2006) are a much more overt form of poetic anthropology than the Blue Hills poems.
If cultural analysis is one way to present the things of the Australian world, so are the other arts: music and, more significantly, the visual arts – an area in which Duggan is demonstrably expert. ‘Blue Hills 8’ is a description of the Oriental collection at the Art Gallery of NSW and, though it begins with a reference to Sidney Nolan’s sequence of Ned Kelly paintings, it quickly moves on to ‘the Shohaku scroll cracked and ridged’. The poem is fascinated by the way a character in the scroll can be seen as looking out at a completely different painting ‘across a desert stretch of / hessian / & twenty years into the future’. At the same time, the observer overhears some girls on a school tour:
drawing painted faces of court ladies
‘mine looks very westernish’
The poem also registers Duggan’s own responses, memorably describing a Chinese guard in a way that undermines the conventional pose of aesthetic elevation in the presence of semi-sacred oriental art:
Gold coated bronze Ming temple guardian
gumboots poke out below armoured kilt
This poem is a long way from what the Blue Hills poems can be made to sound like when they decribe the details of the Australian landscape and rural towns. But the Art Gallery of NSW is just as much a part of Australia as the Great Dividing Range, and the experience of a curated exhibition of Oriental art is just as much an Australian experience as hitch-hiking to Wollongong (‘Blue Hills 6’) or watching an electrical storm over Moreton Bay (‘Blue Hills 54’). ‘Blue Hills 9’ is, on the surface, even more remote from Australia than its predecessor, since it describes an exhibition of French painting from 1760-1830 held in the same gallery in late 1980. It is basically a list of paintings with only a couple of references to the viewer’s experience, but the exhibition clearly sets out to trace the rise and fall of post-revolutionary France in pointed examples of its art (it ranges from Francois Watteau’s bucolic ‘Fete at Colisée’ to Odier’s ‘Russian Campaign’). It thus claims that art history is interpretable in terms of cultural history.
A final element in the Blue Hills poems that prevents them being consistent as visual images of Australia is the autobiographical one. Duggan’s second book, Under the Weather (1978), contains the poems (together with ‘Over the Divide’ and ‘New England Ode’ from The Great Divide) that the Blue Hills poems grow out of, and they have a high autobiographical component, being, in some cases, diary poems devoted to travels. This element of autobiography can be casual in the extreme – ‘Ken laughs // at a book by a woman who died / in 1973. Sal gets up // and moves around’ (‘Blue Hills 15’) – but passages like this at least sketch in a communal existence. Others record the state of the recording poet himself: ‘I doze in the heat through Burning Spear’s dub / in a house soon for sale’ (‘Blue Hills 43’).
There are two ways of looking at this and they influence the overall view we will have of The Collected Blue Hills. We could read the poems as the diary entries of someone with a cool and clear eye who records his travels through Australia, or we could read the poems as a portrait of Australia by someone who is keen not to commit the fallacy of assuming that the recording eye can be seen as neutral, unconnected to a personality. In a sense, this is a question of how we read the poems, rather than what they objectively are, or what the author is inclined to think they might be. The context provided by Duggan’s other work does not offer any solutions, since his poetry can range from diary to a work like The Ash Range. And one of Duggan’s great strengths – found in almost all of his styles – is an ability to allow a place to reveal itself in the odd juxtapositions and mutilations of its signs. Number 61 in the Blue Hills poems, for example, describes a hotel sign missing its final letter so that it says ‘NOVOTE’. This kind of revelation of place derives from a preternaturally alert eye rather than a ‘poetic’ self.
Are these poems Australian at a deeper level than that implied in Duggan’s comment that they are connected by their setting? Though blurbs usually represent criticism at its lowest ebb, a comment by Philip Salom on the back of The Collected Blue Hills is very telling: ‘I’m inclined to say his voice feels very Australian, and that said, I’m inclined to wonder if I can possible say that.’ It does not solve the question to say that the poetics derived from Pound is, at its deepest level, American and that it is still alien to an Australian sensibility, wonderful as the possibilities it has brought to how poetry deals with the real are – especially real places. After all, lyric poetry in English came after the importation of modes from Europe, especially Italy, and no one feels that English language lyric poetry is in some way corrupted. National modes of thinking in a language are more complex and inherently impure than that.
As I have said, Duggan’s field of modes is a substantial one. The Blue Hills poems, rather than belonging to one of these modes, might best be seen as being impure, in the sense that they incorporate different things that Duggan does (excluding translation). Read as an anthology rather than as a unified whole, they are an excellent way into his work for readers coming to this poetry for the first time. They have a rootedness in the country of their origin that Australians can respond to. While they make a point of not entering into a debate about what it means to represent Australia, avoiding accepted narratives and geographies (no Blue Hills poems are devoted to Uluru or Sovereign Hill), they do strike a blow in their own way for an understanding of Australia as a place both passed through and lived in. They might, unconsciously, be part of a larger project begun in the seventies by Ken Taylor – himself very much a Post-Poundian – to describe a Secret History of Australia.