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Guest Review: Brinton On Duggan

Ian Brinton reviews
by Laurie Duggan

In an 1851 lecture on ‘Walking’ Thoreau suggested that he had met with ‘but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of walking…who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering’. Thoreau considers two derivations of the verb to saunter: there are those who ask for charity under the pretence of going to ‘la Sainte Terre’, the Holy Landers, and there are those without land or a home, sans terre, ‘no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea’. Laurie Duggan’s latest collection of 29 ‘Allotment’ poems possesses that marvellous quality of sauntering which allows the poet and the reader to recognise the small details which accumulate to provide a whole picture.

In the opening poem, sitting in his local pub, Duggan’s range of meditative reflection moves him from Ken Bolton to Paul Blackburn, Australia to New American Poetry, whilst his eye roves around:

                                                                        the hops
            dangle, as hops do
                                                from the dark wood
            (not the ‘dark wood’)
                                                            the light gone by four
            a gent reads the Daily Telegraph
                                                                        (‘the darkness
            surrounds us’)

This is not Dante confronting his mid-life crisis in ‘silva oscura’ but a wry glance at locality. The range of literary reference throughout this little sequence of poems is enormous as the poet weaves from Charles Olson to Donald Allen, Rimbaud to Camus, Susan Howe to Philip Whalen and from Robert Frost to the sly brevity of ‘Allotment 9’ with its glance at Keats and Eliot:

            the small gnats
have ceased to wail;

dogwood’s leaves lost
red branches bared

If at first glance this handsomely produced little volume, with its cover by Basil King, gives off the breath of the whimsical then a closer look at how language works as a medium of contact and loss soon asserts itself as I find myself drawn back again and again to the compassionate tone which informs the tightness of the verse:

                                    Allotment 21

            slight airs on sea,
short waves,

the sound of talk from 1979
through rumble and tape hiss,

a conversation almost,
of import once,

distant voices consigned
to the unintelligible

Although the opening words here initially suggest the outside (a seascape) the pun on ‘airs’ takes us forward to the musical references of ‘rumble’ and ‘hiss’, themselves bound down to reference to a tape-recording of voices which have now long gone. The ‘short waves’ bind together not only the initial seascape but also a reference to the radio, itself a temporary conveyance of human interaction, whilst at the same moment nodding at the familiarity of a valedictory hand-sign: not one that lasts long!  A conversation from thirty-two years ago, ‘almost’, had an importance ‘once’ before being consigned to the unintelligible as waves themselves melt back into the ocean and one is left merely with Matthew Arnold’s ‘breath/Of the night-wind’.

The sharp edge of this saunterer’s gaze wonders how many people will turn up for a poetry reading in the William IVth pub in Shoreditch and notes ‘Cameron’s Britain’ in ‘dark shapes beyond double-glazing’:

            an imaginary space
            where imagination is redundant

In the chapter ‘Where I lived, and what I lived for’ in Walden, Thoreau rejoices in the moment:

Morning brings back the heroic ages. I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame.

The imposing seriousness of the nineteenth-century Transcendentalist is, in one sense, a world away from Laurie Duggan’s allotment. However, in another way, they share a similar eye and ear:

                                                            a man in a shapeless coat
enters and exits
a spectre
                                    with vivid carry-bag

ghosted photographs

                                                I was/wasn’t here

the v-necked staff, maybe
didn’t notice
                                    I can’t
position myself in history
so easily.

As Emerson put it in Nature (1836) ‘We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands.’ Like any allotment Laurie Duggan’s book is a delight to return to time and again.

Ian Brinton is reviews editor for Tears In The Fence; a poetry critic and scholar.  He reviews regularly for Eyewear.

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