A WHOLE NEW WAY TO A
THE ASH RANGE by Laurie Duggan
248pp, £12.95, Shearsman Books, 58
Velwell Road, Exeter EX4 4LD.
FROM NOW TO THEN by W.D.
292pp, £9.99, Menard Press, 8 The Oaks,
Woodside Avenue, London N12 8AR.
Laurie Duggan is one of Australia's foremost poets. He has published eleven books of
poetry, among them the epic documentary poem, The Ash Range, first published in 1987 in Australia where it won
the Victorian Premier's Award.
Out of print for some time, it is good to welcome a re-publication
readily available to UK readers. Shearsman have published it in tandem with a
Selected Poems, entitled Compared to What.
What The Ash Range offers is an elegiac three-dimensional portrait
of an area of south eastern Australia, the region of Victoria called Gippsland.
The work is epic, not just in scale nor simply in being divided into twelve
parts, but in the sense that at heart it constitutes a search for roots, a
journey home. That said however, and despite the fact that Duggan's forbears
come from Gippsland, it is in no way a 'family' poem, what Geoffrey Hill once
disparagingly called a 'home-movie'. The hero of the poem is Gippsland
itself, which Duggan has described elsewhere as 'a larger than life place.'
This larger-than-life quality is attained by means of collage, a judicious
artistic manipulating of extracts from diaries, journals, newspapers, which
cumulatively recreate, as it were, the collective unconscious of the place.
The effect is kaleidoscopic and haunting - haunting in the sense that ghosts
as firsthand witnesses are let loose to make play with your imagination, to
describe the shape of the land as it was first seen by explorers and
settlers, to document the trials and tribulations of colonising,
'civilising', digging for gold, living through storms, floods, bush-fires.
The poem makes its way, with one or two skips in time, chronologically, from
the second half of the eighteenth century and Captain Cook to a point not
long after Duggan's birth in 1949. We experience Gippsland as something
growing almost organically, as cumulative history, a kind of reverse
archaeology. Whatever the research procedures of Duggan's 'map and history
project' may have been, the achieved poem is not a digging-down but a piling
up, its effect is voice-over filmic (the poet has written scripts and taught
media courses). Despite its deliberate exclusion of the solipsistic, it is
still a Romantic poem in that it stunningly evokes the spirit of place with
an implied nostalgia, and explores the question who am I in terms of the
history I have emerged from. And that is part of its universality, how, in
words from the back cover, it 'transcends locality'.
What is at work in this poem is what Coleridge called 'the shaping spirit',
the assemblage of various parts into a new whole. And, still accepting
Duggan's artistic integrity implicitly, I, for one, would be fascinated to
know more of the processes (in some lesser writers the charge of
arbitrariness can be levelled) by which the poem was achieved. The Modernist
technique of collage has, of course, long been familiar from the paintings of
Picasso and Braque and from the writings of Eliot, Pound and Joyce, and yet
one would love to know more of what Duggan is saying in his notes:
I have not hesitated to meddle with
texts: editing then down,
grammar, restructuring sentences, in the interests
but I have not attempted to pervert the authors'
far as I could perceive them.
In other words, the decisions behind particular pieces that shaped the raw
material into poetic lines, behind particular line-breaks and indents, the
'visual and aural' shapes he mentions in his Introduction; why a great deal
of prose retains its original form; why different fonts are used and
sometimes italics? But this is the poet in me talking, not so much the
critic. What the reader is
required to do is let the poem concentrate, as Eliot said of The
Waste Land, into an intense impression.
There is no doubting The Ash Range's ability to do this. It is an important work - and not just of
If The Ash Range is
an ambitious work, what can we say for W.D. Jackson's work-in-progress, of
which From Now to Then is the
second instalment in a three volume sequence already amounting to over four
hundred pages on 'the subject of history and individual freedom'? It already
looks like becoming a major work, one that ought to be confident of
attracting not just good reviews but prizes. When I reviewed the first volume
I stated that the 'book as a whole is a tour de force, an important debut as well as a promise of riches
to come.' Well, more of those riches, a mere three years later, have arrived.
From Now to Then is a stunning
work, in the context of which to use the phrase 'the shaping spirit' denotes
astonishing versatility, not just of imaginative range and profound erudition
lightly worn, but some of the most skilful verse-writing I have come across
in quite a while. Jackson is at ease with a whole gamut of verse forms,
styles and techniques (his skill in rhyming would take some beating) to the
point one feels he is able to be seriously playful and playfully serious as
and when he likes.
As with Duggan, there is an element of collage at work: translation (much of
it from the German, at least in the first volume) and quotation (from a wide
variety of sources) are an integral part, along with original poetry, of the
texture and structure. Both authors supply notes, which cast extra light on
what one has read and then goes back to read. The back cover of Jackson's
first book talks of a 'step by step creation of a Borgesian 'imaginary
identity' but, that said, one cannot help see autobiographical experience
braided into the overall fiction. I am minded of Anne Stevenson's lines: 'In
the event/the event is sacrificed/to a fiction of its having happened.'
Whatever personal material is present in the work it is fashioned, used,
imaginatively reprocessed to create something free-standing. One is made
intimately aware of a troubled marriage, a beautiful affair gone wrong, the
'exile' feel of living and working in a German city, anxieties felt returning
home (Jackson was born in Liverpool but lives in Munich) to broken memories.
The purpose behind all this sorrowful questing is to confront and come to
terms with these things, to 'learn/To let life be by letting it go.'
Without in any way being difficult or pretentious, Jackson manages to be a
deeply philosophical poet, involving himself in the perplexities of time and
'the process of uncovering and/or attempting to understand the nature
of 'freedom and unfreedom.' He too transcends the solipsistic and he too is
a deeply Romantic poet underneath it all. I can't wait for volume three.
Matt Simpson 2005