Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Launch talk for Laurie Duggan - The Collected Blue Hills (Puncher & Wattmann, 2012) at the Old Annandale Town Hall, Sydney.
Saturday 15.12.12

Around four years ago I was having a drink with Greg McLaren in the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba. Greg was editing a prospective collection of articles on Australian poetry for Puncher & Wattmann, a book that's yet to appear. I'd agreed to give him an interview I'd made with Laurie Duggan in 2008 for the book. So we chatted about Laurie and somehow the wonderful notion of collecting the entire series of Blue Hills poems entered our inventively-cocktailed brains ...

And so, via David Musgrave's eclectic press and the magic of print - poouf!! - here it is! Thirty six years' worth of Blue Hills! That's a decade more than the length of the 1950's ABC radio serial it's named after.

Laurie explains the origin and evolution of this series of poems in his brief preface, so I won't say any more on that. Though I will quote something he says about how he was writing at the end of the1970s - "I was still very much taken by Philip Whalen’s notion of the poem as ‘the graph of a mind moving’ and wanted to write more poems that would embody this ideal."

Laurie has, of course, written variously before, after, and during the Blue Hills decades - in seventeen books that comprise documentary form as well as stand-alone and sequential poems; including two 'Selected Poems' and a book of cultural history. So although I know that Laurie has periods of hiatus when he doesn't make his compulsive note-taking into a poetry manuscript, he is nevertheless prolific.

Let me recommend this new book -

The poems collected here have appeared in several of Laurie's books through the years of their production since 1980. The poems are definitive "Laurie-in-double-quotation-marks-Duggan". They are notational, minimal, impressionistic, witty, whimsical, very intelligent and are often directly 'located' in places he's visiting or walking past, recording peculiar or funny signs and notices and odd occurrences that might strike a circumspect traveller.

Each poem is numbered but not dated, so if you're looking for historical context, you can't look at poem Number such & such, check the date, and see that it encapsulates something of, say, the 1980s. You have to find the times of the poems through references -

For instance the first poem has -

    .....dragon shape clouds over the national capital
    Malcolm Fraser's feet stick out the end of a bed

The poet is flying from Canberra to Melbourne -

    thick forest around Brindabella
    eel-shaped reservoir & visible snow-caps
          & then white cloud
         continuous cricket pad

    warm bread roll
    apricot jam in foil rip-top package
    black coffee
       – avoid weird milk substance
       in thimble-shaped container

    hostesses in casual uniforms
    disappear into bombalaska
         a huge Mark Rothko painting
         whitens &
         turns into dumb Olitski

    then it clears outside Melbourne

So you get the idea - the direction is set - these are going to be realistic poems looking at the world as it is from wherever the poet is, via art references, metonymy and so on. And this one has to be 1980 - though there might be some young poetry enthusiasts who are unable to remember, even though he's still around, Malcolm Fraser. Wikipedia shall aid them. Twentieth century 'hostesses' have also morphed into the twenty-first century's androgynous 'flight attendant'. *

Here are a few of the signs you'll find recorded here:

    A crazed accountant sits at a desk in the park
    On the desk
         Erica 4 Brian

At the Illawarra cliffs before the Sea Cliff Bridge was built :


At Waterfall


Time spent looking at some of the 'greats' in C19th French painting Odier, Géricault, Corot is interrupted -


'Blue Hills 11' is set in Coalcliff, where, in the early 1980s Laurie visited friends, writers and publishers Sal Brereton and Ken Bolton. In the poem a description of the place is detailed and painterly : and in it there is also the ubiquitous, human 'I-was-here' marking inscribed on Australian coastal or bush landscape - graffiti painted onto a rock -

    "Vaguely curved
horizon, white caps (some of these turn out to be seagulls), breakers, surfers between the flags – one just fell off his board – and a dirty textured sand beach. Apple-green dustbin with two sharp ridges, a faint ridge and rounded lip – partly rusted; and behind this, Norfolk pines, a white railed path, slope of interconnected grass root systems, rock inscribed FOSSIL SUCKS, power lines hung down to two-toned green lavatory/changing shed (half obscured), and the rock ledge with rectangular swimming pool. In front of all this about 30-40 people move with varying degrees of grace towards and away from the water."

Laurie also records strange, everyday incongruities - things often seen from the windows of trains or walking along an urban street. Again at Waterfall -

    Yogi Bear smiling
    in a paddock

and elsewhere -

    approached by a crazy Christian
    offered a psychotic 1950s comicbook;

    speech balloon words
    of a popular song –
    incessant dental wash.

And evoking an Australian 1960s -

    A green check dressing-gown
    waves goodbye to an EK Holden.

Throughout the book familiar bush scenes are so precisely written that they become almost quintessential - for instance, in these few lines you know the particular sounds, the particular place -

    axe sounds from the fire trail
    & up there, a family

    chain saw through black wattle &
    red gum blocking the track.

Laurie makes some concise social commentary from Australia's bicentennial year (a.k.a 'Invasion Year', not that the poem refers to that) 1988 -

    an endless succession of ownerships,
     boundaries drawn and redrawn,
     fresh signatures, 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.

Laurie often wrily distances philosophical reflection -

    death, like a big romantic painting
    holds a pack of cards & says
    with a John Wayne accent:
                     ‘You play misère’

He documents the advent of sprawling developments in the 1990s with mild sarcasm -

     Scrub where the road spans a notch,
     a watercourse dropping to the valley floor,

     its strip development of petrol, beer and fast food.

The 1990's 'Blue Hills' are, in general, more exact, tighter than the earlier decades and are often located in Victorian country towns or parts of Melbourne like, say,Williamstown, and include further artful philosophising -

     When the mind angles off with bits of pop songs,
     failed connections, the way people are always
     somewhere else, there is nothing to do but go shopping,
     watch daylight shape and dissolve tree-trunks and rooftops;
     feel for the soles of your feet:
     their weight on the bathroom tiles.

In 1990 Laurie published his seventh collection of poems, Blue Notes, that included seven 'Blue Hills' poems. Then came a break in the series. The next new 'Blue Hills' poem was written later, in Petersham and in unnamed parts of Sydney - the city of continual demolition.

Then there is another break of around six or seven years until, at the beginning of the new millennium, 'Blue Hills' Number 45 surfaces. Laurie relocated from a Sydney Harbour view to a Brisbane River view, and the observational poems started up again. Over the next six years, as well as other poems, Laurie wrote thirty more of the 'Blue Hills' series. Perhaps the sub-tropical humidity and the beautiful-one-day-perfect-the-next atmosphere of Brisbane has a vivifying effect on poetry brain cells.

But to duck back to Tinsel Town for a moment. during this Brisbane period, Laurie reflected on Sydney in a poem in memory of his friend John Forbes -

     as though all this spectacle
     were some trompe l’oeil
     you had to step through
     to reach the mundane

The 'mundane' that Laurie writes into is rendered poetic through his quietly assiduous micro-focus. In Brisbane again -

     storm  hard and distant
     over Stradbroke and Moreton islands
     the little lights across the river
     damped, as if
     shut inside a grand piano

Later, there's a sardonic reflection on Australian alternative-y, craft market ephemera like hot-pokered kookaburra and wattle trays, hand-made soap and so on -

     Uphill from the rainforest
     craft turns in on itself:

     no local manufacture
     of things-in-currency, rather

     the mass-production
     of quaintness,

     rag dolls, soap and straw,
     old suitcases, poker-work boxes.

     Buildings at this altitude
     allude to cuckoo-clocks.

The 'Blue Hills' poems ended when Laurie left Australia for England in 2006.

It's good to see you back here in Sydney, Laurie - congratulations on the publication of Blue Hills which is now "open for reading". And now we'll ask you to demonstrate some of the special virtues of this book.

* Here I made an aside that went something like this - 'come to think of it, Australia changed from 'miles' to 'kilometres' in 1973 so you might think the poem was written earlier than 1980'

Return to Extras - selected writings or Pam Brown's web site.