William Carlos Williams, a Doctor from Rutherford, was convinced that something did indeed depend upon a ‘red wheel / barrow’ because he firmly believed that American culture was based upon a realization of the qualities of place in relation to the life which occupies it. Laurie Duggan, Australian poet who now lives in Kent, writes poems which share some of this concern and in his work minute and seemingly inert things come to life much as dry twigs become shoots and buds: speed is essential for such freshness. As the Australian critic and poet Fiona Wright noted on the back cover this is a “kind of history that is happening on the side-lines” and one of the memorable aspects of Duggan’s work is its ability to bring into sharp focus what seems to be caught out of the side of one’s eye. On the one hand in a public statement it possesses a dry wit such as the ‘Salute to the Cambridge Marxists’:
If you’re not at the High Table
you’re not in the room
On the other, in quiet memory of another gifted poet, Lee Harwood, an excursion to the South Coast is recorded in trees that were “partly flattened / by gales twenty years back” which are now “resuming a shape”:
a semblance of high wind,
clouds massing, the profile of a hilltop.
Turning his back on solemnity Duggan also notes in the same visit to Brighton “a mechanical duck pedals a tricycle / across a floor in Hove.” In the hands of a lesser poet there might be a temptation towards the sardonic here; in Laurie Duggan’s work it is more a Jonsonian wit. And, as he tells me, the mechanical duck was there and it was exactly what Lee would have delighted in!
The website of photographs which Laurie Duggan began some ten years ago can be located at graveneymarsh.blogspot.co.uk and the precise visualisation of carefully caught moments offers an interesting insight into his poetry.
One of Jack Spicer’s posthumously published volumes, A Red Wheelbarrow, was produced in an edition of 1000 copies by Arif Press, Berkeley in January 1973 and it opens with a tone that reminds me of Duggan’s work:
“Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow. Whatever
It is. Dogs and crocodiles, sunlamps. Not
For their significance. For being human
The signs escape you.”
In his indispensable book on Spicer’s work, The Poetry of Jack Spicer (Edinburgh University Press, 2013), Daniel Katz wrote about these opening lines in terms of how Williams’s “characteristically inviting tone” gives way to the no less “characteristic Spicerian note of crochety querulousness”:
“No ideas but in things these lines seems to say, with their negation of significance and their recusal of metaphor, while the imperative to Rest and look immediately valorizes the visual, in line with Williams’ emphases again.”
That sharply focussed concern for the visual links Duggan’s and Spicer’s work and it is worth looking back at the opening lines of Spicer’s first ‘Imaginary Elegy’ from the late 1940s:
“Poetry, almost blind like a camera
Is alive in sight only for a second. Click,
Snap goes the eyelid of the eye before movement
Almost as the word happens.
One would not choose to blink and go blind
After the instant. One would not choose
To see the continuous Platonic pattern of birds flying
Long after the stream of birds had dropped or had nested.”
A camera freezes one moment in time and with that “click” followed by a “Snap” the moment is both caught and broken and, in a sense, the poem does become that “continuous Platonic pattern of birds flying” which can be looked at, still life, by other people in other times. One of Duggan’s poems from 1991 makes an interesting comparison here:
“Not to assume a mantle,
not to have you look so closely,
I refuse to be explicator;
instead, a wanderer
in a landscape prefigured
trying not to bend its edges
The camera of course offers precisely that edge, that separating of one moment from another within a stream and, by holding still in front of us an image of what is irremediably gone it echoes that Orphic sense of no return. The world of appearances, Art, consists of edges, contrasts, meeting-points of different phenomena: individuality. Art also acts as a constant reminder of what is not. In Spicer’s terms the only reason for valorizing what he goes on in ‘Imaginary Elegy I’ to call “These cold eternals” is because of their “support of / What is absolutely temporary”.
Laurie Duggan is not an explicator; he presents what he sees and a late snap is ‘DEMOLITION’:
“A square of houses, windows bricked in.
Around these, dust, gamblers, the edge of a market.
A block away streets resume their regular pattern”
For a moment I hear another voice, another influence: that of Charles Reznikoff.
Ian Brinton, 11th March 2018