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The poetics of time
... I wanted to read unwritten work, absorb influences which did not yet exist. Returning to former sources six years later, they are those works, those influences.
This collection can be read as an extended meditation on the use of language to represent the experience of change — a kind of phenomenology of self-in-time-and-in-place. The introductory ‘Note’ comments:
In 1994 ... I stopped writing poems with little sense of when or if I would resume ... Eventually the passing of time gave me a new perspective on what I’d already written and allowed me to start again (in late 2000) from what seemed a fresh position as well as one in which whatever I had felt about “progression” was no longer of great import. (ix)
The title, Mangroves, offers an image of the collection as a rhizomic community of poems/ selves surrounded by, arising from and resumed into tidal movement. Divided into two parts whose composition is separated by a gap of six years — Part I Mangroves (2000 — 2002); Part II The Night Watch (1988 — 1994) — the whole is structured so as to make time the matrix from which the poems emerge, the medium on and in which they are written. Repeated as the title of Part I, ‘Mangroves’ points to the fact that poems in this first half of the book are ‘Brisbane work’. The title of Part II, ‘The Night Watch’, refers not to Rembrandt’s painting of that name, but to ‘a colour photograph ... depicting characters dressed for the roles in Rembrandt’s work standing on the tarmac in front of a jet airliner’ (‘A Note’, ix). This is a wonderful image for the way in which these earlier poems of Part II (and ideas of ‘influence’ and ‘progression’) are reframed and mobilised within the context of the whole.
In approaching this collection, I’ve found it helpful to use a conceptual framework developed by the photographer Christl Berg, in relation to her project of creating images that reflect a temporal experience of ‘being in the land, rather than looking at landscape’. Duggan’s writing creates this sense of being-in-place, via a written voice in conversation with its world, having the capacity to change and be changed, moving through and among landscapes, moods, concepts and other written or depicted selves. I will refer to four strategies identified and used by Berg to introduce an experience of temporality into the images she creates, which are also useful in thinking about how Duggan’s work operates. They are ‘time’, ‘the frieze’, ‘detail’ and ‘the trace’, although as Berg points out, these features overlap and intersect.
I will discuss the first two strategies together as they are closely interconnected. Berg argues that introducing the element of time to an image (for example through multiple exposures) creates a shift away from ‘the fixed gaze and the singular decisive moment’. The element of the frieze (in Berg’s work presented as image-series and extended panels) relates closely to that of time, in that each segment in a series has the potential to create ‘a different moment and a slight shift in angle of view ... as testament to duration, time of dwelling rather than moment of the fixed gaze’. The frieze may also involve ‘a sense of narrative ... into which intersecting paths and events can be woven’. Further, the ‘open format’ of the frieze makes it possible to move back and forth between interconnected pieces, so that there is a sense of time passing in the viewer’s relation to the work as well as within/ among pieces in the series.
Duggan frequently structures the passing of time into his poems, both as ‘transition’ and as ‘duration’ or ‘dwelling’ in Berg’s sense. Poems describe the process of change, but also changes themselves bear witness to what Berg calls ‘the experiencing human presence [in] its temporality [where images] represent a residue of experience’:
... The distant suburb
lights up slowly, its main street
climbs a ridge, long dark shape of a primary school
its memory-layer of brick, chalked images
and basketball nets hung over asphalt.
A frieze effect recurs throughout Mangroves, enacting both time as transition and time as duration — I will use the Blue Hills and Louvres series as examples. The radio soap reference of the Blue Hills title acts as a joking testament to duration, while poems in the series set up changing moments and angles in a landscape — in Part I (Solid Air: Blue Hills 45 — 51) that of urban Brisbane and Sydney, and in Part II, that of rural Gippsland (The Home Paddock: Blue Hills 24 — 35) and suburban Melbourne (Missing Hills: Blue Hills 36 — 44). The Louvres title also makes jokes about duration and transition, suggesting poems visited like artworks at the Louvre(s) (and in fact the series includes several poems that relate to particular artworks). It also sets up a visual joke in that poems in this section are separated from one another on the page by horizontal lines. The written self peers out between these slats and is peered at in turn by the world it encounters as glimpsed sensations, moods, reflections:
Marks on paper, gradations on screen
as ephemeral as the factory light oscillating
upside down in the river: it’s there every night
cut by the wake of ferries, resuming
its shape, though this itself is illusion,
there is no permanent, stable form for this
trick of light. As words hedge
after intent or slant each time they’re placed
— even in print meaning shifts,
we are caught by different angles every time.
The image that possibly forms the initial impetus for the Louvres series appears in Blue Hills 48:
of a Vida Lahey intensity
— Vida Lahey, who painted interiors
whose wood blinds throw
diagonals of brightness
against the warm dark; space
polarised, intense, tropic,
as though art and heat might
combust, the luminous aftermath
too instant for climate to abrade or dissolve.
Individual poems in each series move at an experiential ground level (or rather water level) that eludes a totalising view, via effects I will discuss under Berg’s rubric of ‘details’ and ‘traces’:
On the surveys, blue hatch of marshland
gives way to brown grids ...
Though maps fail to register a prevalence
round here, of trams
balanced on blocks
in the home paddock.
(Blue Hills 35, 102)
Use of detail and trace change the way work is received. For Berg, the use of detail ‘demands ... an intimate encounter with objects ... It belongs to the shift from looking at landscape ... to a bodily experience in an environment’. Detail is used to bring the reader in close, summoning all the senses and restoring sight to its place among them as register of sensation:
on which stand burnt sticks of incense
and three oranges,
mauve shadows under the jacaranda
and oddly, a row of cypress pines
along the tin wall of the Rheem factory
(Blue Hills 46, 6)
The trace introduces a different kind of intimacy in that it ‘relies on touch’. ‘Material residue’ is introduced into the image (in Berg’s work by direct exposure onto photographic paper or via scanning), creating encounters with objects and their associations. Detail and trace both act in the realm of sensation, but where detail draws inwards into the work, the trace points centrifugally outwards, towards origins and associations. The trace causes meaning to shift with each shift in angle of refraction brought about by time or change of mood or understanding. A variety of traces find their way into Duggan’s work. Details like those in Blue Hills 46 act as traces in that, while they are connected with one another by virtue of inhabiting the time/ space of the poem, all have the potential to point outwards towards their connections for the reader. As the voice of the collection puts it, conversations set up in this way cannot be contained:
through lexical doorways,
living its diverse lives
(August 7th, 24)
This use of the trace extends itself to another characteristic of the work — the inclusion of found poems:
AUSTRALIAN MERCANTILE LAND
concrete lettering embossed
around the warehouse entablature ...
(Blue Hills 49, 9)
In a number of places, visual artworks function as traces that touch and open doorways into other self/ world constructions, as in the Vida Lahey interior of Blue Hills 48 quoted earlier. Between the blinds of the Louvres section, we are given glimpses of works by Bea Maddock, Leah King-Smith, Jennifer Marshall, Lin Onus and Mostyn Bramley-Moore. They are offered as sensible realms, moments of experience along with all the others contained within the written consciousness of the collection. It could be argued that the section titled Twentieth Century, offering translations of ten poems by Ardengo Soffici, functions in the same way. This use of the trace on differing scales — from fragmenting close-up, to the offered instants of paintings, to Soffici’s coherent self-world — is a mark of the confidence of Duggan’s writing, in that the voice of the collection is able to sustain and act as container for all its moments. The work draws the reader in, in a way that is conversational rather than confessional (except in the sense that it confesses to the world(s) it opens into):
‘It is difficult now to speak of poetry.’ My silent habitation, paintings, furniture and books; the dialogue between, my own. This word-hoard otherwise lacks a centre, is flotsam on no certain tide.
The structure of this collection invites a spiral of readings in which earlier poems are re-experienced in the light of later work, and later work is understood differently in relation to its origins in earlier patterns. Rather than pro- or regression, the shift that occurs in the space between Part II and Part I is imaged as a change in location, and, as for the costumed figures of The Night Watch in the photograph, nothing has changed/ everything has changed. Having found and lost and found again the foothold of writing, Duggan creates a poetic that first of all acknowledges the mutability of things, and within that understanding, asks how dwelling can be found.
1 Christl Berg is head of the Printmedia studio and teaches black and white photography and computer imaging at the School of Visual and Performing Arts, University of Tasmania. All Berg quotes included here are from her 2004 PhD exegesis, ‘Tracings – a photographic investigation into being in the land’, held by the University of Tasmania. Images by Berg that relate to concepts discussed in this review can be found in University of Tasmania and National Gallery of Victoria collections.
The general title ‘Blue Hills’ comes from a (very) long-running Australian radio serial about rural life broadcast nationally from 28 February 1949 to 30 September 1976, itself a sequel to an earlier serial The Lawsons, both by Gwen Meredith.
The artists mentioned in this review are Australians.
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