To mark National Poetry Month, In other Words is being guest-edited by rob mclennan. Throughout April, rob will present the work of dozens of poets he thinks deserve readers' attention, as seen through the eyes of their fellow poets.
Today: Phil Hall on Laurie Duggan
Notes on A conscious citizen
Laurie Duggan is an Australian poet, now living in England. In this poem, he has much to say regarding American poets. Today, we are reading his poem in Canada. A far-flung, layered knowing is underway.
The poem's tone is that of a diary's entries. There is no obvious pretension toward "poem", no consciously literary phrasing. (Except perhaps the imbedded haiku moment of: "Clouds low / over Mt Coot-tha, an ibis / floating through rain")
It sounds easy, seems deceptively simple, as the lines stagger and chat by, recording the weather, seemingly random personal matters, reading notes.
This is a one week poem: seven sections, Thursday through Wednesday. A narrative is haltingly happening: the plant on the balcony thrives despite its grey-thumbed owners; "huts on low ground" are cleared for "a new suburb"; and a struggle with the wayward self is underway too ("try to read poems / sleep instead").
The speaker is ruminative, distracted, almost lazy - but also driven, lashing himself forward ("Concentrate!"). Opinionated despite humility, this poet is a student, but also a teacher. He searches for clues, but knows a "stupid" poet when he sees one.
Clues to what? The quandary is how to be a conscious or conscientious citizen.
How does one sustain a dialogue at as many valances as possible; in the daily, local, private and political body; but also in the public/private poem. This sequence may sound like journal entry, but it is also political, and philosophical.
We are meant to miss most of this; none of the poem's considerable form or wisdom is tagged. Its casual nature and humour sweep us along.
Yet we are not in a barrel going over the "Prosaic falls". These accomplished quotidian arabesques are jazz. There is shape here and a thesis on two levels: poetics and citizenry. Plus the two are linked.
Duggan knows "We all want the poem to escape / from our lives . . . or at least / for our lives to escape from the poem". Similarly (later), are citizens of conscience prisoners in their own homes? Where (earlier) "property / is public only below the tidal mark"? Of sleep?
How does such a friendly poem end up disgusted at its end? We have been masterfully brought to knee depth in blue mud.
The last image is of books warping in the damp, turning yellow, their news dated so fast. Are our tongues mud already?
While seeming to just lounge about, take notes, fix the car, go to work (oh, here's a letter from August - is that Kleinzahler?) - this poem, this poet, is doing the hard work of not simplifying or romanticizing muddle while continuing to celebrate & explore.
The Passenger, the book this poem is from, won for Duggan in Australia the 2007 Queensland Premier's Literary Award. It is the best book of poetry I read last year. Interested readers might check out the poet's blog called Graveney Marsh.
Laurie Duggan has renewed my hope that the lyric focus can be used to invite global-scoped essay-poems.
Phil Hall's new book of poems, The Little Seamstress, is available this month from Pedlar Press.