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THE POEM AS HISTORY – The Ash Range by Laurie Duggan (Picador, 1987), 270pp.

2 Feb

THE POEM AS HISTORY The Ash Range by Laurie Duggan (Picador, 1987), 270pp. Published in The Phoenix Review No3. 1988.

My first introduction to Laurie Duggan’s work occurred during my final year of high school in 1977 when I read a poem called ‘Marijuana Christmas’ in an issue of New Poetry which I found in the local library. Duggan’s broken verse narrative was one of the few poems I came across during my final two years of schooling which suggested that there might be more to poetry than the generally insignificant British poets which were still being force fed to my generation in the class room.

Looking back eleven years later it is interesting to note the sense of continuity from Duggan’s early work to his recent book length poem/history The Ash Range. In ‘Marijuana Christmas’, for example, Duggan is already effortlessly combing basic scientific observation with vivid poetic images:

igneous and metamorphic rock

overlaid by sedimentaries

granite, shale, chalk

quartz on the bottom of the pool

like an Italian ice cream

light veins with white across

In fact many of Duggan’s poems are essentially poetic collages — images, descriptions, historical records and snippets of conversation become essential parts of the poem, cemented together by Duggan’s own, often wonderful, verse.

Another poem worth taking a look at in terms of Duggan’s poetic development is ‘Crawling From the Wreckage’ from his 1985 collection The Great Divide. In this poem Duggan has pulled together isolated quotations from sources as diverse as ABC broadcasts of parliament, Jack Lindsay’s The Roaring Twenties, Nelson Eddy and historical accounts of Black Thursday. While the result is a sometimes jarring, lurching poem which promises much more than it actually delivers, it is, in many ways, a direct predecessor to The Ash Range and shows that Duggan has been experimenting for some time with the structures he has eventually used in his book poem.

A major feature of The Ash Range is its concentration on place and history. It is a poem about the area of Eastern Victoria known as Gippsland. Duggan has always been an excellent nature poet. He has the ability to ‘draw in’ pieces of the landscape he is writing about so that the poem becomes a collage of words, rocks and trees. In The Ash Range he has gone a step further. Here the landscape becomes part of a far greater picture, is interwoven with the history (both pre and post European) of Gippsland. In fact, one of the poem’s greatest achievements is the way in which Duggan has linked the sometimes subtle changes in the landscape with the movement of history.

As in ‘Crawling from the Wreckage’ Duggan makes extensive use of original source material in The Ash Range. In a note at the end of the poem Duggan refers to The Ash Range as a ‘poem including history’, adding that it has many sources and that overall it should be read as the product of a ‘shared consciousness.’ Duggan’s role in the creation of The Ash Range at times appears to be almost that of an editor rather than poet. Once again in his notes he tells us ‘I have not hesitated to meddle with texts: editing them down, altering the grammer, restructuring sentences in the interests of clarity’; Indeed, throughout the book it is possible to see Duggan’s touch on almost every piece of source material so that while it may be possible to say that The Ash Range has many sources, overall it is, very definitely, Duggan’s own achievement. If, however, it is possible to voice one criticism about the structure of the poem, it is that it has not allowed Duggan to use more of his own very fine poetry.

Duggan’s account of the history of Gippsland is often at odds with the official version. Throughout The Ash Range he tends to concentrate on the tragic and the everyday. His account, for example, of the first contact between Europeans and the Aboriginal people of Gippsland, which while not by any means unique, is still, none the less, extremely moving and tragic:

On one of the arms of the Lake

there were a few blacks,

and one of the old men

proposed to take mullet to the white-fellows,

started, accompanied by a little boy.

Within sight of the hut the boy

noticed the white man signalling them off.

The old man took no notice.

The boy heard a gun fire:

saw the old man fall.

He dropped his fish

and ran to tell the tribe.

The history also includes an account of the rapid annihilation of the Aboriginal people of Gippsland by the European ‘settlers’. In the first years of white settlement Duggan can write of ‘500 to 700 Aborigines/assembled for feasting’. But by 1864 the Reverend Hagenauer could only assemble 130 at his mission station at Boney Point, Lake Wellington. The sections of The Ash Range dealing with Aboriginal/white contact puts the more recent history of Gippsland into context. The attitude of Aboriginal people towards this history is summed up by a quote from Philip Pepper at the beginning of the section ‘White Palings’: The bad times really started when that fella Batman came to Melbourne’.

Throughout that greater part of The Ash Range which deals with the purely European history of Gippsland, Duggan is concerned with the insignificant and the ordinary. We hear, for example, of how Robert Robertson, ‘a well known Bairnsdale painter, and George Johnston, ‘a carpenter’, were arrested in 1916 for ‘illegally killing fish’ with a tomato sauce bottle loaded with gelignite.

Duggan devotes a whole section to the rise and fall of a small gold mining town called Stirling. The town was founded shortly after 1882 and effectively ceased to exist around 1920 after the Post Office was closed and the hall moved to another town. The high point for Stirling would appear to have been in July 1899 with the Stirling Ladies invitation dance:

songs sung at interval

by Mrs Butcher. Mrs Tait;

and some of the gentlemen

studying ‘federation’.

But the rapid decline of Stirling after the gold ran out was not an isolated event

 So, Glen Wills:

a sign in a clearing:

at Sunnyside there’s nothing:

Grant a graveyard

if you can find it.

And Stirling?

The base of a chimney,


in a small clearing;

dark water,

a wild fruit tree.

Given the impressive achievement of The Ash Range it is difficult to see why it has failed to pick up any of the major awards. Although its publication comes at a time when there is, perhaps, an unprecedented number of book length Australian poems or poetic sequences in the book shops, Duggan’s achievement in The Ash Range is at least equal to that of Alan Wearne in The Nightmarkets. Both these works are impressive reminders of the current maturity of Australian poetry and both have broken out of the ghetto to be read by people who generally would not read poetry. While The Nightmarkets literally exploded onto the literary stage in a blaze of publicity (and sales), it is tempting to suggest that The Ash Range’s reputation (and sales figures) will steadily grow over time. One thing, however, is certain: in The Ash Range Laurie Duggan has written what is destined to become one of the major Australian poems of the eighties.