by Laurie Duggan
248pp, 12.95, Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter EX4 4LD.
FROM NOW TO THEN by W.D. Jackson
292pp, 9.99, Menard Press, 8 The Oaks, Woodside Avenue, London N12 8AR.

Laurie Duggan is one of Australia's foremost poets.  He has published eleven books of poetry, among them the epic documentary poem, The Ash Range, first published in 1987 in Australia where it won the Victorian Premier's Award.  Out of print for some time, it is good to welcome a re-publication readily available to UK readers. Shearsman have published it in tandem with a Selected Poems, entitled Compared to What.

What The Ash Range offers is an elegiac three-dimensional portrait of an area of south eastern Australia, the region of Victoria called Gippsland. The work is epic, not just in scale nor simply in being divided into twelve parts, but in the sense that at heart it constitutes a search for roots, a journey home. That said however, and despite the fact that Duggan's forbears come from Gippsland, it is in no way a 'family' poem, what Geoffrey Hill once disparagingly called a 'home-movie'. The hero of the poem is Gippsland itself, which Duggan has described elsewhere as 'a larger than life place.' This larger-than-life quality is attained by means of collage, a judicious artistic manipulating of extracts from diaries, journals, newspapers, which cumulatively recreate, as it were, the collective unconscious of the place. The effect is kaleidoscopic and haunting - haunting in the sense that ghosts as firsthand witnesses are let loose to make play with your imagination, to describe the shape of the land as it was first seen by explorers and settlers, to document the trials and tribulations of colonising, 'civilising', digging for gold, living through storms, floods, bush-fires. The poem makes its way, with one or two skips in time, chronologically, from the second half of the eighteenth century and Captain Cook to a point not long after Duggan's birth in 1949. We experience Gippsland as something growing almost organically, as cumulative history, a kind of reverse archaeology. Whatever the research procedures of Duggan's 'map and history project' may have been, the achieved poem is not a digging-down but a piling up, its effect is voice-over filmic (the poet has written scripts and taught media courses). Despite its deliberate exclusion of the solipsistic, it is still a Romantic poem in that it stunningly evokes the spirit of place with an implied nostalgia, and explores the question who am I in terms of the history I have emerged from. And that is part of its universality, how, in words from the back cover, it 'transcends locality'.

What is at work in this poem is what Coleridge called 'the shaping spirit', the assemblage of various parts into a new whole. And, still accepting Duggan's artistic integrity implicitly, I, for one, would be fascinated to know more of the processes (in some lesser writers the charge of arbitrariness can be levelled) by which the poem was achieved. The Modernist technique of collage has, of course, long been familiar from the paintings of Picasso and Braque and from the writings of Eliot, Pound and Joyce, and yet one would love to know more of what Duggan is saying in his notes:

     I  have not hesitated to meddle with texts: editing then down,
     altering the grammar, restructuring sentences, in the interests
     of clarity; but I have not attempted to pervert the authors'
     intentions as far as I could perceive them.

In other words, the decisions behind particular pieces that shaped the raw material into poetic lines, behind particular line-breaks and indents, the 'visual and aural' shapes he mentions in his Introduction; why a great deal of prose retains its original form; why different fonts are used and sometimes italics? But this is the poet in me talking, not so much the critic.  What the reader is required to do is let the poem concentrate, as Eliot said of
The Waste Land, into an intense impression. There is no doubting The Ash Range's ability to do this. It is an important work - and not just of Australian literature.

If The Ash Range is an ambitious work, what can we say for W.D. Jackson's work-in-progress, of which From Now to Then is the second instalment in a three volume sequence already amounting to over four hundred pages on 'the subject of history and individual freedom'? It already looks like becoming a major work, one that ought to be confident of attracting not just good reviews but prizes. When I reviewed the first volume I stated that the 'book as a whole is a tour de force, an important debut as well as a promise of riches to come.' Well, more of those riches, a mere three years later, have arrived. From Now to Then is a stunning work, in the context of which to use the phrase 'the shaping spirit' denotes astonishing versatility, not just of imaginative range and profound erudition lightly worn, but some of the most skilful verse-writing I have come across in quite a while. Jackson is at ease with a whole gamut of verse forms, styles and techniques (his skill in rhyming would take some beating) to the point one feels he is able to be seriously playful and playfully serious as and when he likes.

As with Duggan, there is an element of collage at work: translation (much of it from the German, at least in the first volume) and quotation (from a wide variety of sources) are an integral part, along with original poetry, of the texture and structure. Both authors supply notes, which cast extra light on what one has read and then goes back to read. The back cover of Jackson's first book talks of a 'step by step creation of a Borgesian 'imaginary identity' but, that said, one cannot help see autobiographical experience braided into the overall fiction. I am minded of Anne Stevenson's lines: 'In the event/the event is sacrificed/to a fiction of its having happened.'

Whatever personal material is present in the work it is fashioned, used, imaginatively reprocessed to create something free-standing. One is made intimately aware of a troubled marriage, a beautiful affair gone wrong, the 'exile' feel of living and working in a German city, anxieties felt returning home (Jackson was born in Liverpool but lives in Munich) to broken memories. The purpose behind all this sorrowful questing is to confront and come to terms with these things, to 'learn/To let life be by letting it go.'

Without in any way being difficult or pretentious, Jackson manages to be a deeply philosophical poet, involving himself in the perplexities of time and 'the process of uncovering and/or attempting to understand the nature of 'freedom and unfreedom.' He too transcends the solipsistic and he too is a deeply Romantic poet underneath it all. I can't wait for volume three.

            Matt Simpson 2005