Laurie Duggan: The Ash Range
Published April 2005
Paperback, 248pp, 9x6ins, £12.95 / $21
The Ash Range is a long documentary poem that mixes prose, poetry, reportage and illustrations—somewhat in the manner of William Carlos Williams' Paterson—to narrate a history of the settlers' engagement with Gippsland, a southerly region of Victoria State. Like Paterson, which concerns itself with small-town New Jersey, The Ash Range is not constrained by its locality, but instead finds the universal in its extended examination of the local. While the work is enormously ambitious in its mix of materials, the whole is welded into a solid structure that facilitates communication of the theme, even to an audience that is unaware of the territory it describes.
"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'. . . . It is an important work—and not just of Australian literature." (Matt Simpson, Stride magazine)
"This brilliant book— this epic collage—is the embodiment of Gippsland's idea of itself. This is white feller dreaming about the opening of Australia's south-eastern corner. This, to use a French word not easily translated, is l'imaginaire of Gippsland . . . Such is Duggan's skill in snipping and pasting that the whole thing reads like a rapturous experience, even when crime and disaster are its subject matter." (Chester Eagle, The Age)
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