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Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Guardians - Lucy Dougan - Victorian Premier's Literary Award (Poetry) 2016 - WA Premier's Literary Award (Poetry) 2016

Tomorrow night sees the winners of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, a very handy $25,000 for each category, Fiction, Non-Fiction, Drama, Poetry and Young Adult writing with a bonus $100,000 available for the winners of each category as they go on to contest the Victorian Prize for Literature. I’ve personally cast my vote in the “People’s Choice Award” with the winner getting a bonus $2,000 – for local writers this prize pool is a great incentive.

The third, and final one, I read from the poetry collection on the shortlist is “The Guardians” by Lucy Dougan. Another free verse collection on the shortlist, something very different from the Prime Minister’s Literary Award shortlist, where rhyme came to the fore in a number of collections.

From the opening poem we can see the theme of “memory”, will that pervade throughout. “The Mask” is about childhood and an old trunk taken from a room below the bedroom, it contains a linen mask, probably made by her great grandmother, all of this taking place in a home that no longer exists. The further you dig, the deeper the memory, the further you find the roots of the family tree, whether the home construction exists any longer there is still the bond of family, of memory.

Atavism crops up here as it did in the title of the short story collection I recently reviewed by Raymond Bock the theme of reverting back to the ancestral type, a throwback, is our poet here feline as she shares a meal with her cat?

Along with memory the natural world is another theme throughout, with humanity having its back turned on the wonders all around us. The poem “The Mice” is about the wild stretch of “land by the river” where her pet mice were released to fend for themselves, a place full of childhood memories, a place largely ignored by everybody else.

Inanimate objects and the memories they evoke is also a recurring theme, to an outsider objects such as shoes are simply shoes, to the poet they are memories of a graveyard, sunlight, reading, or swapping a book for a pair of shoes. This brought back to myself the exhibition at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, “The Hidden History of Things” by Amelia Ducker and Fiorella Cordella, where a glass display cabinet in a bric-a-brac bazaar was displayed with items all on offer to a new owner. Each item had a story attached, for example the books came from a house where the artist used to holiday with friends, once the house was repossessed the items all had to go somewhere else – a book to me, a history to the artist. There was a necklace from her husband, a pressed flower from a book, a hat that was given as a gift but didn’t fit. The realisation that the everyday has a history.

The Forge

The women in these suburbs
flirt with the man who cuts keys, fixes heels.
They can’t help being won over
by the light that glowers at his shop-front.
Too sure of himself by half
my mother would say.
He dyes his hard unflatteringly dark.
Once I took him shoes,
a second-hand pair.
God, love, he asked,
what have you been doing in these?
I laugh at the histories I could invent
for these strangers – sleep-walking, bacchic dance.
I laugh and say nothing
as he hands me the little green slip.
But I don’t go back for a long, long time
(life more ruptured than the wreck
of shoes I handed him, impossible to unlock).
Where have you been darl?
(if I could click my heels).
It’s a story I cannot tell –
what kept me from redeeming
something fixed.
At night the women in these suburbs
unlock their doors
with keys fashioned
by the man at the kiosk.
They kick off their shoes
shiny and re-heeled.
They smile without quite knowing
how the man with the dark, dark hair
has eased his way into their smallest secret places,
snug in the palm, firm at the ankle.
And I chide myself gently
for not telling him the story of the book
I swapped for shoes
or why I had been away so long.

Section 2 moves to England with the recurring image of foxes, a visit to the “Tate Modern” where art has been reduced to merchandise and “Keep Calm” magnets and a musing on “Kenwood House”, the memory of the Jacobeans, of Donne and Shakespeare, or their wives, of Coleridge and apothecaries.

The poem “The Ties My Sister Makes”, again, focuses on the inanimate, men’s silk neckties coming to the fore;

My sister’s ties
will be dispatched about the world,
their underwater silvers and greens
flashing in the dark aquariums of shop windows.

We return, very much, to Australia with the poem “Fritz” with the memory of awaking in a campsite with the smell of wood smoke and a view of the wallabies.

Section 3 opens with a series of poems reflecting on failing health, chemotherapy, radiology and lumps, but this is no wallowing in self-pity, it is a celebration of life.

More of a celebration of life that Peter Rose’s collection “The Subject of Feeling”, more melancholy than Alan Loney’s “Crankhandle”, a very assured and enjoyable collection celebrating our surroundings, the majesty in being alive, the memory of the inanimate, a collection to be revisited time and time again, these are poems to muse over.

A nice sister piece to the 2015 Stella Prize Winner, Emily Bitto’s “The Strays” as the themes of motherhood, being female, sister’s bonds, the protection (a hug) from a male lover, and craft-work all to the fore.

Overall a very enjoyable shortlist from the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award with each of the poetry collections being worthy of first prize, personally I rank them “Crankhandle”, then “The Guardians” and finally “The Subject of Feeling” although to see any win would not surprise me and that is not your usual shortlist reading, with generally one or two works falling short of expectations, not here, all poetry collections worthwhile adding to your collections.

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