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Review - Lee Duggan and Maggie O'Sullivan

Steve Spence

“Green” by Lee Duggan, pub. Oystercatcher. 17 pp. 2019

“courtship of lapwings” by Maggie O’Sullivan, pub. if p then q. 76pp. 2021


Lee Duggan’s Green is a poem of landscape and of one person’s response to time and place. We have a walker, an individual who through memory and reflection creates an imaginative and observed universe which includes microcosm and macrocosm. We have politics and we have an awareness of ecology added to breathtaking suggestions of more expansive, extra-terrestrial vistas. There is a grammar of place, a mixing of language which feels exploratory and reminds me at times of Helen Macdonald’s bird’s eye view and a rich yet pared-down lyricism which has a kinship with Elisabeth Bletsoe’s poetry. Here’s the opening section:

 

          bridging

                   what is

          to walk

           out of

                     edgeland

 

          mind mountains & cypresses

               formally defined

 

          outdoors I am

                                liminal

            bridging

                    what is

          comfortable

 

                 opengate

          apothecary

 

So we have a link between worlds, of occupying two places simultaneously and a hint of the healing nature of what I take to be a familiar landscape. I love the phrases ‘opengate / apothecary’ and ‘mind mountains,’ which are both minimalist but richly suggestive, enabling the reader to create his or her own inner landscapes.

 

I think the actual landscape is situated in Wales which may explain one of the later literary references where we get:

 

          blood & soil

          beneath gold leaf

 

             piercing cielo code

                  a high pitch canopy

                           to hold

          political features behind

              land edge bay to Shelley

 

          bars & windows

                         catching wings

 

I love the way that these layouts enable the reader to pitch the phrasings when engaging with this work. I tend to read through quickly, a short section at a time and then go back and take it more slowly, to savour the sounds and possible connections and puzzle over those I’m not so certain about. There’s an inner monologue going on here which has the feel of someone writing as they walk, of speculation and a mixing of topics and language which suggests spontaneity while at the same time being quite tightly structured. On the page this poem looks both ‘spaced-out’ and yet tightly patterned and this clearly suggests a way of approaching it as a reader:

 

                   words edge off the bramble path

          thicket deep as desire

 

          lift imaginary potatoes  & spirits

                          rainy slate afternoons

                 when we should

                                   have known

                                          better

 

          another gap in the narrative

                                 leave room to reflect

 

 

The final lines have an ending which is in keeping with the entire text in the sense that it feels like the right place to finish while also having that open-ended sense of continuity:

 

          thermos tea fit for priests

          make me out for new year

          cherry polish & 5-string guitar

          occupy streets where I awake

                       traditions & pipistrel

 

                       lost in translation

          an antique wardrobe & loose sheets

 

Another poet I’m reminded of here is the late Richard Caddel, both in terms of form and content. I’ve not read much of Lee Duggan’s poetry before but I thoroughly enjoyed this poem and I look forward to discovering more of her work on the page as well as hearing it read out aloud.

 

 

It must have been well over twenty years ago that I first heard Maggie O’ Sullivan read her work live which then took me to the written page. I can remember being completely blown away by the experience and by the amount of information/emotional content that was delivered through the sound aspect of that performance. Her work on and off the page is multi-dimensional. I’ve just listened to courtship of lapwings on a recording and would urge the reader to do the same as it adds so much to the overall reception of what she’s about.

 

This book by if p then q is a large format publication which includes front and back-cover artwork by the author and almost has the feel of a children’s book in the sense that the text is large and colourful with plenty of white space and different sizes of typeface. It’s a beautifully produced artefact, in fact, which you just want to hold and savour the experience. Here’s a section from ‘quag edge, ear lone,’ which is based around the language of John Clare:

 

quag edge, ear lone

Quakes mute,

 

Sittest invest

 

Thriving swell, hilling thy

bill, Suited doth jellied

 

mayhap, dressed desolate mystic

oceans,

thread remotest stag pervades.

 

ear unventured gazed

 

dread breath Hiding wild

restless ever most

tempests each sight,

power heartens roughest wave.

 

Yet shun skulking

tepid stride flings loss)

 

-And sinky Streaking fringed

Free slay, cracking reaching

thou stretch still

thy love; I

solitudes unbounded heart dignifying

sky Smile fly cordial

Thine each is

‘tis that

 

‘circles from which’ is based around Charles Bernstein’s ASYLUM which unsurprisingly deals with issues of mental health and is a relatively short poem (one page) which packs in a lot in its limited frame. Again, it’s well worth accessing the spoken version to pick up the nuance and the ‘political implications,’ apart from which it’s a pure pleasure to hear Maggie O’Sullivan read aloud.

 

Here’s a page from the title poem which gives an indication of layout and suggests the relationship between sound and written text:

 

                                                    PORT, PULL-

 

                                                  SATIONAL SHIFTERS

 

                              (GOLDROSE leaf   lavish/

 

                                   imperfection my tongue

 

                                             leaking mis/

 

                                                chance

 

 

                                           perpetual

 

I don’t want to overemphasise the sound aspect of O’Sullivan’s work because as I hope I’ve indicated here, there’s a very strong visual impact on the page and her fractured narratives benefit from being seen as well as heard. The overall experience is something quite special and while it may take a new reader/listener a while to get onto her wavelength I’d recommend hearing these poems read aloud at the earliest opportunity. It’s been suggested that her work is ‘shamanic’ and I guess there’s an element of that role in her performance although I’m wary of using the word incantatory here as I don’t think that quite does it. For me she’s the most interesting contemporary experimental writer working in this field (Barry Macsweeney certainly had a foot in this camp but O’Sullivan has taken it much further) although others, such as Hannah Silva and the Canadian poet/visual artist J.R. Carpenter, also tread these boards. If you’ve not read or listened to Maggie O’Sullivan yet I can only add here that you’re in for a treat.

 

 

 

 Copyright © Steve Spence, 2021   

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