A review of The Guardians by Lucy Dougan

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Guardians
by Lucy Dougan
1st March 2015, ISBN:9781922146755, 76pp, $24

Lucy Dougan has described her poetry as “no shi shi writing”. It’s quiet, luminous, and there are few semantic tricks. The poetry’s power is fed from an underlying, almost pragmatic clarity of focus and a sense of muted longing.  You can’t see it on the surface, but the impact on the work is tangible. Her latest poetry book, The Guardians, moves through waves of memory, the genetic links that bind us: mother and daughter, father and daughter, sisters, grandparents. Each poem draws strength from absence: who isn’t there, where we aren’t, the bits of ourselves we’ve sloughed off and lost as we come to the present moment.

The Guardians is structured into three sections, each building on the previous one, extending the themes and pulling in new ones. The first section is all about genetic inheritance and those links between women in particular – mother/daughter, sister to sister, grandparent/grandchild. The section opens with a poem that recreates a daughter’s childhood home, but the home is no longer there, and the history it references, nearly forgotten. The poem traces a genetic link from women to women in a series of images, our public personae, fears, and memories that lurk below the surface of our homes, our daily lives, and our choices:

That night she wondered
if there were more rooms
beneath the room under her bed.
How deep did they go down;
and if each of her mother’s mothers
stretching right back
had left a fearful face there
for her to try on. (“The Mask”)

In “The Mice”, Dougan uses an animal metaphor in a way that repeat sitself throughout the book. In this poem, the mice represent many things—those wild (“feral colonies”) instincts we can’t quite destroy (“out-of-bounds/the idea of mouse – a rumour/frantic in abandoned parts –“), but which continue to come back to haunt us as memories, atavistic traits, or regret for the options we didn’t take, and for what we couldn’t hold onto as we grope forward in our lives (“they are the chorus of what could have been”). In “Julia, Reading”, we find generations of living and dead linked up, timelessly united by a pair of kicked off shoes. The present tense gives way in the second stanza to a new present tense where the shoes have been outgrown, kept as a memento of that day, already long past. The poem is masterful, not only because of the delicate way Dougan unites past and present through memory and longing, but because it so subtly picks up on the themes of absence and presence and the way these things operate simultaneously. It isn’t the image of the shoes with the kitten heels which transcends time, but rather love: a gentle tenderness that pervades the poem, and the book as a whole.

The second section is mostly set in London. This section builds on the genetic theme and adds in additional layers around the idea of old homes and the inhabited spaces of travel that are not-home, spaces that evoke memories rather than spaces that contain action, and other signifiers like handkerchiefs and relics of art rather than the artwork itself.  Even the body is only a mimic or representation of the real thing:

The doves came down to see me
and cooed their own flight histories
into my jetlagged limbs,
and if they were forgeries, too,
a human ear could not tell. (“London, Misbooked”)

Animal totems return here evoking the feral mice of the first section.  There is the fox who appears in several poems, crossing the boundary  between the  dead and the living, and the dog, who also appears several times, both as family pet, and as a stuffed animal representation:

a lanky girl and her dog
who had hightailed it home
or what had once been home.
She was not ready for this ruin. (“The Old House”)

Always there is tension between the natural, wild world (represented partly by the mice, fox and dog), which intersects with the wild abandon of youth, of our less polished selves beneath the veneer of civilisation. This is a particularly potent contrast in a city like London, with all of its sophistication, its old houses, and the history it evokes:

A whole unschooled knowledge of place streamed in
and the liquid vision of boatmen,
was mine in constellations.
Just in this moment the way the planet turned
Moved through the axis of my bones. (“A Bourne”)

The third section is rooted in the body, as the book moves through a very personal experience of breast cancer.  The poems begin with the first sighting of a lump in the title poem (where the dog returns), to screening, chemotherapy, radiation, the aftermath of regular doctor visits and the coming to terms with a prosthesis:

The space aligned, you came to think,
with what had been removed.
but then when you climbed
in it again by daylight
you inhabited it fully. (“The Hammock”)

Though in many ways this is the most intense and personal section in the book, containing poems of obvious pain, it is never overly dramatic. There is also joy and lightness in these poems. Ultimately the body heals. The doctor who confirms remission each year is named Eve and her annual confirmation of ongoing recovery is presented as celebration:

I say the name Eve
to the water, the sky, the birds,
the footpath, and the parking meter;
and each time it is as if
I am the first speaking woman
on earth. (“Eve”)

This chapter is all about re-making the present—coming to discover a new kind of self, from the handiwork of “A Renovation (Girl’s Work)”, through menopause, relationships, and finally the simple, and somewhat fierce joy in discovering a daughter’s youthful drawing:

If anyone should take this green off me
I will summon the harpies,
set all of Campania alight;
and not rest
until the white button daisies return
and your feet make
a path through the thaw. (“A Picture from Julia”)

Despite its seeming simplicity, the poetry in The Guardians is condensed tightly, and though the work remains rooted in the domestic, there is a universe pulsing in each observation. Time is stretched between present and an infinite regression of past, and all that we inherit, all that is wild lurking below the surface of our lives. This is poetry that can be read repeatedly, each time yielding something new and powerful in its minute and expansive observations.