Poetry Book Review: The Guardians by Lucy Dougan

The instant that Lucy Dougan cites Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank as a touchstone of her collection, I know I’m going to like it. The Guardians has all the austerity and noiselessness of Arnold’s film, thematically linked with brief flashes of wildness in suburban life.

The Guardians is Dougan’s fourth poetry collection. Her first, Memory Shell, won the Mary Gilmore Award in 2000. Since then, she has published White Clay, winner of the Arts ACT Alec Botlon Award, and Meanderthals, published in 2011.

What is directly disconcerting about The Guardians is its stripped-back style, which lends it an unsettling air.. Poetry takes on a ghostly, yet totally secular quality when the language is this simple, and in The Guardians, this effect is pleasant in tone, aesthetic and meaning alike.

Split into three parts, The Guardians explores intergenerational bonds, illness, and returning to various homes. The styling is consistent – mostly small stanzas, stacked on top of one another like a pristine page in a stamp collection, fused with the occasional, brilliant prose poem.

Part 1, ‘The Forge’ is a swift favourite, cheekily (but with a tinge of sadness) examining the intimacy of a man at a key-cutting kiosk and his customers: ‘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.’

Part 2 opens with a grim look at a young traveller’s arrival in London, which reminded me uncomfortably of my own solo sojourn to Europe, so accurately does it portray the complex line between expectation and disappointment. ‘And I didn’t die/but watched tele, something with Shirley Henderson in it,/filled out the breakfast order,/let the unaccustomed night fall on me.’ Part 3, although falling flat in parts, redeems itself with the standout poem of the whole collection, ‘A Renovation (Girl’s Work)’.

Dougan’s poetry is outside-looking-in, rather than an invitation into the poet’s innermost feelings, and that exterior quality deceives in making the reader emotionless, even though Dougan is an intensely emotional writer. It’s all about muteness. It’s about searching for the untamed within the banal.

Louise Jaques is a poet. She edited the 29th UTS Writers’ Anthology, Strange Objects Covered With Fur, recently launched at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. She has been published in Cordite, Vertigo, and the 28th and the 29th UTS Writers’ Anthologies. You can find her on Twitter @louise_jaques.

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