from the editor's desk

Eclogue As Review—John Kinsella’s ‘Drowning In Wheat: Selected Poems’ & ‘Firebreaks’

John Kinsella, Drowning In Wheat: Selected Poems 1980-2015. Sydney, New South Wales: Picador 2016. RRP: 32.99, 400pp. ISBN: 9781447221487

John Kinsella, Firebreaks. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc 2016. RRP: 30.95, 288pp. ISBN: 9780393352610

Dave Drayton


John Kinsella has released four books in 2016 (in addition to the three discussed below is the recently launched limited edition three-volume set, Graphology Poems: 1995-2015, published by 5 Islands Press), and, as juvenile a line of enquiry as it may seem, it is interesting to consider the environmental costs of such prolificacy. It is possible, with a little research and arithmetic, to approximate the number of trees felled for the printed pages of Kinsella’s poetry over the years; but how to count or account for the seeds—both literal and metaphorical—planted by readings of the same?

Another question: What might be the collective noun for poems? A collection? An anthology? Stale Objects depress recently published a ‘chrestomathy’ featuring poems from Elena Gomez, Autumn Royal, Claire Nashar and others… To refine the question: what might be the collective noun for the more than forty books worth of John Kinsella’s poems? A collective noun for the poems selected from 23 collections—from 1997’s retrospective Poems 1980-1994 to A Shared Wonder Of Light (2016), a collaboration with photographer John D’Alton documenting West Cork and Kerry, published by Whyte Books—and collated in Drowning In Wheat? Or those from Firebreaks?

A flock?

A flock of poems?

Gather your flock together (Eclogue III)

I see my writing as a project, and it could be argued that all my poems are part of one long work or at least drafts towards one substantial piece of work (The Long Poem and the Sequence, 96).

The poems in Drowning In Wheat are presented in a mostly chronological manner, and while nothing has been extracted from Kinsella’s verse plays or long poem works Drowning In Wheat can conceivably be read as the latter—an epic anti-pastoral—documenting both his life and that of the earth, filled with flora, fauna, fire, wire and fences, that he will return to.


The leaves, like wire, are so tangled
(‘Finches’, 3).

A ring-necked parrot drops into flight
fence posts collapse and ossify
(‘Old Hands/New Tricks’, 13).

fences’ sunk to gullies
catching the garbage of paddocks
(‘Pillars of Salt’, 18).

find nothing but sky
and wire trembling
(‘A Rare Sight’, 85).

the metalman speaks in tongues to his Vulcan
son, who, deep in their alchemy, acknowledges only
with jets of flame
(‘The Fire in the Forty-Four’, 112).

In the first poem of Drowning In Wheat, ‘Notes on Fire-tumbles’, Kinsella writes that they are neither poetry nor a substitute for it: ‘They are things wild / whose wanderings / are without motive’ (2). If not poetry or a substitute for it, then Kinsella has at least made the case for their being the subject of poetry and from this point assumed the role of documentarian in this ecology, working to record ‘unimaginable limits’ and visions that ‘last an instant’ (2). In this way we are party to the poet’s revelation shared in ‘Bluff Knoll Sublimity’:

on seeing Mont Blanc – THE POEM –
and not Mont Blanc – THE MOUNTAIN –
the surrounding plains
with their finely etched topography
can be brought into focus (75).

We can see the Wheatbelt, Wireless Hill, a Warhol or West Calf Island, Ireland—THE FLOCK— and bring the wider world that supports and surrounds the subjects of these poems into focus.


Ward off the solstice from my flock, for now
Comes on the burning summer, now the buds
Upon the limber vine-shoot ‘gin to swell (Eclogues VII)

Members of the flock inevitably flee, perish, or are poached. Its ranks shrink, and like vine-shoot swell. What can be said of the flock warded behind Firebreaks, in which Kinsella writes to, from and of Jam Tree Gully, and in ‘(frequently oppositional) dialogue… with Ovid’s late works of exile, Tristia and Ex Ponto, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics Of Space and The Psychoanalysis of Fire’? (15)

It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality (The Poetics Of Space, 61).

While it is useful to think of Kinsella as an activist eco-poet, it is equally important to be aware of his practice as a diarist as it informs the aforementioned role of documentarian. Whether writing to and of Jam Tree Gully from Cambridge, where he is a Fellow of Churchill College, from Ireland, or while on the land itself, Kinsella is acutely aware of impermanence. Acknowledging this, the flock shares many of the characteristics of those preceding it; instantaneous visions that work to sharpen our focus on an element of nature before establishing a selection of its innumerable codependents and in doing suggesting the infinite and unique tensions that create and support a moment in timespace. The members of the flock are like the ‘Cutouts and Light (After Matisse)’ Kinsella documents:

They vary by the second. Time
is their main ingredient, their shape
is colour: of bark, of grass, of sand,
of clay, of rock, of sky, of fence,
of beetle, of fly, of bird. They
are interwoven cuttings of colour.
All colour is contact but nothing
is primary (220).

I tell myself / that this has nothing to do with ‘property’, / but everything to do with boundaries (188)… That’s what space is: a chart of constraints… Space is denial or incursion, more or less (163)… Space is nothing without empathy (234)… Explaining the politics of caring is hard (194)…

It is difficult to picture the vegan Kinsella as shepherd to a flock of sheep, so what species might we say the flock contains? An image from ‘Vatic’ comes to mind:

Corella outside its flock
a frantic daylight angel. Flourishing still-life (208).

Work cited:
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics Of Space (trans. Maria Jolas). Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Kinsella, John. ‘The Long Poem and The Sequence,’ Spatial Relations. Volume Two: Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Chorography. New York: Rodopi, 2013: 95-98.

Virgil. The Eclogues (trans. J. B. Greenough). Adelaide: The University Of Adelaide, 2014. Sourced online at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/v/virgil/v5e/index.html

Dave Drayton is an amateur banjo player, Vice President of the Australian Sweat Bathing Association, a founding member of the Atterton Academy, and the author of Haiturograms (Stale Objects dePress) and Poetic Pentagons (Spacecraft Press).

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