from the editor's desk

Review of Cellnight: a verse novel by John Kinsella

Kinsella, John. Cellnight: a verse novel. Yarraville: Transit Lounge, 2023. RRP: $28.00, 208pp, ISBN: 9780648414094.

Nadia Rhook

Penned by the poet, novelist and environmental activist John Kinsella, Cellnight is an atmospheric verse novel set during a visit of the Seventh Fleet of the US Navy to the port in Walyalup (Fremantle) during the height of the Cold War. It circles round the figure of a ‘protestor’ arrested for demonstrating against the presence of the Fleet. Through the perspective of the protestor we are immersed in the novel’s scene. We enter Walyalup’s conspicuous Round House prison, built beside the shore called Bather’s Beach, as well as the limestone cave that hollows beneath. The prison:

squats heavy
on the roof

and walls
of this
of you
aches (176)

As mirrored in the fragments above, Cellnight often comes in lines of just a few words, as if Kinsella is suggesting that, in this world, a word is a cell, a sentence, a body, a book, a polity, a politics. Is the power of a cell equivalent, or at least mappable, to that of a word? By any motivation Cellnight edges from prose into poetry to engage the mess constitutive of settler colonialism. This may be a response to what poet and scholar Ann Vickery describes as a ‘settler mess in the cells of Australian poetry’. ‘Poetry’, Vickery writes, ‘might be seen then as a way of activating “sleeper cells” within the hive, underworlds of activity that may then inform what Foucault calls “new relational modes”’ (1).

Cellnight affirms that while, as Jeanine Leane has convincingly proposed, there are anti-colonial incentives to disobey the rules of genre, form still matters. Form is an important condition of a text, reaching into the heart and body and mind and cells of a reader in order to change them: this is no mere playful act. Kinsella is writing in a state with a ‘considerably higher’ imprisonment rate than the rest of the country (Wayne), where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are grossly over-represented in prisons. In doing so, Kinsella is speaking in cells to those constantly making and re-making racial inequalities on unceded Country in so-called Australia.


I experienced Cellnight as a layered, haunting, roving work of fiction; it allows the shouts of activism and the muting of the imprisoned, Whadjuk and non-Whadjuk worlds alike, to co-exist in one textual space. This speaks of a writing subject who knows about cells from the inside out, of an eye which has seen the jails, seen the corrupted DNA of the colony, and keeps its focus on the seemingly ever multiplying celly cell cells built by settler governments. This writer subject appears to have a view, or a privilege, far enough distant from cells to write a book which is aware of the shit that’s gone down, in verse that knows

The Fleet
under strict

of engagement
of command (177)

The task Kinsella seems to have set himself is to carry a small corner of the voluminous and violent mess the colony keeps on making while it pretends to create order. His lines of brevity and abstraction confer a feeling of distance from the all-too-banal scene of many violent systemic crimes. It’s as if this work is driven by an urgency to see what happens in cells in the night, and as if an answer or an antidote for a colonialism thirsty for complication is to strip its flesh away and leave shiny bones, threads, bare. Indeed, Kinsella describes this form as a ‘spindle’ sonnet, long, thin lines tightened into the concentration of yarn.

Interwoven stories of activism, imprisonment, nuclear armament and protest in Cellnight are alive with frequent nosedives into the very ground we walk on, greeting Country and the colonially-imposed urban landscape on which they play out. Such flights of abstraction are often followed by swerves skywards toward legibility:

and all the intrusions
all the different
of colonialism
within colonialism
while excusing
and yet it continues
and developers
pay for boardwalks
and roadways
named after
naturalist explorers
after Evolution (156)

‘It’s better to be illegible sometimes’, writes the poet Megan Fernandes. ‘Then they can’t govern you’ (189). But not all the time, Cellnight seems to say with diligent regularity. Abstractions need a ground on which to live. On reading, I felt my mind intermittently lowered into a register that somehow manages to dwell in the specificities of place, as well as in abstraction.

the ledges
the Roundhouse
a repository,
bed of ash. (175)


Once we have been inside a cell—into the core terrorising spatial unit of this colony—how can we be sure we exist outside of it? Vickery notes Charles Altieri’s argument for a ‘poetics of resistance to the administrative hive of capital’ (1); through him, she suggests that ‘we must continue to seek ideals of identity that insist on making their own forms for the noise threatening to subsume all of our fictions into the world that is all too much with us’ (Altieri, qtd. in Vickery 1).

Kinsella’s line breaks feel like waves crashing and changing direction; his short lines invite the reader to think in a structure other than blocks of paragraphs. Perhaps this feeling is unsurprising when one recalls how deeply prisons love their blocks, and how, simply yet powerfully, blocks reinforce order? The structure of Cellnight recalls the Ambelin Kwaymullina’s lucid manifesto Living on Stolen Land. It also feels like a promise: each word is as important as a phrase is deep; the way the text is makes me want to break things down. For, once you know colonial violence in cell(ular) memory, the question of witnessing appears to be pressed into form. In lines of crystal clarity, Kinsella suggests that opacity is a way to escape the state’s panoptical eyes and iron grip.

The state
cannot win
cannot own
cannot take
of what
it will never
comprehend (194)

Strategic obscurity can be a way to resist state surveillance through evasion. Words work here as a film, putting a layer of something rhythmic and shimmery between the bowels of the colony/its never-finished, thoroughly underdetermined workings, and the neatness of its uniforms/overdetermined structures. To write into cells, then, might be to write at once into the smallest units of conscious life and of organisations. It is also to risk invisibility, for not many of us carry microscopes powerful enough to observe the cellular life of our bodies and of the penal state.


Cellnight skipped over so many deceptively simple surfaces that, to be honest, at times I felt its story was evading me. At other moments, it felt the novel was asking me—or any reader tuned into the colony’s ways—to dare to skim one’s eye across a molecular kind of surface: the surface of a place called Walyalup since time immemorial, in order to examine the histories of protest movements always more organic than they might be memorialised. A reader might do so only to find that this surface is—like a wall, or a name, or a place—a story that may or may not be Kinsella’s to tell. Perhaps this movement between forms and places and depths of field is a way to story a world against the perniciously sedentarising forces of settler colonialism.

This is a novel that deserves a close reading, for its language holds colonial cells in its sights until the time they, we, are no longer a constant multiplication of violence. For there are:

the voice,
how many
of syntax
and parataxis,
how many
till you
are no longer
that self (137)

Nadia Rhook is a settler historian, poet, and educator, living on unceded Wurundjeri Woi-Worrung Country. Passionate about imaginative ways of connecting with the past, she’s the author of two history themed poetry collections: boots (UWA Publishing, 2020) and Second Fleet Baby (Fremantle Press, 2022). Nadia can currently be found researching histories of holistic health and writing poems through the temporalities of stone.

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