Kinsella, John. Harsh Hakea: Collected Poems Volume Two (2005-2014). Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2023. RRP: $55.00, 830pp, ISBN: 9781760802349.
Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, 8th March 2023.
It rained yesterday, and now a new yellow book of poems, words scrawled across the black and darker yellow. (I’m sure there’s a word beginning with C for this, is it citrine?) No Graffiti: the same as the blue front of Ascension of Sheep: Collected Poems Volume One (1980-2005), but this is Harsh Hakea: Volume Two (2005-2014), John Kinsella.
‘[W]ith respect and acknowledgement to Ballardong Noongar, Whadjuk Noongar, Yued Noongar and Yamaji peoples on whose country I so often write…’
801 pages of poems, nine years, equals almost 100 poems per year (and Kinsella has omitted poems, choosing only those which still stand ethically and as objects of interest). There are twenty-nine sections, some familiar—Sack, Sand, Jam Tree Gully, but others I never thought to know: (Rapacities: A Death’s Jest Book)? Three sections from 2005, two ’06, one ’07, two ’08, one ’09, two ’10, three ’11, seven ’12, one ’13, one ’14, and multiple undated.
I decide to read a section a day. Including intro, notes, afterword, acknowledgements, etc., this will take me about a month. It will be, I decide (without consulting the other party who is either one—the book, or two—Kinsella) a dialogue. These are poems I know from my teens and twenties, where have they gone, where have I gone in the intervening years? What happens when we bring 800 pages of nine years into one volume, one condensed span of reading?
‘Introduction: Against the Violence of Gravity’, Anne Vickery, xxv–xxxiii.
‘Defying Gravity’ is the earworm from the musical Wicked first staged in the US in 2003, opening in Australia in 2008, the song was everywhere then, but is nowhere present in this introduction nor, I posit, in the following volume of poems. Sometimes I say to my friends ‘we live in the same internet’ and this is a book outside wires (except paintbrushes and electrical ones). Indeed, I learn from one of the afterwords that Kinsella composes many of his poems on typewriter (although has co-authored the blog ‘Mutually Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist’ with Tracy Ryan for years).
If I were to (re)write this introduction as keywords for a Boolean search engine, I would note TIME (and interaction with literature); CONSCIENCE (and ‘the role of poetry as potential instrument of intervention but also a means to mediate feelings of powerlessness’ (xxvi)); PLACE (and wheatbelt of Western Australia; and Work; and Environmental Destruction); CHILDREN (as a ‘counterpoint to the older poet’s perspective’, (xxviii)); POETRY (and ability ‘to witness and counter elements of damage and violence’ (xxix); and ‘limits to’ particularly Western tradition and the ‘literary canon’ (xxx)); and VISUAL ARTS (and collaboration with, and influence of).
(NOTE: while Vickery mentions swans and ‘green birds’ they are both pictorial images, not actual birds (xxxiii). This is one of the first introductions to Kinsella’s work I’ve read which omits feathers.)
‘Paint: some uncollected poems’ (2005), 1–12.
Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, computer icon for weather shows sun, it is 8.44am on the 10th of March. Also reading: Charlotte McConaghy, Once There Were Wolves.
References: Yeats (WB), Bate (Jonathan), Clare (John), Turner (the), Porter (Peter, to), Gleason (James), Robusti (Marietta), Dowling (Julie).
We begin with a painting ‘you don’t actually paint’, and immediately pivot to fire, ‘a landscape with its molten painting / after fire-damage paint’ (‘Paint’ 1). The next poem takes us out of the frame, ‘the fires in Gleneagle / Are so extreme that their smoke covers York’. But the poet isn’t here, he is feeling it ‘from Afar’, is ‘told’ about it (‘The Fallout…’ 1). In the following poem he turns to John Clare and lightning, a different type of fire perhaps, one that in the process of burning reveals ‘Ewe and lamb […] // one soul together’ (‘Lightning Charm’ 2).
If we listen, we find the poet seeking the colours, the palette, Yeats’ green poles, the yellow and red of fire and drought, the unnatural blue of municipal fountain and the implied blues of Turner (even if the painting mentioned has no cerulean, only the faintest duck egg behind swathes of sail and cloud). In ‘Translations: after three Julie Dowling Icons’ and ‘Two more translations from Julie Dowling’, he takes the colours ‘night’s black’, ‘blue radiance’, ‘golden light’, ‘red tears’, ‘saturate blue light // as light is only blue’ and we end on ‘Rainbows cut across // djurapin’ (8–11).
Dowling is a Badimaya First Nation woman. In her work, the poet finds the potential for ‘healing we see in ourselves’ (‘Yorga; scar’ 11). But Kinsella is careful, warns in the final poem of ‘[c]olour and irony. The splendour / of a stray ultra-red feather, off the chart. / And what the paint protects: the heat’s bubbling, shame of rain-trace lifting’ (‘Paint and Exteriors’, 11–12).
from Love Sonnets: Taking the First Two Lines of Zora Cross’s Love Sonnets and … (2005), 13–19.
Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, Saturday 11th March, 31 degrees. Willy Weather, my dad tells me, predicts a lovely day. Also reading: Carole Hailey, The Silence Project.
References: Zora Cross, Shakespeare, Seinfeld, Huysmans.
I don’t know who Zora Cross is/was, so I google: lived 18 May 1890–22 January 1964, wore a bonnet, had eyes piercing blue or tannin brown.
As the title suggests, he takes the first two lines, ‘Your brows are like a vale in Thessaly, / where tall brown pines reach a turquoise sky’, and follows on, ‘As jarrah doesn’t reach anything now, chopped out’ (‘XI’ 14). It’s both a revision, a ‘requel’ (see: Scream 5), a version, a way of paying attention to history, to poetry, to the poet in history, to the poet walking through old-growth forest. The link between the poet, the poem, the paper and the tree never clearer.
The whole sequence isn’t replicated here, a person with more time, more of a sense of the whole, would go back, find the gaps, see what it does to the body.
‘Ten Pleas for the Life of Van Tuong Nguyen’ (2005), 19–23.
Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, phone screen says 17 degrees—today 26 degrees and sunny—news alert that La Niña officially over, meteorologists watching from El Niño. Also reading: Yumna Kussub, The Lovers.
One for each day to the execution of Van Tuong Nguyen on the 2nd of December 2005, republished as an ‘ongoing plea against the death sentence’ (19). Republished means, as ‘ongoing’ does, that the poet holds faith in the poem, or even just a link to that faith ‘stretched taut’ (‘Grace…’ 19). The final plea returns us to the colour palette, creates links between how ‘Each life contains colours / Of the spectrum, and soars over / The darkness’ (‘Luc Bat’ 23), the poem an act of remembering. Active.
‘America or Glow’ (2006), 24–49.
Saturday 18th March, Gamayngal, Bideagal, Gweagal, Gadigal and Gadhungal Land, Sydney airport: no temperature, no place. Also reading: Everything Under, Daisy Johnson.
References: too many to mention. Notably, the poet says ‘for the record, recently / I have taken the following books / out of the library: / poetry of Dunbar, Zanzotto, Lorca (Poeta en Nueva York), Sinisgalli, Cesaire / Dickey, Berryman, Beddoes; Feher’s The Libertine Reader, / Castro’s Interpreting the Indian: Twentieth-Century Poets / and the Native American, Knapp’s critical biography Antonin Artaud ,/ Hart’s biography of James Dickey, Indigenous Australian Voices: / A Reader, volumes of American anarchy, on pacificism, on the environment…’ (27).
Fun fact: as soon as you mention the Billy Joel classic ‘We didn’t start the fire’, everything you read is scanned as such. There is no list which cannot be read to its tempo, especially when the poem consists of interspliced historical (Mandela, Malcom X), musical (Eminem, JLo), and literary references (Baudrilliard, Steinbeck). It’s poem as montage: the screen behind Joel in the film clip on which we see the Berlin Wall fall, and then in the poem behind that again Australia (‘Kidman’s Antipodean nose’, ‘in New England the phantom of cricket haunts / baseball diamonds’ (28; 41). The poet grieving across continents the war that went for the fifteen years of this collected, when it was still just ‘invasion’.
‘Sacre-Coeur: A Salt Tragedy’ (2006), 50–73.
20th March, Curtin Bentley Campus (Whadjuk Noongar boodjar). 35 degrees anticipated. Also reading: Laura McPhee-Browne, Little Plum.
References: Carmina Gadelica, Guillevic, Matthew Arnold, Augustus, Bergson
Another long poem, no section titles or numbers just extra white space (extra salt?). If this is the Sacred Heart, then what/where does the poet worship? We begin in a house where again ‘paint bubbles’, as later in the poem ‘white guilt’ forms ‘a crust’ (50–1). Even ‘the moon’ there only watches ‘scars’ a ‘tractor ripple ripped up’ (53).
The trees ‘she-oaks’, ‘dead mallee’, failing, result in ‘lost faith’ (54–5), but later still planting ‘casuarina obese and melaleuca cuticularis / on the frayed area between pasture and salt’ despite that ‘line after line of eucalypts have been planted / and fallen here’ (57). But the poet is still writing/righting them, how ‘[l]ists of names / help me tie things together’ (61).
In poems like this, where Kinsella ties ongoing violence of colonisation to the Inquisition and back to its heart in the church, all the while not releasing the reader from an insistence to see the environment in its particularities, I find there is no one better at making the word reveal the world. To show poetry as an action a person makes, like planting trees, or, conversely, driving a Ute across a salt plain.
‘Documentary Evidence’ (2007) (73–78) and ‘The Wanderer’ (78–83).
References: Amichai, Virgil, Auden, Brennan, Pink Floyd, Apollonaire, Rosetti, Gus Van Sant.
Placed together the poems illustrate a constant tension: stay or go? Sit still, travel, be in motion? The poems reveal it’s a false binary, the way we find Amichai, Virgil, Auden in ‘Documentary Evidence’, while the poet stays in his wheatbelt office transcribing the main street, and in ‘The Wanderer’ although the ‘world fed me’, we find ourselves again immersed in ‘wheat futures, / heat upsetting reception; / central wheatbelt’ (79–81).
Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful (2008), 83–166.
March 21st. Houston, TX 2015 & Perth/Boorloo 2023. Also reading: Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw.
References: ‘come out of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry…’ (83), Mary Shelley, Strindberg, Bookchin, Ed Abbey, Shelley, Eliot, Leavis, Emily Apter, Kalidasa, Chatterton (on Rowley), Graham Nerlich, Gauss, Klein, Mallory, Jacobson (on Xlebnikov), Albert Tucker, Anacreon, Arthur Streeton, Alphonse Karr, Dr. Marion Kickett, Kahlo, Gospel of Mark, Harry S. Truman, Einstein, Hitchock, Goethe, AC/DC, Faerie Queene, Nuffield Foundation.
In the second year of my MFA in poetry we were told to pick a volume of poetry and write one A4 page on how it resonated with us. I picked Kinsella’s Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful off a second-hand bookshelf, improbably, in Houston. I had been trying to understand (and write) of the difference between the Texas ‘Big Sky’ and the Western Australian one. The Texan sky always felt closer, like a ceiling, WA’s like a sail stretched over the frame of a hot air balloon.
Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful is full of WA sky, at ‘ebblight’ where ‘what else can you do / but discuss the light, / […] against background filling out / all other space?’ (‘Nyctalopia…’ 84). As his poems reveal, it’s more a question of light and space than colour:
… noticing the Gaussian issue
applying to the sky
which was saddling downwards
or maybe breaking out
of this into other spatialities:
bending into topological meltdown
(‘Imitation Spatialogue’ 99)
of sky’s curvature
keeping us all close
(‘Imitation Spatialogue’ 100)
Reading Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful in Texas and now again in Boorloo, I find breath in the white space of the lines, often moving left to right across the whole of the page. It makes me question if a sense of home is knowing what the light falls on or off before it reaches you. Even if, as Kinsella notes, ‘Light, intermitting, collates violence’ (‘Intermitting’ 128).
‘Poet in a Train’, (2008) 166–176; ‘Horsehead Nebula’, 176–180; ‘Soil Skin’, 180–187.
Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, 23rd March. Trees browning with the ten-degree temperature drop. Also reading: Tina Brown, The Palace Papers.
References: Les (Murray), Lost in Space, Rubens, Dante, Len Burdell, David Malin, Eadweard Muybridge, Phar Lap.
It’s interesting to encounter the poems not originally held in volumes. The volumes (and selections thereof) transfer with a sense of their borders offering context. The poems, or sequences, written to be published solo, or for other purposes (such as exhibitions), feel interstitial, like having the published minutes to a meeting, then seeing a recording of the whole proceedings and the break for tea and tiny cakes.
‘Poet in a Train’ is noted as having been published as a chapbook in Canada, but the other two have no previous publication noted and do not have a date in the table of contents. It’s engaging to imagine ‘Poet in a Train’ as written in that great space of settler nothingness—the Nullarbor (‘a million square miles of nothing’ 173)—and then existing as a small volume in the very different (and wet) landscape of Canada, taking with it ‘Black sun Maralinga’ and ‘feral goats in twilight’ (174; 175).
Moving from ‘Poet in a Train’ into ‘Horsehead Nebulae’ feels like a radical shift in perspective. There are some similarly oriented lines in how the horse brings Kinsella back to ‘Phar Lap’, ‘horses spooked by fire’, and dying ‘on the Western front’, but it’s from the angle of the rest of the universe (176; 177; 179). Yet ‘Poet in a Train’ contextualises how we read this next poem, for instance it is impossible to read the line ‘Sigma Orionis that ionizes O red O red’ in ‘Horsehead Nebula’ after the reference in ‘Poet in a Train’ to Maralinga without seeing the violence of ions and suns (178).
‘Soil Skin’ follows, mirroring ‘Poet in a Train’. Section one travelling from ‘Northam to Adelaide October 2009’ and section two back from ‘Adelaide to Northam’ in the same month. These journeys are silent, unlike those in ‘Poet in a Train’ which were preoccupied with the conversations and histories overheard and imagined by the poet. Taken together we see the mastery of the poet attending to one sense then another, with the Horsehead Nebula silently fizzing at the mouth above it all.
From Dialogue Between Body & Soul (2009) (187–190); ‘Struck by Lightning and Wandering Enthusiastically’ (2010) (191–195).
Sunday 26th March. Yued Noongar Country, Grey Shack settlement. A light rainfall on tin. Also Reading: Holly Black, A Book of Night.
References: Melanie Challenger, Richard Sorabji; Laurie Anderson.
The table of contents indicates we have reached 2010 by the time we read ‘Struck by Lightning’. The dedication for Dialogue Between Body and Soul is for Melanie Challenger ‘who also eschewed flying’ (187), and in the apocalyptic visions of ‘Struck by Lightning’ the figure facing (perhaps causing?) the Revelations-like ‘sky darkened. / The crows came in murders. / Cathedral spires crumbled’ enters the poem ‘flying north to the great / nameless metropolis’ having ‘begged / for the window though / it wasn’t allocated to him’ (194; 191).
Some might imagine (and have confirmed by one of the afterwords) that at some point over the first and second volume of collected until now the poet has ceased flying. Maybe when he started riding trains? There has also only been 190 pages of poetry in the five years of ‘05, ‘06, ‘07, ‘08 and ‘09 meaning there is approximately 610 to come in the next six. Being the mother of a two-year-old, and also a poet, I want to trace the mentions of his toddler son against output, see if the pages flow easier once the child is older. But likely, if I—or you—were to branch beyond the bibliography of poetry, one would find reams of novels and critical material to make up the word count.
From Sand (2010), 195–239.
Monday 27th March. Whadjuk Noongar boodjar. ‘Mallokup’ (‘place of trees’ according to the campus signage), cloudy, under 20 degrees. Also reading: Kamila Shamsie, Best of Friends.
References: Music popular in Perth in the 1980/’90s, Hart Crane, Julie Dowling, George Latham, Namatjira, Robert Drewe, Geoffrey Chaucer, Trevor Jamieson, Noel Nannup, Björk, Charmaine Papertalk-Green, Lord of the Flies.
Some days I don’t write poems. Or read them. I wonder if this has ever been true for Kinsella? (This is my way of reiterating it’s almost been a month and I am only a quarter through). When I read poems about poems, it’s harder to produce them. My husband likes to tell me we each have a set number of words to use per day, and he reaches his limit sooner than I do. But my words seem to be divided into pools for different uses, and it seems Kinsella’s pool is bottomless, particularly when it comes to the places he occupies in Western Australia. There’s less travelling across continents in this volume of the collected than in Sheep’s Ascension, instead we travel with the spreading of shoots underground, or the river and wetlands of the Perth coastal plain that fill and empty with the rain or underground springs. Or the way how, on the pages of ‘Perth Poem’, we are shown a map of each quadrant of suburbia (and beyond) and then with a reiteration of ‘Branch’, Kinsella takes us elsewhere.
It is definitively the great Perth trainline poem,
so the northern lines they spoke
of when you were a child
finally went through: Perth, Leederville, Glendalough, Stirling,
Warwick, Whitfords, Edgewater, Joondalup, Currambine […]
each with a ticket machine, this frontier policing
of outposts and then filling in the space
Earlier in the poem, the poet asks
[…] What does
the Narrows Bridge, for all its expansion,
become a symbol of: who wants nation?
Who wants Crane’s Bridge, symbol
of the New America?
The poem with its long lines and expansive scope ironises the potential for an epic of Perth in the vein of ‘The Bridge’ or Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ or even the scream which is ‘Howl’. How well can (and should) these Western epic aspirations map onto the ongoing violence of settler colonisation to land and peoples (there are eight mentions of police or policing in the poem, the most notable the poet links to ‘deaths in custody’ (202)).
In the poem ‘Geraldton: first prophecy’ similar questions are asked of Kinsella’s northern ‘hometown’ and pervade the whole of the Sand (and perhaps are the central concerns of the volumes of the collected themselves). As in his ongoing dialogue with artist Julie Dowling:
I mean respect,
I mean to listen,
I mean to talk
quietly to myself,
River, bird, city.
I should cry not just for pain
but the beauty of seeing,
a partial seeing and hearing
(‘River, Bird, City … Inland’ 214; 215)
Reading the selection from Sand, I found myself reaching for some metaphor that could describe the impossibility of what the volume was trying to grasp, and then I realised it was in the title.
from Rapacity: A Death’s Jest-Book (2011). Intertext (1829 text): a de-dramatisation (out of Beddoes) 240–251. Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, 28th March. Also reading: Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow.
The note says, ‘This poem intertexts Beddoes’s original work (1829 text) with “rewrites” and diversions to create a political and ethical détournement that refuses the bigotries of the time of my writing’ (240). 2005–2014 traces the zenith of the Western Australian mining boom (properties in the Pilbara, a common measure of the boom, reach their peak in 2012, before massive job shedding in 2013–2015) and we see despair building across this volume as
across the valley, as they ready
to get driven by wives, girlfriends,
boyfriends, down to the city airport
to go interior again. Urine tests,
camp kitchen, pay packet.
Conceived as a ‘satirical tragedy’ Beddoes’s investigation of mortality and immortality is set to work here to address the aggressive greed of Perth and WA in the oughts. The tragedy here is on one level intertextual, the poem, originally published in 2011 at the peak of the boom, by linking us with Beddoes, insists on the decline which did inevitably follow.
Armour (2011), 252–316.
March 29th. In bed in Bicton, 8.30am. Also reading: Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora.
References: Simonides, Wilfred Funk, Piaf, Peter Sculthorpe, Mallarme, Poete Engage, Rumi, Tracy Ryan, Valery, Melville, Frank Herbert (Dune), Stow, Dürer, Henry James, Peter Porter, Vincenzo Foppa (on Cicero), Donne, Handel, Sex Pistols, Dave McComb, American Songbook, Baudelaire, Jacques Brel.
In the list of references above, I should also have mentioned owls, processional caterpillars, bees, the ‘flat discs of jellyfish: moon translucent’ (‘Sand Tale’ 287). In Armour, Kinsella returns to the particularities of his ‘miniscule patch’ to ‘sing from’ (‘Habitat’ 256). The poems are often even quatrains, and the opening seven poems could be read as one long sequence, in which the poet grows ‘into the parrots with green tails and yellow hearts / you shoot when they fill your sights’ (‘Habitat’ 256). Other deaths appear only in context of this 2011 volume being now twelve years old, when Kinsella writes of how ‘the car grille has choked on insects, has glutted / with plague-season locusts’ (‘Write-off’ 257). I receive it having discussed with my husband how few insects now cover our windscreen in long drives across WA. How we once had to have the wipers turned on purely to remove the legs and now it’s only for dust, the tourist version of knowing the decade since Armour’s publication saw an almost 10% decline globally in terrestrial insect abundance (van Klink et al., 417). In this collected (as in the previous one) when Kinsella writes of how, ‘[i]t’s easy to think seasons— / ironic schemes of things— // endnotes / of an elegiac / pastoral’, the pastoral and the elegiac are not linked purely poetically (‘Easterlies’ 269). The ‘Work Rural Work’ of pastoral life in the wheatbelt is a cause for elegy, where ‘Rural is ploughing / at night and tasting diesel in your sandwiches, / […] it’s pulling supernovas of caltrop out / in the bleeding sun, when all else is dead’ (281). Kinsella highlights the fragility of contemporary Western rural work, including the pastoral, in comparison to Noongar culture of ‘myths that are real, stories that are fact’ (‘Idyllatry’ 275).
from ‘Tales of the Weird and the Grotesque’ (2011), 317–321.
Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, 30/03. Cold enough for long pants in the morning. Still reading: The Lies of Locke Lamora.
References: Rob Zombie, Bridges of Madison County, AC/DC.
A poem, nestled between Armour and Jam Tree Gully both reproduced in extant, and it could belong to either of them. Originally published in the Idaho Review, but I can’t find any extension. If it became a full volume, it’s unpublished. And the version in the collected removes two sections from the original, one reproducing overheard (not the poet’s own) racist language and one on ‘chicken pox parties’ which I speculate rings poorly in a COVID landscape.
Jam Tree Gully (2012), 322–407.
Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, first major rain of the season, last day of March. Also reading: Still The Lies of Locke Lamora (in my defence it is almost as long as the Kinsella).
References: Barron Field, D.H. Lawrence, Thoreau (WALDEN), Marcus Clarke, Delmore (maybe Schwartz?), William James, Arto Melleri, Hayden Carruth, Beethoven, Equus, Pushkin.
Last weekend, we took our son to stay at the shack up at the Grey Shack Settlement, where I have played at my own Walden (in a distinctly touristic sense). As we arrived, we saw a snake slither off the track, I told my son that healthy pythons mean healthy land, or as Kinsella puts in in ‘Reptile Life’,‘[w]e measure life by their presence—snakes / and lizards’ (329). In ‘Jam Tree Gully’, many poems are prefaced by a quote from Thoreau, most often sections of Walden. The choice of the American Ur-text is performing double work. Beyond the thematic parallels of Kinsella and family establishing themselves in the day-to-day life at Jam Tree Gully to Thoreau at Walden, there is the subtle reminder of Kinsella’s previous time living in the rurality of Ohio. The property at Jam Tree Gully is defined by locals through the presence of a big red barn/shed, something that causes the poet to reflect ‘[t]his memory of America won’t depart’ (‘Red Shed’ 369). Kinsella, in Jam Tree Gully, is writing his way into his new place but is always conscious of the global history in which he is doing this—one, of course, of settler colonialism. So, while Jam Tree Gully is rightly celebrated for its song of the Avon Valley and surrounds, its broader rhetoric addresses placemaking globally through statements on how ‘Monoculture is harm’ (‘Chaser Bins’ 355), or how:
[i]t is nothing
to do with nature, this act of living
of ours. This providing for family.
But we will look out new windows
down on the trees long there,
and the understorey we are filling in.
The making and the feeling
of goodness is another type
of nature again, and it won’t resolve.
Importantly, the poet tests out the limits of poetry in these new surrounds, describes his ‘script’ ‘like cut wire / flailing about’ (‘Defencing the Block’ 327), finds ‘no lyric in gunshot’ (‘Saturday Afternoon’ 333), states ‘[l]anguage generates nothing as whole trees fall’ (358). The way through, he suggests, is learning to listen for other languages, the ‘Goat’ that ‘speaks to me and I am learning to hear it speak’ (328), to not ‘introduce / new names but search out the old. / That’s not appropriation—it’s respect / and learning’ (‘This will not…’ 344). It’s an unfencing of language, in the same way the poet describes pulling down the wires fences to let the kangaroos through or transforming that big red American horse barn/shed: ‘Bit by bit we’ll undo, welcome / owls and carpet snakes into high places’ such that ‘the house, too, could almost belong’ (‘Architecture without ornaments’ 347–348).
The inclusion of eleven ‘Shibboleths: Jam Tree Gully Poems not included in original published volume’ shows this ‘almost belonging’ to be an extended process. As in the poem ‘Shibboleths’, he is still writing ‘[c]ould I belong at a stretch’, the poem ending on ‘an easterly through the wheat sings “stay, stay”’ (415–416).
The Jaguar’s Dream (2012), 417–540.
Many days. Whadjuk Noongar boodjar. Also reading: Insatiable, Daisy Buchanan.
Works on: Alcman, Anacreon, Meleager, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Luxorius, Villon, Louis Labé, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Leconte de Lisle, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Charles Cros Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbiére, Arthur Rinbaud, Rainier Maria Rilke, Catherine Pozzi, Jules Supervielle, Mayakovsky, Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos, Aimé Césaire, Ouyang Yu. Others: John Scott, Cate Blanchett, Constantin Guys, Félix Nadar, Henry Mercier, Michel Eudes, Paul de Cassagnac, Goethe, Paul Celan.
Since extension maths, year seven, Bicton Primary School, 1997, 500 metres, and 25 years away, I remember being told to ‘show your working’, that the right answer means nothing without how you got there and a wrong one could be redeemed by getting 95% of the way and no answer at all permissible as long as you show in good faith an attempt. Kinsella is a poet who shows his working. The Jaguar’s Dream is decades worth of translation work. Beginning with ‘Classical Verse’, including an extension version of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ and lesser-known poems such as ‘Anacreontea: ‘Cicada’ (a version)’:
And each rip is an echo
And each echo is a sign (417)
In the 2000s when pirating movies or music to transmit freely in a peer-to-peer embrace, the original taking from object to code was called a rip.
Recently, the arbiters of such things, decreed a pop song to break copyright because it had taken ‘the vibe’ of another. No direct tune or word but enough sameness that the overlap was punishable.
is not cartography, nor our lines to take (‘Madura pass Resolve’ 425)
A pause, a stalling, a child sick with gastro and then, a parent. (Is this what it means to be the sandwich generation?) Would Kinsella believe the right poems find you when you need them? Probably not, but it’s true of his ‘Verse from the16th to 19th Centuries’ which pause the currents of contemporary life, and are often translations in a traditional sense and sometimes you just need to read about how
[t]he python, from the centre of a scarlet cactus
Uncoils his scales and, curious witness,
Lifts his flat heat above the bushes,
Watches her pass in the distance. (‘The Black Panther…’ Le Conte de Lisle 472)
There’s something cool and thirst-slaking in these lines, the lushness of the image, the ease of the regular syntax and stanzas.
These are poems almost outside the drought and sand of the rest of the collected (until of course we reach the French symbolists with their fire, ash and ennui). I skim Rimbaud, as I always do, and return to the ‘Verse from the Nineteenth to Twentieth Centuries’, and Rilke and a wonderfully energising response to Mayakovsky. The final section of ‘Verse from the Twentieth to Twenty-First Centuries’, ends with two ‘transversions’ of Ouyang Yu poems, I wonder if this is the only book to begin with the Greek Classics and end with the great Chinese-Australian poet and what links might be formed between them? Even if only partially, with the ‘cohesion / of a diminutive but determined / dust mote’ (‘Miniscule…’ 540).
from Redstart (2012), 540-550.
lutruwita, 11th April. COLD. Snow on the mountain. Also reading: Robert Drewe Nimblefoot.
References: Forrest Gander, Ginsberg, Francis Thompson, Victor Hugo, Georges Simenon, Pat Califia, Laura Riding.
What better place for a ‘Codex for a [p]rotest’ than to be where one worked, stopped trees from falling, the dam from falling, though in the ‘wilderness’ where the dam ends, the stumps remain.
what do I infact,
want you to understand…? (543)
That what happened in the violence of this poem happened—happens—everywhere? Even the island continent further south marked as no country, just territory. Even there with the ice caps and penguins, even there the paper today reports the culture is one of abuse, worthy of protest, and I agree ‘[r]ape is hate’ (546).
‘Globe Hotel and Inner City Poems’ (2012), 551–557.
lutruwita. No snow. 13th April. Also reading: Eleanor Catton, Birnam Wood.
References: Madonna, Mayakovsky.
The Black Hills look clean in the sunshine, the trees faking at being deciduous with not enough water pulsing down the rib from the summer drought to hold the leaves. The coffee is bone warm and flavourful, the avenues named ‘Pioneer’. My friends message me about how they don’t ‘trust anyone’ (you write ‘[f]ew trust you’ (552)). My child not sleeping. Kiefer Sutherland on the TV, also paranoid. Away from Perth, I have nothing to add to this poem, except I know that city, can track the years passing by how many ‘[s]hops sell nothing’ (557), and I feel myself as ‘blasphemy’ to it, no matter how far away I am (552).
‘Paradise Lust: An Intertext with Milton’, 558–574.
Fri 14th April. lutruwita. At Agrarian Kitchen. Also reading: Hell Bent, Leigh Bardugo.
References: bpNicol, The Little Prince, Vaughan Williams, Offenbach, Brave New World, 1984, Warhol, Mick Stow, Jane’s Addiction, Othello.
The menu of the restaurant in which I am drafting this quotes Wendell Berry, ‘An agrarian mind begins with the love of fields, and ramifies in good farming, good cooking and good eatings’ (np). It continues ‘[a]t the core of our offering we hope the integrity of the ingredients speak for themselves’ (np).
The section of the collected has a note: ‘[t]his is an interaction with John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. It is an ‘unmaking’ for a time when epics risk becoming benign parodies of destruction and rapacity’ (558).
Location changes everything. I cannot for instance agree ‘fruits are sparse’ and they told me the exact age of the pig sliced to accompany the apple (eight years) (558). Kinsella writes ‘we never thought of calling our son / Michael’, and we are the same, even though my grandfather is Micheil and gifts me books whenever I travel to visit him here (560).
After this meal I get COVID and cannot read, so instead I listen to a group of people on YouTube read Milton. It’s my first time getting through the whole. ‘It’s a banger’ I text my ‘books + other stuff’ WhatsApp, a subgroup of my ‘cool mum’s book club’, and set my husband to task to find out which demons are named in the Bible and which Milton invented, like a five-year-old naming their dolls and calling them babies, headless and hairless, the limbs gnawed with teeth. The blank verse read aloud has the effect of making everything feel like it moves from point a to point b.
The thing everyone says about the devil is that he is hot, despite Jesus and his ‘controlled burn’ (562). But what I retain coming out of my fever, is just the blank verse, the ten-by-ten, shapeliness of order. The copy of Milton I own was passed to me by Micheil who also turned over Byron, Epictetus, Gilmore and five copies of Thoreau. Then love poetry: EBB and ESVM.
In Kinsella’s ‘unmaking’, the blank verse is unstitched to find,
No field to take or nurture (561)
Including, of course, the poetic field.
from Echoes (2012), 575–598.
Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, April 29th. 8 degrees but sunny and I LEFT THE HOUSE. Also reading: Tom Felton Beyond the Wand
Poems after works by: Godfrey Miller, Timothy Cook, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Paul Uhlmann, Andrew Browne, Susan Norrie, Fiona Pardington, Howard Taylor, Rosemary Laing, Brad Rimmer, Brian Blanchflower, Ms N. Yunupingu, Gretchen Albrecht, Karl Wiebke, Robert Hunter, Carol Rudyard, Sine Macpherson, Dale Hickey, Dale Frank, Debra Dawes, Max Gimblett.
Other References: Victoria Requiem of 1606, Isaiah, Philippe Jaccottet.
Another note: ‘[a]s with all my ‘painting poems’ and ‘poems on/out of/after paintings/artworks/music, these poems should exist as poems-in-themselves […] in dialogue with the works, but also “working” independently of those works’ (575).
I wonder if this expands to poems after other poems or versions? If it expands to ignoring this note, the introduction, the afterword, the regrouping of all the poems so they all speak to one another like a flock of galahs landed on a wire above a flock of long-billed corellas digging seed from dry grass.
Yet, despite the note, the easiest way to write of this section of the collected would be to look up the curatorial matter of the exhibition to see how the art was bought together, not randomly and not by the poet, but by some other shaping force: gallery, the layout, the rooms we can imagine the poet entering and exiting, maybe many times, then sitting on a bench in front of one large piece, maybe out of exhaustion. (My feet always feel weaker in galleries.)
Though most likely there is a book behind this book. The work taken made 2D (the website ‘luminousworldexhibition.com’ still exists). And in the poems, we see the poet try and give shape back to them, one on squares has the text arranged in squares, a poem on whiteness finds the left-hand justification a way to preserve the whiteness of nearly the whole page.
In the afterword, we learn about permissions: Kinsella commissioned to respond to the works, the poems themselves in the exhibition catalogue, the poet seeking permission from the artist for their appearance. A dialogue, then.
We also learn the exhibition’s subtitle, ‘Contemporary Art from the Wesfarmers Collection’: the exhibition curated by the curator and manager of Wesfarmers Arts, of Wesfarmers Corporate Affairs and sense the impact of this practice of corporate art collecting in his ‘Statement on Art, Poetry and Capitalism’.
From Graffiti: Artworks and poems from Churchill College, Cambridge (2012), 599–614.
Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, sunny, no frost. May 1st. Also reading: Hydra, Adrianne Howell.
Poems after works by: Maximilien Luce, Martin Rodda, Lynn Chadwick, Marcel Barbeau, Gary Hume, Dhruva Mistry, Duncan Grant, Peter Lyon, Wally Gilbert, Bridget Riley, Norman Ackroyd, Barbara Hepworth, Michael Dan Archer, Stefan Luszczak, Andy Warhol.
Other references: Lorca, Guernica, Beckett, Euclid, Leibniz Equivalence.
Makes sense next to the previous section, an extension/expansion almost. Both on art bought together by place: in Echoes where the artists lived and then, here, where the art came to rest. Both with an emphasis on concrete or shape poems above that in the other sections of the collected.
The poem is shaped
by the shape of the vase (‘The Sparkle of…’ 600)
I wonder if the poet’s brain in shaping the poem flares in the same places as the artist’s composing the piece, or the viewer of either poem or piece? Sometimes I push on my eyelids when I’m writing, long before I read that stimulating the optic nerve activates the parts of the brain associated with vision. In other words, ‘what makes shapes say, Nein or No’ and it is the same in the shape of the poem as in a photo (‘Berlin Graffiti’ 605).
From The Ballad of Moondyne Joe (2012), 614–618.
References: Niall Lucy, E. D. Brockman, Giuseppe Belli.
& now for something completely different: bushrangers! Pennilions & sonnets in the expected 4 x 4 x 4 x 2, though Kinsella interrogates the colonial order, at least in part, by upsetting the rhyme, so none of the reproduced easily follows the same pattern, ‘so what slips through which knot / ties or unties with proclamation?’ (‘Rime of Moondyne Joe: Counterfeit’ 618).
The Vision of Error: A Sextet of Activist Poems (2013), 619–719.
References: Daniel Halpern, Joseph Perloff, Coleridge, George Eliot, Aesop, Jacques Prevert, Weber, Hans Arp, The Cure, Virgil, Syd Barrett, Blake, The Nightcomers, Peter Pierce, Milton, Roland Barthes, Freud, Milton Friedman, Heidegger, Saint Augustine, Whitman, Shelley, Warhol, Derrida, Irigaray, Henry Brulard, Marcus Aurelius, Alcaeus, Mayakovsky, Goethe, Corelli, Tractatus, Monet, Titian, Hesiod, Cantique de Jean Racine, Bill Griffith, Paul Goodman, Crass, Ned Kelly, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud, Murray Bookchin, Christopher Brennan, A. Richards, Akhmatova, Dante, Stendhal, The Birth of a Nation, Austin Sarat.
There’s a difference between enjoyment and admiration. I’m conscious of wanting to write more about the poems I enjoy and potentially skim over the admiration which often comes from recognition of complexity, (albeit a complexity which I know might very well bring joy to another reader).
The poet writes in the titular poem ‘Harsh Hakea’:
Please place on my grave, ‘he resisted’,
and wasn’t hoodwinked by the lyric
or its digressions, remouthings
or retextings. Nor by epics,
nor damned elegies. (620)
The poem repeats ‘concomitant’, ‘naturally accompanying or associated’, which is entanglement, the notion of one but not without the other, so never just one then. The poem of the act, the act of the activism. The admiration and the joy?
The heat and drought make it such that the poet might write:
[…] You crazy fucking bastards!
I am not writing poetry for entertainment: it’s dying
here dying! We are turning this place into the sands
of Egypt. The canon is a crown of death—
seventy-foot high York gums
rustling like dragonflies (‘Harvest Ban’ 665)
This is again test of poetry, not of the poet, not a test to score oneself (the hero) but a test of strength, agility, words, a test not of what is known, but what might be done.
That this book finishes on a quote, not from a poem, but from Austin Sarat’s work of political science, ‘Capital Punishment’, suggests that what a poem can do is limited by extrinsic factors. Like how ‘[t]hat’s Western Australia for you / all extrusion & removal’ (‘Requiem’ 644).
Interstitial Thought: 5th May
It’s something I hadn’t considered: how the physical shape of the book influences the conditions of its reading. By which I mean, after I write this I have to travel to Watertown (née Harbourtown), the other side of the river, West Perth to pick up a pair of sneakers for my son grown from a toddler 8 to a toddler 9 in the past three months. The choice was the drive or $9.95 postage on a $30 item. Normally I would take the book, find a bench or table in a food court and see how it changed the poem. But now, especially post-COVID when I find it hard to walk up two flights of stairs (an ache in the chest, like a tree struggling in overgrowth for sun) this feels too heavy to strap to my back, to sling lopsided off one shoulder.
Sack (2014), 720–780.
Sat 6th May. A whole Noongar season late in my reading. Also reading: Kelly Corrigan, Tell Me More.
References: James Ward, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Browne, Daniel Bourne, E.M. Forster, Goethe, John Kerrigan, The Ferals, Vermeer, Pussy Riot, Confucius, J. Mattheson, Rameau, ‘Apotheosis of Homer’, David Ngoombujarra, Siôn Phylip, Lorraine Wheeler, Delmore Schwartz, Rosemary Tonks, Emily Brontë, D.H. Lawrence, John Kerrigan, James Quinto, James K. Baxter, Bon Scott, Jet, Das Kapital, Thoreau, The Doors, Le Rossignol-en-amour, Pieter Bruegel, Glen Duncan, Piers Plowman, Baedeker, Derrida.
I once had a teacher who would not accept poems turned in for class if they featured any type of violence, even accidental, to an animal. This included a poem about hitting a kangaroo with my car, the matter dealt with in two lines, the poem moving on. And recently someone suggested I change a line around ‘slitting a neighbour’s dog’s throat for more sleep’ because the tone was off. This is to say that the opening title poem of Sack has the most brutal depiction of animal death in a collected volume very preoccupied with animal death (721).
It’s a choice to open a poetry book with a poem like that, but as this is a collected, it comes on page 720–721, changing the experience. Instead of a warning, something the individual book might explore, suggest recovery from (maybe through the penillion), in the collected we connect it outwards, for instance to the end-quote from Austin Sarat on executions in the US from the previous section, linking all unnatural deaths—human and extra-than-human. If I were to name a singular trend across the collected it would be Art & Violence & the West and the making of all three. That you can still paint or write a very bad thing beautifully, but should you?
As I read Sack though, I realise Kinsella is not writing the very bad thing, he is writing as an act of sitting with the human action, the violence, of being with the extra-than-human lives in his poems, how after retrieving a carpet python from the road he doesn’t think ‘twice about crawling / in with the crippled, dying python’ (‘Sleeping with a…’ 729). The poetic space becomes one intended for exchange, similar to how ‘I still make body-warmth and the cold / blood of the snake exchanges its knowledges, its stock / of stories and experiences’ (729).
Beyond the thematic, my thought on reading Sack is formal: what is a penillion? I’ve avoided learning when they appeared earlier in the volume but faced with tens of them, I, having uncharacteristically bought my phone with me to the coffee shop, google:
Plural Noun: originally improvised but now usually traditional Welsh verses and melody sung (as in an eisteddfod) in counterpoint to a familiar tune played on the harp.
I also read a note by the composer Grace Williams that ‘Penillion is the Welsh word for stanzas’ (Notes). What I learn from the poems is that they are four-line stanzas, short, often rhyming the last two lines, or even AABB or AAAA. Their brevity in tension with their music. Improvised rural songs, supple enough to hold the weight of planned rural violence.
Whadjuk Noongar boodjar. May 12th. Still running a light fever so the cool morning feels warm. Also reading: James Kelman Dirt Road.
One of the greatest senses one gets reading across the breadth of Kinsella is not plenitude but particularity, a granularity revealed through the turning over of the same materials and revealing how subtle shifts in the way they lie against one another alters the sense of the whole. The introduction of any new element to the existent pool allows for thousands of new permutations. Perhaps my mind leans towards metaphors of smallness, from the discussion of Monsanto and GM crops in this final selection of unpublished poems. Or perhaps it’s how the red barn/shed, so symbolic in other sections of the collected, here is rendered as a ‘concretion’ of ‘The Red Shed’, zoomed out in parts to over a size twenty font and in ‘changing shape’ demands to be reckoned with again (789–793).
May 19th. Whadjuk Noongar boodjar, might get close to 30 despite the season. Also Reading: Etif Rum, A Woman is No Man.
The contents page just lists ‘Notes’ and the page range, not what is contained, and turning back to the relevant sections of poems there’s no indication of what to expect. It includes the ‘Introduction to The Jaguar’s Dream’ which we learn took fifteen years of work and is ‘maybe best described as a cross between wheatbelt Western Australian, mid-Ohioan, and Cantabrigian English channelled through my personality and the dysfunctional language centres of my brain’ (806); a further elaboration on ‘Regarding “Villon”: The Jargon Poems (Graphology 843–846)’ (the attraction of Villon in these poems is that ‘the language is contestable now just as it was by those outside the “crew” back in Villon’s time’ (808)); and ‘Statement on Echoes: Poems on the Luminous World Exhibition (from the book accompanying the exhibition)’ where Kinsella’s statement that ‘perhaps we need to weigh up whether the money that buys art has come from processes more damaging than any prevention, healing or “compensation” the artwork itself can provide’ has only gained stronger resonances in the push against ‘art-washing’ (809). If there is a misstep in the collected, it would be the parcelling of these short essays to the rear of the book where once they formed companions to the poems. I found they answered questions I had reading The Jaguar’s Dream and ‘Echoes’, but by not being listed in the table of contents, I would not necessarily have happened upon them. It also reasserts my curiosity about how the poems not selected from Kinsella’s oeuvre between 2005–2014 for reproduction in the collected would change the feel of the whole, as much as how the addition of postscripts or unpublished extensions of some of the included books has altered the sense of the original. But, as Kinsella once told me, it’s a collected, not a complete, works.
‘Afterword to Harsh Hakea, Volume 2 of Collected Poems (2023)’,811–814.
Perhaps the singular thread to this afterword is how the material conditions of the poems’ makings are revealed. Even the statement, ‘[t]hat I feel compelled to write stolen lands is an ongoing crisis to me’ (814), is relevant to the literal conditions of many of the poems’ composition. So, we learn that Vision of Error was ‘[w]ritten on a manual typewriter […] outdoors, in a shed, and next to windows’ (812) during the period in which the poet and family moved ‘to a “bush block” north of Toodyay’ (811). The poem is treated as a physical object, so Kinsella writes that during composition he thinks of the poem ‘as signs or marks on the page that are only one possible articulation’ (812).
Perhaps importantly only to me, in this afterword I also find an answer to my question as to why there was so much less poetry included from 2005–2009: ‘this second volume […] might have included my Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography […] that obsessed and primarily occupied me between 2005 and 2008 […], but it is a very long work and I do feel functions best in its entirety, so can’t be included here’ (813). Again: collected, not complete.
‘General Introduction to All Three Volumes’, 815–822.
I pull out the blue-covered Collected Volume One to check what has changed. What was called in the first volume ‘Afterword to Collected Poems’ has now become the ‘General Introduction to All Three Volumes’. Weirdly enough, I notice a change to the paragraph formatting (the original using an indent to indicate a new paragraph and the second volume a line of white space)—perhaps the UWA Publishing house style changed? With this, poems that were originally indented now appear fully flush with the left-hand margin. In the final paragraph the name of the critic writing the introduction to the volume is changed as relevant. The text is nearly untouched, the poet’s ‘intent is always to address the wrongs of colonialism, consumer rapacity, and ecological destruction’ (820). What is new is an addition to the short poem ‘Acknowledgement of Failure in Making Poems’ which closed out Volume One. Here we have that poem, ‘[a]nd a postscript’: ‘Graphology Restoration 17: name rename name… term’. In lines that should equally be applied to all writing poetry of stolen lands, Kinsella states that his family
or maybe more accurately, ‘term’ our occupation
as ‘Jam Tree Gully’ only to answer for this family’s
presence, not to name over the name, not to delete
true names and the language of here deep in here. (822)
Kinsella is generous in acknowledgements, to the expected publishers, editors, workplaces, family, friends and collaborators (often artists). He also strongly acknowledges the Noongar people and places whose Country he writes from and of, including taking care to articulate how language and naming is a way of acknowledging and respecting.
‘Statement on Art, Poetry and Capitalism’, 827–88.
The statement reiterates aspects gathered from the poems and all the other materials to an extent where the question it raises is: what can such a statement do that a poem cannot, or what prevents a poem from being this statement? This statement was not in the end material to Volume One, perhaps its presence here stems from the increased emphasis on visual arts in this volume?
‘About the author’, 829.
We learn that John Kinsella has authored over fifty books. The common understanding of author is in this sense as a person who writes things. A broader one is to be the person that begins or originates something. What I have learnt from the past 800 or so pages of poetry is to push against a sense of authorship which is individualistic. Kinsella’s is authorship as partnership for both human and what is beyond that, as he writes ‘I also feel I might be an interlocutor for the non-human in its myriad different forms. Maybe I can’t be, but when I am writing certain poems I do feel that I am somewhere between what is seen and what is being recorded/said’ (814). Perhaps where the ongoing sense of hope in the potential of poetry comes from is the sense that a poem may in some way gather us, human and non-human alike, some new polyphony found in song.
Roel van Klink et al., ‘Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances’, Science, 368 (2020): 417–420. DOI:10.1126/science.aax9931
Williams, Grace. ‘Notes’ from Penillion. London: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Caitlin Maling is a Western Australian poet with five collections of poetry. She lectures in creative writing at Curtin University.