Kinsella, John. Open Door. Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2018. $22.99. 256pp. ISBN: 9781742589954
In Open Door, Kinsella’s third collection of poems about Jam Tree Gully and his home environment in York, he takes the viewpoint of returning after a long absence. There are poems about environmental degradation, weather events, fire, everyday activities, discovering rare plants, and coming across man-made objects. He writes about climate change, land use, pesticides and herbicides, mining, asylum-seeker policies, and the census. His family is often mentioned, and he occasionally reminisces. There are poems on particular plants and animals, especially birds.
In all these poems land degradation and species loss are rarely far from the poet’s mind. In ‘Killing a Carnaby’s Cockatoo’ (195) the death of one cockatoo hit by a car makes the poet muse on this already endangered species. In ‘The Burning Question’ (117), he mentions how his own poetry represents the living as well as the dead animals and plants. In ‘Weather Warning to Sheep Graziers’, he invites the reader to ‘come over and join me in protest’ (131).
Kinsella presents us with a stark reminder of the loss of habitat, and with it the loss of many species. For example, in ‘Spotted Jezebel’ (238), seeing a butterfly leads him to ponder on what its extinction would mean. In the last poem of the collection, ‘8½’, in order to give a wider view of the problem of environmental loss, the poet moves from the particular to the cosmic. The insects guide us upwards:
of terrain cannot be owned, these patinas
of soil and air, of eucalypt oil and shed dead
wings of high-altitude insects, perorations
of life constantly passing between states,
even leaving the atmosphere, tugging at this
site’s gravitational field. (250)
Outstanding are Kinsella’s observations of nature. For example, in ‘Unalike’, the house spider is ‘orienteering blades of wild oats’ (163). In ‘6 Acres of Birdsong’, the robins ‘fly in the wake of each other’ (135). Kinsella often uses abstract words with rich connotations. For example, in ‘Fabulous Brush Bronzewings Courting’, the single word ‘patronage’ is packed with meaning:
no provision for onlookers. […] ritual
and display are beyond patronage (54)
In these poems there is a throng of unusual metaphors. In ‘The Burning Question’ (117), he says that the open door of the shed is ‘shadow-puppeted by clouds.’ And in ‘Yorick’, the shrike-thrushes ‘sing chaos to its knees’ (169). Kinsella uses scientific metaphors as well. In ‘Ringneck Parrots Flock Where Snakes Sleep’ (144), the flock around him becomes a kind of ‘cellular body’, whose ‘immune system rejects us’ when the flock disperses. In ‘Cloud’ (194), to describe another swirling mass, this time of bees, he refers to a gas giant planet.
The tone of the poems is occasionally condemnatory, for example, when describing Trump’s racist policies in ‘Repair’ (220), or bitter, as in the last line from ‘The Open Door?’, where Kinsella refers to kangaroo shooters as ‘camouflage-fatigued musketeers’ (67). He also uses humour, as when he gently mocks himself looking at the view while repairing a roof in ‘Roof Repairs’:
[…] It’s all too wavering
to take in, to enjoy as vista. Rather, just get the job
done and paint no El Dorado, no Shangri-La (94)
Kinsella can also weave politics into a simple metaphor. Thus, in ‘Lull’, a parrot is described at the beginning of the poem as gripping tightly onto a branch then letting go. Kinsella then mentions the nearby bauxite mine and other issues. The final observation returns to the parrot ‘latching on harder and for longer’, as if in an act of dogged resistance (63-65).
The image of the ‘open door’ features in the titles of three poems: ‘The Open Door?’, ‘Open Door Policy’, and ‘As Drought Threatens the Door Opens onto Dying Trees’. Is it the door opening inward, or outward? Whose door? In one of the most powerful poems in the collection—‘Open Door Policy’—Kinsella hints that it means having an open mind as well as opening to asylum seekers. The poem is explicitly political, as each stanza begins with ‘Government’. These lines are particularly bitter:
Government drowns people at sea and calls it
‘turning back the boats’. (189)
A tiger snake image then intervenes. The image is developed further in the next stanza. Perhaps the snake represents something you fear unnecessarily, as it will ignore you and disappear. Yet it leaves behind the fear of its presence. The final image clinches the poem, and possibly the whole collection:
Government sets the standards for doors—
and ways of opening and closing. But no matter
how well fitted, how secure, the easterly
wind still tried to get underneath, speak to us. (190)
Although the government has attempted to conceal what has been going on out at sea (and made laws to keep this secret), the ‘wind’ will still get under the door and tell us. All these meanings have been compacted into two images.
In these poems Kinsella has merged the personal and particular with the wider political sphere. Through minute observation he is able to bring in the greater world’s problems.
Colin Young is interested in Greek mythology, as well as science fiction and fantasy. He has a PhD in Ancient Greek literature, and has travelled widely. He has lived in Japan and is also fascinated by Japanese and Chinese literature.
Aside from different countries’ poetic traditions he has an abiding passion for nature and conservation, as well as Western theatre in all its varied forms.
He has had poems published in the zines Dot Dot Dash, Creatrix 44 and in the upcoming Recoil 10.