An initial review of John Kinsella’s The Wound.

On page 63 of The Wound we read: “A language as inarticulate as struggle for voice in the poem.” This is an unexpected line from the greatest poet ‘Australia’ has germinated. My biased opinion of course, but an opinion I’ve held for a few decades, and an opinion that has galvanised year on year. Kinsella is ‘Australia’s greatest poet’, not because Kinsella doesn’t just write great poetry, he lives poetically. By that I mean he is as thirsty to understand the universe as he is to fight for universal struggles. He does more for poetry than he writes poetry, and he is more prolific at publishing than Peter Dutton is a racist fascist.

In this context I’m left to ask myself if the line about finding voice is perhaps false modesty? Well, who hasn’t sat on the freezing cold porcelain after forgetting to lower the toilet seat in the middle of the night? Yes, even the greatest have false starts, hiccups and doubt. These days Kinsella is as comfortable with his dickheadness as he is with his apparent self-righteousness.

In the introduction (yes there is an introduction, thank fuck) to The Wound, Kinsella highlights two kinds of wounds that drive the collection. The literal wound, which is the violence inflicted by humans on other humans, animals, and the environment. And the ‘conversational’ Wound that is a response to the literal wound. Kinsella believes that poetry is a pacifist solution to the injustices that he sees going on in the world. The Wound is post-attack, pre-rehab and pre-scar, if you will, and the poems seek to explore that specific time period.

He uses the works of Build Suibhne and Friedrich Holderlin to facilitate his “pacifist response to conflict”.  I must admit that I have not consulted those works for this initial review. I’m sure scholars and fans of Kinsella will find the cross-referencing fruitful. His open relationship to past poets reveals an intense desire to make make poetry relevant, to show that if he can be moved by poetry then you might be too.

Kinsella is fond of writing poems and collections after other writers, and especially poets. This strategy provides a sense of tradition and history to his works, but it also enables a lens from which we can survey the past through the perspective of a living poet. The appeal to, and translation of older works sparks an interest in those works, and the context in which those works were created.

Kinsella stresses that “I am not Sweeney … he is a bestiary.”(pg10) This is true, as throughout the first book the poet does refer to Sweeney in the third person. Compounding this idea, the titles are action descriptors of the poems, not semantic abstractions of the feel of the poem. Nevertheless, the Sweeney trope does provide the poet with a kind of freedom, an alternate-eye-perspective on the events that are witnessed, so he can test his ideas against a Middle Irish Romance and use that as a sounding board for his morality and art. The Sweeney conceit provides a fluidity, and lightness and airiness to the narratological aspect of the poems. The ornithological alter-ego can fly across the landscape and survey The Wound. In this sense the ‘I’ of the poems co-habitates the bestiary. Check out ‘Sweeney the Vegan’ for a fine example.

The events and their places are multivariate. Having read through the book a few times, I think it’s safe to say the first book is preoccupied with activism, and the second book entertains a metaphysical detachment to place, bordering on spiritualism. Given the two books are in conversation, we can then also assume a dialogue between the activist first book and the cosmological second. We can then assume that they inform one another. For to share in a certain cosmology implies a shared view of the world, and hence, a shared form of activism even in the most subtle behaviour. Be it the products we buy, the jobs we refuse, how we choose to live and so on. You don’t have to be on the barricades to be active.

Book One:

Having had some exposure to the period in which some of these poems were written – particularly the Roe8 protest poems, I have experienced the way in which Kinsella builds his poetics: a belief that the small gesture of the gift of poetry, if given the space to gestate, can and will connect the past and the future in important, significant, ways. Ways that cannot be usurped by any outside influence:

Claim the glory of a grey wagtail – yellow bird –

So rare in winter even twitchers

Will say ‘mis-sighting’, ‘missattribution’,

When you know you’re right.

Accept the wisdom of the two-pot

Screamers, welcome the blowback,

‘Or worse’, a foreigner – accept ex-

Communication from entire townlands.

p.15.

 

The poems speak from the outside, trying to find a centre. The centre is facilitated in the freedom found in playing with imagery. Freedom in creating for yourself. The concerns are repeated and emerge in different contexts from different events. The patterns are evident, yet resist systemisation, though they do not shun the possibility of systemisation. The key is to preserve the poetic voice as an act of resistance, to hell with concealing process:

Refuge is the key. Refuge is where

no creature will be killed by us for flesh

but will make its own way – fences down

and passages no rite de passage condescended by us.

Almost three decades have passed.

I have learnt not to proselytise, and this

song is not a commandment. My song

is still a lament, and I perch high

on the old York gum that lost a limb

in the last storm – I hear the owl

homing in on its prey, and have nothing

to say against its way, knowing it’s not my way.

p.20.

 

You will not feel ripped off or jaded by any of these poems, they all stand on their own, and the Arc Publication editors fine tune Kinsella’s mastery of  language. Every poem has taken time and wisdom to reach an apex, to consolidate a passage – and I challenge all those who winge that Kinsella haphazardly publishes everything he writes to prove there’s a dud in this collection. When you read a lot of Kinsella’s reviewers, you get the sense that publishing too much poetry was a bad thing in the first place. As if drawing attention to injustice through art was and/or is a bigger deal than actively working to stop those injustices in the first place.

Arguments about aesthetics are a waste of effort if you agree we as a species are headed down the wrong path, that we are creating a worse world for future generations. The Wound, in any case, is a triumph of both aesthetics and proclamation, and if I sound like I am defending Kinsella for his approach, I am. If you’re more worried about the sustainability of your literary journal than you are about the sustainability of anthropogenic pressure on the environment, your wires are crossed. We can do both, I hear you respond. Are you doing both? I must ask. The Wound asks:

 

Listen, says the hermit, Hear the vanishing call of the vanishing

Quail-thrush, hear the dogger’s vehicle come back from his killings,

Hear the deceased dingos calling the moon down to the treeless

Horizon. You are haunted, the hermit says, You are haunted

By the toxins falling from the mouths of demagogues – angry

Whites who cherish the idea of DNA, swilling from chalices

Of pure hate, rallying around their flags gifted to them by the warfare

Of their ancestors. You are haunted by the chiasmus of the pass rising and falling – plain      to plain – at sunset, the Major Mitchells

Coming in to find a stand of trees on the burning edge, bound down

By the renaming they’ve had imposed on their own language,

and on the language of those they’ve coexisted with for so very long.

p.45

As you read these poems, and if you get into them, you might feel a call to arms, a shared sense of released frustration. Yet you might not know what to do with that frustration. You might not feel that the injustices that Kinsella sees are the same injustices that you see. The thing with Kinsella’s art is, he doesn’t let you off the hook. This is not a Roger Waters’ concert. You don’t get to go home having felt like you’ve done your bit.

I was reading the collection on the train from Perth to Fremantle, stopping between each poem to look out the window, at people, and to check my phone. When I got off the train there were about ten cops with a search dog looking for people with drugs, I’m assuming. Their presence at the station was enough to make me uneasy. A cynic, I was questioning their strategy: at 10am who were they going to catch? I recognised one of the cops from the Roe8 protests. And I was quickly reminded of that ordeal. Everyday citizens at loggerheads with the executive because of a bloodyminded and vengeful legislature:

 

Sweeney Contemplates a Display of Force by the Police State 

Distant now, and working out how to make a return, how

to embrace

the wetlands and detrack the machines, Sweeney flew low

through the rain

of grasshoppers rising up from the denuded plains, late crops

shaking

their seed onto the scorched earth. I will return to the coastal plain,

said Sweeney loud to the parrots, loud to the crows, loud to

the mulga

snakes, loud to the grasshoppers. I will stand with the

protectors against

the troops of the dictator, against the builder of stadia and

his wealthy,

uncouth mates. I will stand against their class pretensions,

against their

sporting codes which read a little like the bishop leading an army

against the heathen. I am a heathen, Sweeney told the blue sky

stretched to breaking point; I am old as the earth but can’t

even perch

on the outstretched branch of a York gum without feeling

guilt. But I will fly

down to the marri, to the blackbutt, to the banksia, to the

zamias and grass

trees and ask if I might perch temporarily, temporarily to

watch over

the souls of those who dwell there, who know the stories,

who connect

constellations with earth itself, who can unpick the codes,

the fever

of growth, schematics of belonging. Red-tailed black cockatoo

will guide me in, give me strength. I will ask to join the lines,

speaking

my ancient tongue of respect. I will tell the police they must

listen

to the ground through their feet, must listen to the whispering

coming out of the bush where there are as many worlds

as night reveals, spreading its sheet, a future unfurled.

p.50.

 

If I were to make one criticism it would be that some of the endings, for me, are ambiguous and therefore detract from the viscerality (is that a word? Let’s make it a word) that makes the poems hypnotic and powerful. But I’m just being picky to pretend to be balanced. This is a serious review after all, and my ‘career’ as a poet depends on my reviews.

Book Two:

I’ve always liked the poems of Kinsella’s where he’s up to something, where the poetic ‘I’ is acting in the world, be it building rock cairns or throwing a rock to decide where to plant saplings. They make me feel like I’m there:

The woods are closed

till February the eighteenth,

being private woods.

With too much in me,

I want to get between

even the bare trees,

even where there are ixodidae

that spread Lyme disease.

I will be wary, and bare

little skin. I do not want

to attract or disturb ticks.

And it is not ’tick fever season’.

I will have a better chance

in this demi-cold. I’ll be out

of the cycle. Freelance.

p.76

We know we are not in Australia. Australia doesn’t have woods, and they don’t get ‘closed’.  “With too much”, he goes for a walk to try to shake out whatever is overfilling him; to walk out his worries through the ground. But he’s drawn to the closed woods, to where the blood suckers seek to spread disease. He is caught between his desire to be away and being aware of the ticks. The danger of the ticks is overblown. No doubt Kinsella has been bitten by many a tick. It’s the danger of nature he wants to draw our attention to. By covering his skin he creates a scenario where he can do both, to find an accepting middle ground between his desires and present dangers.

‘A Celebration of Peace’ and ‘If From the Distance’ book-end the second book. Perhaps the two most metaphysical poems in the collection:

But I have my eyes and ears peeled,

listening beyond the deathsounds, waiting

to catch the late-early calls of the riverbird.

It sticks around through winter, making

the best of what’s on offer. Generations

of conflict along these narrow banks,

the poisoned grasses, the long gone

common reeds. But I am standing

in for you in this celebration of peace

talks – the conniving of Munich

to let death stop in Syria, a bit.

God has decided on unity.

A shell burst antiphony.

p.67

While reading The Wound, I kept checking my phone for social media updates, and other messages. Every time I read another poem I felt more attuned, somehow. More where I should be, doing what I should do. I became more aware of my habits. Kinsella’s work is primarily preoccupied with observing habit, both in language and body. Habit is what makes character. Habit also underlines hypocrisy, and where consciousness of our impact on nature (human and non-human) is contradicted by our actions. Kinsella suggests this is where we should be headed, could be directing our investigations, not cowering from our foolishness. The entrance to art is through our hypocrisy:

The afternoon stuck at its centre, unable to dilate,

Retract into the island sea of desire. Accept, take

Her happiness into your hours, drink in the sun

And deny melanomas usurping its generosity,

Lifting truths out of us to grasp hands with grain

In the silos, to promise season after season of growth,

Only to be overcome by the fumes of pickling,

The distance growing between us and the dirt.

And so my absence is an enunciation

Of your isolation in the world! I love you,

But can’t know all there is left,

 

A line missing from the final poem? What does that mean? The book finishes on a comma. A playful comma after the weighty previous lines, designed to disorientated the reader.

Some final thoughts. Poo and shit. It’s great to see Kinsella finally embrace a relish for poo and shit. I’ve been writing about poo and shit since the mid-90’s and was starting to feel isolated among the literary glitterati. Kinsella, like many great poo and shit masters, can go from poo and shit to complex abstractions without skipping a beat:

 

Fist shakings are salutes? It was like the 1936

Berlin Olympics. Or the Nuremberg Rallies. If Sweeney

Was crass for saying it – out of touch with the zeitgeist –

Then he would likely be damned for mentioning the New Guard

or the Fascist Legion or the ribbon cutting on Sydney

Harbour Bridge. It wasn’t a big shit he’d dropped,

But it was obviously pungent – Aussie flag bandannas

Were now covering eyes as well as noses and mouths.

They are veiling themselves, said Sweeney, wistfully

As his shit incited the patriots to fight among themselves.

p. 38.

 

9781910345979

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