December 10, 2008

Review by Janis Lull

by John Kinsella

W. W. Norton
New York, NY
ISBN 978-0-393-06655-5
2008, 400 pp., $34.95

Born in 1963, John Kinsella has published more than 20 books of poetry and several prose works. He holds academic posts in England and the U.S. as well as in his native Australia, edits Salt magazine online, and serves as an editor for The Kenyon Review. Perhaps Kinsella would attribute his energy to his vegan diet or his anarchist-pacifist convictions, but judging from his autobiographical writings, particularly Fast, Loose Beginnings–A Memoir of Intoxications (Melbourne University Press, 2006), he went at life full-tilt from an early age. Maybe he’s just tough. As the comedian and ex-alcoholic Sid Caesar once remarked (Where Have I Been? 1983), many former substance abusers are blessed with strong constitutions, otherwise they’d be dead.

Yet in spite of Kinsella’s stamina and productivity, he is relatively unfamiliar to American readers. His first U. S. publication was Peripheral Light: Selected and New Poems, edited and introduced by Harold Bloom (Norton, 2003). The Doppler Effect (Salt Publishing, 2004) corrected what some thought was a distorting emphasis on the lyric in Bloom’s selection. This second book reprinted poems such as “Syzygy” that were thought to represent the other pole of Kinsella’s style–one that has been called variously innovative, experimental, postmodern, conceptual, and language-centered. Norton then published fresh work by Kinsella in The New Arcadia (2005), and now again in Divine Comedy (2008), loosely based on Dante. The poems in Divine Comedy are by turns lyrical, “experimental” and even prosy–which may be a facet of their postmodernism–but they are always attentive to the details of both language and landscape. Clearly a maximalist when it comes to words, the poet is also a passionate advocate for non-human life forms.

Kinsella grew up in the wheat-farming country east of Perth, the isolated capital of the huge and mostly unpopulated state of Western Australia. He regularly revisits his home territory, both physically and in his work. In Divine Comedy, he locates all three of Dante’s soul-regions, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, in “the block,” the five-and-a-half acre space occupied by his family home. He also undoes Dante’s order, putting Purgatorio first, then Paradiso, then Inferno. Kinsella the poet gives us no steady progress toward the light in this book, although Kinsella the activist does believe in the possibility of progress: “That the light might be there for us at the end has to be enough–hope rather than certainty” (“Preface to Purgatorio”). It is this earnestness, this seriousness of purpose, that sets Kinsella apart from experimental poets who are interested mainly in language games. He simply cannot afford to get lost in the infinite play of signifiers when he’s trying to convince you that the death of an endangered parrot really matters. Yes, Kinsella cut his teeth on Foucault and Derrida, and yes, he actually uses the latter’s famous non-word, “différance,” in more than one of his Cantos, but the poems are never only about language. In “Dream Canto: Torch Bearing” for example, the speaker walks outside with a flashlight (torch) on a dark night:

out the epistemological ambiguity of owls
and tawny frogmouths, as if différance

were my own words fragmented as flashes
and twinges of branches, leaves, claws, feathers.
The locale shudders with interruption,

and something moves rapidly below
through the dry grass as I look up.

There are discourse games going on here, but there are also some unambiguous claws and feathers, some real interruptions in the night. For the animals and plants in Kinsella’s Comedy, and for the land itself, such interruptions are not games, and so they can never be just games for the poet.

Divine Comedy shows Kinsella working toward a marriage between feelings and ideas. The feelings are often mournful, even in “Paradiso: Rupture,” the central and most celebratory section of the book. The ideas range widely, but always return to the history and present condition of Kinsella’s “block” at the foot of Walwalinj, or Mount Bakewell, as English colonizers renamed it. Walwalinj is Kinsella’s heaven-on-earth, a mountain sacred both to the Ballardong Nyungar people whom the Europeans displaced and to environmentalists who want to protect its rare life forms. But this earthly paradise is threatened by everything from brush-clearing to hang-gliding to the “cancer-inducing communication masts” on its peak. In “Purgatorio: Up Close” Kinsella lives and walks and drives in the torrid country around the mountain’s base:

you drive west through this calenture.
A beacon: Walwalinj’s aerial masts
wire-guide you to the island: the block.

Walwalinj, earthly paradise scalped
by farmers and paraglider pilots,
encrusted with lead shot from spot-lit

roo hunts. (“Canto of Lucid Light”)

Here Kinsella uses the second person for a speaker clearly based on himself, although many similar Cantos use first or third person. The shifting pronouns underscore the writer’s determination not to establish a persona or lyric voice. In his “Preface to Inferno,” he describes this book as “the relegation of the poet-self to a textual oblivion.” The humans in the poems include his family–himself, his partner, Tracy, and his son, Tim–but he is not interested in having us get to know them as characters. The point is their journey, their efforts to live “free of poison” and not to poison the land.

In a work that aims to mix up settled notions of mode (lyric, narrative, dramatic, or other), mood (contentment-in-purgatory, rupture-in-paradise), and syntax, it’s comforting that Kinsella writes all these poems in three-line stanzas that on the page look like Dante’s terza rima. There are even rhymes, although not necessarily where you’d expect them. To me, and I think to Kinsella, “pilots” and “spot-lit” in the quotation above make a kind of eye-rhyme. The reader begins to look out for such correspondences as the book goes on.

And it does go on. Anyone who allows himself to violate sentence boundaries, free-associate, and repeat himself as much as Kinsella does is bound to write some baggy verse or lineated prose, or both. I suppose I share some of Bloom’s lyric bias. This opening, from “Sub-Paradiso: Mushrooms,” strikes me as ravishing:

It has rained enough for mushrooms to emerge,
to crack open the still crusty soil and platform their heads,
gazebos of dark and gilled orchestras

I respond less to the beginning of “Rapture: Pinnacles (Jupiter)”:

They drive in faster than the signs.
A rip out of the bush. Stranded semi-coast
interiorised . . . inland. Kinetic stasis. Improv.

Nevertheless, repetition is absolutely necessary to the overall effect this work. To take an obvious example for a foreigner like me, I can’t imagine that any other device would have worked as well to give me a sense of what it’s like to live in the countryside of southwestern Australia. The first time I hear about a dugite (“doo-gyte”), the context tells me it’s a snake, nothing more. In later Cantos, children are snatched up at the sound of something moving in the grass. Later still, I connect the dugite with the something in the grass and realize a dugite must be venomous, even dangerous. The “block” is filled with dugites, jam trees, York gum trees, parrots and parrot bush, and caltrop burrs, which the reader learns can tattoo your feet if you go out improperly shod. (Tracy, Kinsella’s Beatrice, says tersely, “wear boots.”) Not that the poems focus only on “exotic” (to Americans) flora and fauna. There are lots of mice and rabbits and spiders, as well as foxes and roses (grown by the old guy next door who also poisons rabbits), and Eucalyptus, a tree now familiar on this continent. Kinsella has argued that Australian poets need to keep mentioning things uniquely Australian even as they reach out to an international audience: “The parrot becomes a transitional object in this child-nation’s shift from linguistic acquisition to linguistic confidence and exploration” (“Parrotology: On the Necessity of Parrots in Poetry,” Australian Book Review, October 2005). It’s hard to know just how to take this pronouncement. Is he serious, or is this a bit of academic/theoretical jouissance? In either case, if Kinsella thinks parrots need mentioning in his poems, he’ll mention them–over and over–just as he will repeat certain clichés and turns of phrase: “out and about,” to name one.

Whatever else he’s up to in Divine Comedy, however, Kinsella is usually not kidding. When he aims his descriptive gifts and his outrage at a sex-and-alcohol-fed kangaroo hunt, for example, the result is quietly horrific:

Someone shoots a female roo with a joey
coiled in its pouch. The old man lets both girls

Work hands in: warm skin and life
in the pouch of the dead. The joey squirms,
kicks, they recoil, the pouch shifting

like a wedding band. He extracts it:
with blood on their hands they cuddle
the odd shape: the outback a distant place,

This is from “Canto of a Pouch for the Violent Toward Animals (Seventh Circle, sub subcircle, 11/12),” and the over-specificity of the title is perfect. You know these perpetrators will be stuck exactly there (and in your head) forever–or at least for as long as it makes any difference.

In Kinsella’s five-acre universe, purgatory, heaven, and hell are the same place, or, as he puts it, “Rather than places to which souls are sent or find themselves, hell, purgatory and paradise are different systems of interpreting the same values, the same events, the same raw materials” (“Preface to Inferno”). Fittingly, the book reaches its peak of hopefulness in “Paradiso:” when the speaker finds himself “winding up” over a remembered bird-shooting (“Canto of the Examination of Hope: a movie (25),” Tracy tells him:

Make the best of the here and now.
Your days are full of galahs

and crows, wasps and mice–
isn’t that enough? Things grow
on the block, and growth is radiance.

A galah is a pink cockatoo, not a rare parrot at all in Western Australia, and not in danger of extinction–just another touch of earthly paradise. Kinsella continues to get wound up, however, no matter which of his locations or “systems” he occupies. Reading this big book of Cantos, the reader will get wound up, too, if not by every poem, then by many. Yet even the final section, “Inferno,” ends on a note of hope:

It’s like reading Virgil’s Eclogues
In the bathroom, a line at a time
over a decade: that’s

what time is in our house,
below the starlit mountain
where earth, hell and paradise

grow inseparable. (“Canto of Starlight”)

Nietzsche said the most powerful human feeling is the sense that we are squandering life–not just our individual lives, but all of it (Human, All Too Human, 33). Who is capable of such a feeling? Nietzsche asks. “Certainly only a poet, and poets always know how to comfort themselves.”


Janis Lull is professor emerita of English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She has published scholarship on Shakespeare, George Herbert, and John Donne. Her poems have appeared in The Little Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry Northwest, Epoch, and elsewhere.