Review by Julia Istomina

by John Kinsella

W.W. Norton
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10110
ISBN 978-0-393-06655-5
2008, 400 pp., $34.95

Human beings are caught in a harrowing conflict. Air, trees, sky, antelopes, the earth beneath us, placed into our hands for use–as we have the power of logic, reason, and long-term memory, we are not just “dumb brutes” waiting for the ground to shake and rains to surge us toward movement. At the same time, we don’t know what to do with this land; we don’t know why we are here. We attempt to reason it, as sensible creatures, where no sense can be formulated. We as capable thinkers can parse out cause and effect, and this is what pulls us to creating an “unknown terrain.” What moves beyond stars and sky, and what churns beneath earth and layers of rock? Our creativity is what punishes us. We categorize ourselves into unusable quantifications: heaven, hell, and purgatory. We have the power to invent answers, and yet this displaces our solid footing within the troubled universe, the place we call home in the evenings, eating supper.

What mires in our forethoughts disintegrates our stability and comfort in the now, the present world, and further disinterests our sense of responsibility to the ground that shapes our fruit, to the body that produces offspring, and to the river that our bottled water comes from. John Kinsella’s Divine Comedy: Journeys through a Regional Geography is not really a “distraction” but critique of a painting of long-held tenets, Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante is an onlooker, an “outside” observer of this other world–while the poet in Journeys is always implicitly “in the blood” of the experience, admitting to partaking in the destruction, especially when one actually asks the question: who is responsible for the filth? Ultimately, the reader will be led to ask, is the construction of Dante, a passive, “good” human who is allowed to visit in order to gain an advantage in his perception of the afterlife, even more idealistic than heaven itself?

What Kinsella has embarked upon with his large-scale spiritual expedition of a small plot of close culture, is what I would term New Transcendentalism. Kinsella doesn’t believe that human beings have things figured out better than animals; just that they are “speciesist,” and herein lies the struggle: as long as we are pushing to be cerebrally better, faster, stronger than, say, a fox, we are putting a lot of pressure on ourselves, and robbing ourselves from a spiritual connection with the “landscape” that most directly, assuredly, produced us, just as it produced the fox. Aside from a focus on the natural elements and wondrous language of indigenous landscape, where previously nature was the escape to purity and truth salvageable from restricting precepts of good and evil, in this day and age, a New Transcendentalist would also have to ask the question of what can we do for nature, our great work of staggering genius—father, mother, and god. As we are more concerned with “building green,” as people and fauna suffocate in heat waves, in the wake of a great tsunami or hurricane, we never blame nature directly—nor is it any use to blame god.

Dante is an innocent earthling, a wide-eyed doe. He is allowed to passively drift through a Michael Angelo creation, seeing the horror and destruction, the prejudice and judgment (much of which would be different in our day), but requiring no judgment of his own. In fact, as long as he is passive, he is rewarded with a greater view of the classification of man’s levels of good and bad. For example, in Longfellow’s translation of the Inferno: “I saw it, but I did not see within it…The while below there fixedly I gazed, / My Leader, crying out: ‘Beware, beware!’/ Drew me unto himself from where I stood. / Then I turned round, as one who is impatient / To see what it behoves him to escape, / And whom a sudden terror does unman.” Also, given that Dante’s work is highly political, each level of the spiritual composition reads like a Who’s Who of Florence: their sins are easy to decipher, the judgment is deemed fair, “a mass conviction without fair trial” (Kinsella, “Preface to Inferno”). The character of Dante is a babe, both timid and scared, and it is such passivity that is required for the journey to be made—put John Kinsella into Dante’s shoes and you wouldn’t make it past the first Canto:

If I’ve got it right, the church power
is subterranean, and differing denominations
cluster at nodal points, junctures

of power robbed or scuttled from elsewhere:
science fictionists, speculatives, occultists
have long savvied this: who am I in their

urban flurries, restaurants and numbered streets,
fed on produce, fed on product, fed on raw
materials like iron ore and knowledge:

entrepôts, sly grog depots, ice in insulin
disposal units: free trade of secrets: all the white
witches I know cast hexes, graffiti

boarded-up houses, make moon-faces
on vacant blocks; they know the dwellings
Infested with termites, rodents, spiders,

they know which couples take weekends
at country houses; travesty: forced out
into masculine apartments, watched

through curtain cracks, stereos overplaying
and the intensity of clutter zapping brain cells;
my guide is my body, taut in jeans and t-shirt,

bent over before silver screens with weak-eyed
projectors, fading…I am none of the personalities,
this independent research pegging away […]

From “Canto of the Inner Lining (Excommunicates)”

Compared to Dante, who can brush off the proceedings and sightings as what he “came and saw,” rather than what he contributed to, the narrator in Kinsella’s “Distraction” uses his wife and blind dog as guides. Both are mortal creatures and thus not exempt from danger and harm, and are in some ways as “naïve” about the conception of the afterlife as the traveler. This places guide and follower on the same foothold of control (or lack thereof). The traveler, also, admits to knowing many things about the landscape, and thus enacts a sense of personal responsibilityto this land he attempts to master and rebuild, as seen in “Canto of Avarice”:

in the give and take of science, gazumping
is the fracas; where I went there wound a river:
a river that’d fed trains with water,

now tarmacked for weekend walking,
or roller blades cutting leaf-drop of narrow woods,
waters genetically swollen…I was there,

taking my wage to pay the debts of other countries,
to make sense from the inner circuits, gardens of a New Gethsemane,
as elect as voting, those aspirations in the rigging.”

Albeit, the narrator is distrustful of institutions and frivolous consumption, but who can you really blame or judge in this scene? Certainly putting the wealthy on trial doesn’t tell the whole story, placing entire countries on trial is a bit vague, science fictionists—well, it depends on what they do with their knowledge. And of course we never blame the termite but who lets it in. In “Canto of the Doubled Terraces (14),” we analyze a farmer eager to profit:

Here they look to canola, look to grains
that’ll bloat in salty soils; as down the valley
towns extemporize and rival each other’s
tourist boasts, chambers of commerce, field days;
encircling the mountain the flyers take bearings,
photograph house yards, spy technology;

refractions of solidified shadows wandering silently,
muttering from ground to sky, blue and cloudless,
frost so harsh dead grass crisps black –

‘“Chi é costui che ‘l nostro monte cerchia
prima che morte li abbia dato il volo,
e apre li occhi a sua voglia e coverchia?”’

says the burgher migrant farmer, a German
who wants Rhine grapes to grow along the Avon,
ripen in a time of grape glut, offset

the Anglo-Celtic wheat fields. His name is Rilke
and God’s terrible blossoming on the vines is pared back,
crushed green underfoot: he does not want

to bring blood to the valley, though is curious
about the green-black world of olives;
astronomical costumes dead as coveralls –

he does not want to step outside the shady walls,
tussle where ‘old families’ are reaching settlement
over a corner paddock after fifty years.

It is interesting that curiosity is what condemned Eve and then the rest of us, when curiosity is an implicit motivator of conscience and rationality. Kinsella is problematizing the easy juxtaposition of good versus bad in our modern age, calling it out to set some fair ground rules. This is why I believe he does not follow the original order of the Divine Comedy, choosing rather to begin with Purgatory: “In a much-damaged space, where poison and over-clearing are a daily fact of un-life, it seems to me that we have made our own purgatory and have to unmake it to survive. We simply have to move toward a Paradise – one can’t countenance Inferno, which is why I’ve started where I have” (“Preface to Purgatorio”).

Unlike his “America, or Glow” and Peripheral Light, Kinsella appears to want to build a common ground where we reign in our lack of personal responsibility to this life, and begin to assume that moral dichotomies only perpetuate placing blame on “the other guy.” In fact, he finds answers most in refocusing the lens on nature: “Waiting for a weather event to begin, / I look out for darkness: stars blocked in” (“Canto of the Invisible Layers: Envy”). While waiting for an unclear signal from a spiritual kingdom, he is hemmed in by actual stars, stars that he cannot reach, hold, lick, put in his pocket—but they are there, as real as the partner next to his side. As real as a blanket. Is that not a paradise? Does it not suffice?

The next move is to Paradise, and a crucial element to note here is the lack of a dramatic shift in scene, focus, and accountability. Kinsella is establishing that all three levels are too-simple categories: no one is purely good or evil, especially when we focus on personal decisions and actions. A dog that urinates inside is reprimanded, but not sent to hell. Therefore, this section also focuses on deciphering innate signals in nature for answers and spiritual essence:

Plush skies swallow our tones.
A footstep, a tap of the fingers,
Beak against moss, erupt

In my church. Gavel on the altar.
Watching the stars through the external
Canal, in the shell-like. The sea

Is my cochlea. Elsewhere, snare
Drum and anvil, tympany.
Stelarc is tinnitus

And he is coming to dine with us.
Slow buzz. A hissy fit. Swarm
Of never-say-die visitants.

From “Rapture: Tinnitus:”

Here the narrator is able to exalt himself almost to the status of a Greek god or even Jesus, sharing the wine and bread of his supreme, yet participant, body. If the sea is him, and he is of the shell, then “no one dare disturb” this personal kingdom. The language here is dizzy, like believers swooning with a “never-say-die” passion in a boisterous church celebration. One gets the feeling that this is enough for the narrator: his subtle temple, his momentous connection with the minute gifts of a world staring him directly in the face.

Another interesting presence in this book is light. The common expression “blinded by the light” is superbly analyzed and reconstituted. What was the seer peering into that the light interrupted? Why can’t we just see the light, put our fingers through it, and believe that this is the outermost layer of our understanding, of our visibility? Light is beautiful, light builds and restores, but light also burns and kills: “Like worshipping the sun / when rain is needed – waves of heaven drying leaves to drop / from hardiest trees / wizening beasts carted / along the main street” (“Canto: Nephelometry (29)”).

Furthermore, “Wildflowers bloom early to avoid / being stranded when rains don’t come” (“Sub-Paradiso: Chapman Valley (16)”). Why does god punish us? Why does he allow bad things to happen to good people? We would never ask the same of light, but we would focus rather on the actions of people who cause the heat to expand, the outer layer of the earth to refract, for animals to dry in grassless, bulldozed ditches. Everyone comes outdoors for the first hot summer day; everyone trembles with anticipation at the burial of frost and coverings. Is that not worship?

Thus we might comply with “Canto of Irregular Moon (First Heaven)”:

I am content in the sun.
Increasing the light damages
my eyesight and yet, momentarily,

I can read the night trees clearer.
Liver spots, splotches, multi-vitamin
error zones: temporal

failures on the body’s outer limits.

Here everything works together: disintegration and communion, age and renewal, a complex synergy of what is poetic and what is heartbreaking, deadening, actual. Suddenly it feels like there is so much to do, to see in our present state.

Kinsella’s final work, Inferno, dissolves the traditional fashion of hell as a place you would refuse to visit; according to Kinsella, you are already there: “Inferno is a place of the ordinary, not the extraordinary…It’s the place where we are all complicit…Some crimes are greater than other crimes, but let none of us think ourselves pure or exempt. The world is being killed by small acts added together as much as by large acts” (“Preface to Purgatorio”). For example,

The followers of the flag
have forgotten their Aeroguard.
they’ll vote for mortgage

relief, pushing the rest
to the back of their minds;
consuming mosquitoes

and flies and fleas and lice
just like the rest of us.
We all bear the marks, whether

or not we follow the flag.

From “Canto of the Parboiled: No action either way, flies and wasps in pursuit (Vestibule, 3)”

Rather than satisfying “the need to feed on the vision of others” (“Preface to Inferno”), the narrator places us all in the chokehold: we all feel an ice storm, an invasion of bees in the attic, the fear of a terrorist attack. Are we so hopeful that we will not to consider these aspects of real life frightening and “of hell-like quality?” For most citizens of the world, they require no further punishment than inadequate nutrition, healthcare, education, lack of water. Are we so vain as to assume that those hungry, thirsty, dying people get twice the punishment – both here on earth and perhaps in hell (if they do not comply with the regulations of “moral soundness” in accordance with religious law)? Then this broadens strict monotheistic principles to include aspects of reincarnation, and where does that get us in the end? I guess there is none.

Snakes. Here on earth, they are part of the food chain, taking care of the maintenance of other pests and little creatures, controlling and re-designing a shifting system of consumer and consumed: “You know four or five people / who have been bitten: one died, / the others prospered. / You lift snakes from roads – / before compression – drivers / swerving to ‘take them out’. / A cartography of serpents” (“Canto of Serpents and Theft (Eighth Circle, seventh bolgia, 24/25)”). In real life, we avoid snakes because they might bite and kill us, not because they’re going to beguile us into cheating on our partners. Plenty in our human organization already encourages people to do that—we don’t need snakes on this earth to be bigger than they already are, to be responsible for anything more than taking someone’s life, and so we must be satisfied that they too are part of a cosmology that neither favors, nor condemns, any particular type of person. We can do most of the condemning ourselves.

The narrator trusts the language of nature to be fulfilling: “The locusts are angels and our feet their purpose. / Rare trees die as we profane the terrain. / Ants test any willing suspension of disbelief” (“Dream Canto: Climbing the Outcrop, the Calenture, Bare Feet…”). Animals enjoy fine weather and hunch in rain too. The narrator finds it easier to contend with the skills (read: confusion) of the human self by identifying human with animal. For example: “There’s an extermination order out in the Shire. / Baiting, shooting and trapping. This fox calls / to a partner who won’t return, though the call / draws attention to itself, translating / via nightmares those mouths to feed, / loneliness calling humans it can’t help want” (“Echoing Canto of the Fox (26)”). The fox is making sounds of pain and hunger, and although we don’t speak “fox,” we can distinguish a distress signal through the complicated system of uttered sounds. Like a dog wailing, or growling in the night. Do we really not have an established language with animals? The fox is frightened and alone. It does not want to die, implicitly. But neither can it feel the urge to invent a heaven—should we be jealous?

When Virginia Woolf killed herself, she had to weigh her body down with rocks, so that her body would not implicitly fight the urge to die. In “Canto of Jeepers Creepers,” John Kinsella’s discusses the “small scar Tim looks at closely, / laughing with fear.” Tim is his young son, and the visceral reaction is one of uncertainty, a night howl in the woods. And in fact if we choose not to speak to the given universe, to the thing that made us, to our parents, neighbors, and faults, then we create “stubborn Babels / if one hesitates to speak / in tongues” (“Canto of the Giant (31)”). Contention is as natural as a fox’s cry, because, according to Kinsella, we are simultaneously living in a hard-iron core of hell, heaven, and the in-between. How can we not be riled up, confused, suffocating, wanting change? Wanting other things to stay permanent?

Finally, denial of responsibility is an old tradition that causes us to escape reality and the solidified spirituality it can offer. In Dante’s Paradise, people are happy, but there are still classifications—there is still some level better than where you are, and worse. Sounds tangibly familiar. In reality, guilt is a human, and very real, emotion. We feel guilty when we come home late, when we forget to feed the dog, when we haven’t exercised in a while, when we didn’t do our best at work. Guilt is a built-in social system that keeps us centered and focused on making the best quality of life for ourselves (i.e., being in a committed, trusting relationship makes you feel better than being in an abusive one, or a dishonest one, so if you feel guilt, it keeps you “honest” in the future).

However, Dante’s Paradise simply cannot exist in my mind: how can the saved be happy and free, when their neighbors, friends, and sinful lovers are burning below? It only takes a simple step of rationalization: they were a product of your imagination, a test, to see if you would pass or fail in light of temptation; you must feel proud that you succeeded something so difficult, that others inevitably will fail. But truth be told, it goes back to the suffering here on earth: we have such complicated layers of paradise, and everything “below,” and the avoidance is much more palpable than need be imagined: those starving children in that country—what do we do about it? If I am not going to care in heaven that my fellow brothers and sisters are burning, then I wouldn’t care now. Do I? Is this a more pressing question than the one I would ask myself in heaven?

John Kinsella’s reclamation of the concept of Divine Comedy is not just food for thought and moral intrigue. It is a reexamining of age-old tenets that, in this day of “Go Green,” hurricanes, terrorism, First vs. Third World (even in our own American cities), have grown stale and useless. Don’t live for tomorrow if you’re going to forget today, and me, and our co-creation of community and love of place and home. Kinsella’s book may be as useful to an ethically and community-confused spiritualist as Sunday Mass is to a believer. A New Transcendentalist would say: I don’t care what you expect from the future, what can I expect from you (and me) now? Who are you? Who do you love? Have you seen the world today? Is it clear or are you searching for something incapable of being seen? What damage are you responsible for? It reminds me of Kinsella’s Auto: “You are I are in this together. We are complicit. Kids sharing the blame” (“In and Out of the Swamp”). John ends at home, in his most intimate space: “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”). He doesn’t omit the filth, but accepts all angles of an imperfect, but perfectly here, world. Isn’t that how we define humility?


Julia Istomina’s reviews and essays have appeared in Jacket Magazine, Salt Magazine, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and Coldfront Magazine. Her poems have appeared in Fence, The Cortland Review, Gertrude Stein Awards Anthology, Strangers from Home Anthology, Ars Interpres and other venues. Her first book of poems is forthcoming from Ars Interpres Book Series. She can be contacted at: julia56789@gmail.com.

See also: Divine Comedy: Journeys Through A Regional Geography by John Kinsella as reviewed by Janis Lull

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