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The Hunt and Other Poems
John Kinsella

The Hunt and Other Poems
John Kinsella
Newcastle upon Tyne 1998
1 85224 441 0

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Nothing can impair the enjoyment of a good poetry collection like a back-cover blurb: ‘He has dusted down the pastoral, and made it a vibrant, contemporary form.’ This short sentence casually implies that pastoral poetry has lately been in a state of neglected stagnation, and/or that recent poets have performed it badly, and/or that it has been unfashionable, has not been properly mined for contemporary resonance. And here is John Kinsella to blow away the cobwebs. Hooray! The implication that we need a new broom to rediscover for us an old genre is patronising and anti-intellectual. The writer of this blurb, and I hope and presume the poet himself had nothing to do with it, should have a little re-read of Heaney’s Field Work, to name but one, acknowledge that generic resonance operates on occasion at a deeper level than telegraphed neo-classicism, and accord contemporary poets more respect.

It is true, however, that ‘pastoral’ is performed in this collection with a technical literalness which is certainly rare, the most extreme case being the First and Second Eclogues, which take the classical form of dialogues between symbolic rural workers, here Geoff and Steve, and Paul and Jenny. The volume as a whole is an intriguing blend – no, clash, of the terse and brutal beauties of the Australian agricultural landscape and the very highest heights of the academy. Kinsella effectively and fluently works terza rima verses and sestinas. A collection with signalled echoes of Theocritus and Virgil, The Hunt and Other Poems is adorned with the praise of Peter Porter, Les Murray, George Steiner and Harold Bloom. There are poems dedicated to Jacques Derrida, Frank Kermode, Les Murray, George Steiner and Harold Bloom. And yet for all its heavyweight credentials, the poetry is most deeply in love with the vast painted landscapes of the Wheatlands, where incident and accident press strongly on the lives of the gentle and silent.

There are so many moments of hideous accidental violence in this landscape that the reader quickly becomes attuned to an almost beguiling rhythm of dread and foreboding. The exotic vastness of the wheat fields, and the chilling and beautiful enormity of the grain-processing machinery threaten at every moment to strike, maim, kill or swallow up entirely. Like the woman falling appallingly into the collapse of a poisoned well, the slow motion fall of a hair-trigger rifle, the man crushed beneath an upturned tractor… or the sinking children of ‘Drowning in Wheat’:

Up to the waist
and afraid to move.
That even a call for help
would see the wheat
trickle down.
The painful consolidation
of time. The grains
in the hourglass
grotesquely swollen.

Time and again the landscape resolves itself into bloodshed, and time and again the violent moment is heart stopping in its beauty as well as in its terror. The emblematic Australian animal wreaks its revenge in ‘Death of a Roo Dog’:

And that wily
creature, its tail anchored
in the muddy bed, levered
its toenails into position
and ripped open my best dog
from top to bottom, and then
pressed down until the remaining
life was thrashed into darkening
waters. I was too stung to shoot
as that monster roo lurched
onto the banks, glutted
with battle…

The sense of menace makes the fragments of narrative gripping. And in the poem ‘The Trap’ the poet reverses expectations by having the queasily expected violence perpetrated not by a harshly unforgiving environment, but by a city-dwelling immigrant to the Wheatlands who commits a disturbed and disturbing arson attack on a neighbour – ‘[he] brought fire to the pit of his hatred.’

A pair of poems late in The Hunt, ‘The Doppler Effect and The Australian Pastoral’, is dizzyingly eloquent about Kinsella’s style: ‘Red Shift’ offers a physical and poetic universe which is retreating and drifting away from the viewer, opening up great vistas of space; ‘Blue Shift’ has the bush sky as the centre for the headlong collision and big crunch. The style likewise expands and contracts – centrifugal, centripetal. Kinsella’s intricate formal and linguistic experimentation, his classical attachments, and his dogged ruralism and realism, all these pull in different directions. And in the motion between these poles there is tension and colour. Intoxicating stuff.

Reviewed by Michael Bradshaw


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