John Kinsella is the author of twenty books whose many prizes and
awards include The Grace Leven Poetry Prize, the John Bray Award for Poetry from The Adelaide Festival, The Age Poetry Book of The Year Award, The Western Australian Premier’s Prize for Poetry (twice), a Young
Australian Creative Fellowship from the former PM of Australia, Paul
Keating, and senior Fellowships from the Literature Board of The Australia
Council. His Poems 1980 – 1994 and volume of poetry The Hunt
(a Poetry Book Society Recommendation) were published in May 1998 by Bloodaxe
in the UK and USA, and Visitants (Bloodaxe, 1999) has just been released. He is the editor of the international literary journal
Salt, a Consultant Editor to Westerly (CSAL, University of Western Australia), Cambridge correspondent for Overland (Melbourne, Australia), co-editor of the British literary journal Stand, International Editor of the American journal The Kenyon Review, and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. A novel Genre
was published in 1997 (Fremantle Arts Centre Press) and a new work of fiction
Grappling Eros in late 1998 (FACP).
A Bright Cigar-Shaped Object Hovers Over Mount Pleasant
Cut in Half by a Sheet of Corrugated Iron
ripped From A Shed By A Strong Wind
It starts in the park near Brentwood Primary School
and moves rapidly towards Mount Pleasant
a bright cigar-shaped object that darts
and jolts across the demarcation lines
of class that aren’t supposed to exist in Australia
but do because even Labor voters prefer
to be on the Mount Pleasant side of the divide
if for no other reason than it pushes property
prices up. It follows the line of my escape-
route from school, the same route a man
without a face in a dark car crawls along,
calling to me as I break into a run,
the car door opening and a clawed hand
reaching out to drag me in, the cigar-
shaped object stopped stock still
and hovering like the sun, hovering
as if it’s always been in that spot, always
been overhead, as hot as hell despite
the cold setting in, the sweat emanating
from my forehead, the light bright in my eyes.
The Work Which Established Hirst’s Reputation In The British Art World Is
Entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
(Pl.324), It Consists Of A Dead Tiger Shark Floating In A Tank Of
Preservative Fluid. The Shark Has Been Balanced And Weighted So That It
Floats In The Middle Of Its Tank, Just As Though It Were Floating In Its
Natural Element. (Artoday, Edward Lucie-Smith, Phaidon, 1995) or The Use of
The Word “Its”
Its tank is as
an emerald and chilled sea,
drenched in protean light,
its gut filled with the leaden boots
of a lost solo circumnavigator,
of the Other,
in this Albion, this island state
as rare as uniqueness
or that perfect steak,
that attracted language-wise
and even geographically
and islanders such as myself
who know that sharks
can’t afford to miss a beat –
drowning a threat to the machine that drives
their jaws, like art
and representation: not the life-mechanism
but the weighting of a non-expanding universe;
hey, Damien, maybe
you’ve backed the wrong shark?
“It” the elemental nature, O
of the dead, as if it belongs
to its own patch of turf,
the flesh advertised
like a tiger consuming villagers
and being shot
out of “necessity”, its skin
elemental in its stately spread,
trophy with unique
a comfort to the living,
O enfant terrible,
ad infinitum, fluid
I stripped down to my underpants and folded my clothes neatly
and placed them on the floor at the base of the bed, along with my
new pump-up reeboks; the others did the same
I placed the tape of The Director’s transference composition
in the Walkman and inserted the earpieces, lay down on the bed
with the tape player next to me; the others did the same
The Director walked amongst us touching our foreheads, pushing
the play button – it was as if he’d touched our souls – already
we’d become as one though I felt guilty because it touched me
inside, it had been so long; I can’t speak for the others
And he placed a capsule in our mouths and we bit down as we’d
been instructed – the window being so narrow, a matter of minutes,
but he moved swiftly and deftly, as always; as a body we’d rise
to the Mothership as it swept past in its arc; we’d rise as one
The Director would follow close behind, delivered by his own hand
– prophet, holder of the dates, the co-ordinates, banker and father
and keeper of the texts; the only one
The computers and our brilliant technology would remain,
our website maintained by believers who’d lacked the strength
to make the leap forward, who’d be waiting for the next time,
waiting for a new Director to lead them into the sun,
to full knowledge, immortality; oneness
It angered him that she would call it the “firebox” –
“It’s a woodbox,” he’d say, filling it with offcuts
from old railway sleepers
and fence posts, storm-felled trees
and once brilliant stands of blackbutt. He continued
to complain after she’d gone inside – “a woodbox!”
again and again – each
piece perfectly stacked, the box as full as it could be
before the lid came down. Returning the wheel-barrow
to the woodpile he glanced at the axe, considered
the circular saw – this
was his place. The woodbox
was where he and his wife met. He could see her clear
enough from the stack – moving around in the kitchen,
hanging her batik cloth,
dye running like body fluids over the sink.
“It’s not merely a hobby,” she would say over
and over, “people pay good money – a hell of
a lot more than the farm
brings in. You’d do better
selling that bloody firewood in town than keeping
every fire in the house burning – those sparks flying
up flues and over the
tinder-dry paddocks”. He’d curse her and take to
a particularly hard piece of wood with his
splitter, the iron biting deep, fresh from grinder.
He’d unpack the woodbox
and devise ways of packing
yet more wood into its tin shell. “Cutting, sawing,
splitting. Cutting, sawing, splitting.” Incendiary
litany: fire fire fire –
warmth and light and food and security. Fire fire.
“The firebox refills as fast as I empty it,”
she sighs. He watches the patterns on her batik
shirt as she drips wax. He
sees a snake – a dugite –
in his mind’s eye – it’s coiled and burning at the core
of the woodpile. He unpicks the stack with thick gloves
and pinches it firmly
behind the head – like on television. He sees
it in the woodbox which is half full. He sees
it inside and watches it slither down into the puzzle.
Her body rejects the
antivenin. Some years
later he remarries. His new wife stokes the fires.
The farm still runs at a loss but he is content.
The batik curtains have
seen better days but he won’t let this wife replace
them. They don’t argue much. She’s easy to get on
with, he thinks, splitting a thick chunk of salmon gum
he’d driven an hour to
pick up. The axe sings – it
has its own beauty. There are only small things that
niggle at him. She calls the woodbox a firebox.
She worries about sparks.
But it’s autumn now and warmth fills the house, their home.
for Mark Rudman
High wind and sunshine – sharp outline
against blurring odds, jacked
out of four-by-two
torn tap tap rip
pinging out, force-9/doldrums
out in the open,
skin-lifting, dead boughs
dropping out in the habitat,
nest-fall and dissonance,
that sheet of corrugated
airmailed, kingsford smithed
into the flesh, earmarked
and with his name
written on it, old farmer
emerging from the shuddering
shithouse, porno mags
stacked up out there
beyond the memories of a dead wife,
cut down outside his prime,
blood-flagged in strong wind,
abstract to the end: “didn’t know
what hit him…”
A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN KINSELLA
by Michael Bradshaw
RR: In the build-up to ‘the millennium’ there was a rising interest in eschatology and angelogy, both in artistic media and in scholarship. Your poems of alien visitation seem reluctant to treat this tendency ironically, which one might perhaps expect. What does the contemporary ‘close encounter’ tell us? And will visitors still come, now that the moment (2000) has passed?
JK: Of course, one can’t but treat the social construct of “encounter” ironically. “ologies” and “isms” become masks and veneers for other social/cultural/and political agendas – usually based on desires (or
“quests” – a classic motif) for power and control. But on a personal, or intimate level, it seems bigoted to me to lampoon or mock people’s personal
hopes or beliefs. They may seem to me misdirected, or using a language
I don’t share, but that’s fine – I respect it. Belief systems based on the
certitude and liberation of “death” have an impelling logic about them.
My volume of poetry, Eschatologies (1991, collected in Poems 1980-1994), is concerned with notions of myth, death, and place. Visitors will always be coming. Millenarianism has many faces. Humans are not going to suddenly become incorrupt, create a “paradise-on-earth”. The oppressions of the human condition are a guarantee that the visitors will be just round the
RR: ‘Ascension’, on the other hand, gives a more cynical view of a religious cult, in which the Director will ‘follow close behind’ his suicidal disciples, and is also described as the ‘banker’ of the cult.
Why do you think we continue to be so fascinated by apocalyptic cults, despite their reputation for mind-control?
JK: When all those around you lose their heads…? Security?
Desperation? It’s easy to come up with trite answers to this. The inevitability of death is the key. That despite the willingness to face death, be absorbed by it, enter into necrophilic liaisons with it, there’s the hope of something better on the other side. It’s purgatorial suffering. Freedom through discipline. The “leader” becomes a focal point of power and oppression, but the control is moderated through being a medium to something potentially greater than him or herself. I’d guess that most followers only tolerate the supremacy of their leaders because of the promise of something
better. It’s a utilitarian relationship.
RR: ‘Untitled’ is a poem about the famous Damien Hirst shark, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. It seems interested in the idea that a shark always has to keep swimming; how does this relate to an ‘island’ identity? The title of Hirst’s work gives it much of its power; why is your poem untitled? (Or why is entitled ‘Untitled’?)
JK: The poem originally went by the long subtitle. A chat with Neil Astley about what the book was visually doing brought the ironic title. It’s a deadly serious poem – despite the language-play. I despise the shallowness of Hirst, the fetishisation of death. Andy Warhol was far more honest. As a vegan, I think Hirst’s art stinks. For me, art is about movement – even if speech is caught in a balloon or the electric chair is screen-printed into a horrific iconicity. The movement comes with the excitement of process. Hirst’s shark is a contradiction in this – it’s preserved, alive, against the “laws of nature”. This is interesting as anti-art, but lacking ethics it soon loses relevance for me. You’ve picked up on a key theme of the book with your “island” question. Visitants is a book about colonisation/invasion/oppression. It’s about the destruction of indigenous peoples of Australia by “visitants”, about the appropriation of language and art. The island is Australia, also Britain. It’s the “no man is an island” of Donne. It’s the island of Crusoe, islands of Conrad. And of Gulliver.
RR: ‘Firebox’ is in some ways a beautiful poem of rural life, but with poison and menace lurking semi-hidden. Would it be fair to say there is an intimation of paradise and fall in this story of a snake in the woodbox, and marriage under strain in the wilds of nature?
JK: Absolutely. For me, all paradises are rotten. They don’t exist. But they need to be part of our thinking, something to work towards,
through, or against. The “Firebox” is an example of “anti-pastoral” or “radical pastoral”. As with traditional pastoral, the rural is an external
construct (though it literally informs my background, the process of writing about it dislocates the author) but one that is seen in its darkness as well as “idyllic” qualities. I am angry with what people have done in creating landscapes, and yet am strongly attracted to rural spaces – especially the
wheatlands of Western Australia. It’s a poem, obviously, about gender-darkness as well. The Fall, the fall, the fall. There’s an inversion
going on there as well, simply in terms of a reader’s potential sympathies – a tone I searched for in writing the Lilith Poems in Eschatologies.
RR: The protagonists of your poems are often craftspeople and agricultural workers, and this poem gives a particularly sensuous account of the work of a woodcutter, the ring of the axe, the texture of the timber; do these material satsfactions have a counterpart in poetic form in your writing?
JK: The materiality of incursion into an environment has always fascinated me. As a kid I collected plough discs and pieces of old farm machinery, as well as rocks and ceramic power insulators (as per Edwin Denby). I walked around the farm “collecting nouns”, as I once wrote. But I don’t trust nouns anymore. Maybe since passing the Swedenborgian Society’s place near the British Museum when I was a very young man on a visit from Australia. I don’t like materialism – I own only books and cds, a computer and thousands and thousands of sheets of paper. And, of course, clothes. All black. I do like playing with form in poetry though, maybe to compensate for
material angst in the “real world”.
RR: ‘Cut in half…’ is arresting and moving, and seems to combine an almost documentary detachment with a lyrical, elegiac intimacy. Why are you often drawn to write about hideous accidents? Are these moments of extreme, random (?) violence a defining part of the landscape?
JK: Yes, and rarely written about. My model is Frost’s “Out, out…”, in a deconstructive sense. It’s a statement against nation-building and nationalism as well. That myth of the Aussie battler, fighting the
elements. There’s nothing glorious or nation-building about death and
injury. Even the so-called understated acceptance of such things by the
Australian literary stereotype is decoration. The land – wherever it is
– kicks against the pricks. You did it over and it, in turn, will do the
same back. Maybe this is why I like Hardy so much, “as flies to wanton
boys…” as he quotes in Tess. I’ve never managed to shake Fatalism. But then
again, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.
RR: The materials, the toughness of life, the vastness of space, and this latency of sudden accident combine to make the Australian agricultural landscape a potent well of myth. Do you think you will ever exhaust its possibilities? Or ever start writing ‘Cambridge’ poems..?
JK: No. I’ve written sequential “myth” or “anti-heroic” mythologies in Lasseter, Lilith, Zimmerman, and The Benefaction, and will no doubt continue to do so. Yes, I’ve written many Cambridge poems – most particularly Fenland Pastorals (from Prest Roots Press in a limited edition). What I’m most interested in writing at the moment is a landscape hybrid – fusing the environments of the Western Australian wheatbelt with the fenlands of Cambridge. Has interesting implications re spatiality and reclamation, centre and fringe, and so on.
RR: Finally, is it important to you to publish on the net, and is a poem read on screen different from a poem read on paper? Some might expect the physical texture of your writing to be conducive to a love of print.
JK: I do quite a bit of net work. I run the poetryetc email list, and develop projects that benefit from the immediacy of email and web interaction. I’m a keen collaborator, and the net is spontaneous and fluid in this sense. I write for the page, but I’m also interested in the space of the screen – its hyperspatial depth. I’m most attracted by the scroll, the rapid movement of text. I’ve written on and discussed decoration at length, and the net strikes me as the most vital form of this. It’s a baroque medium.
Copyright © John Kinsella 2000
These poems and accompanying material may not be archived or distributed further without
the author’s express permission. Please read the license.
This electronic version of these poems and accompanying material is published by The Richmond Review
by arrangement with the author. Please contact us in the first instance when making rights enquiries.