Kinsella describes; he does not prescribe. He rests less comfortably in his retreat than Thoreau and without the surety that he lives an exemplary life.
When Susan Stewart, Harold Bloom and Marjorie Perloff blurb a book of poems, you don’t need me to tell you it’s good. If you like John Kinsella, you will like this representative book; if you’ve never read Kinsella, then this can serve as synecdoche for his oeuvre. Kinsella is the Yo-Yo Ma of poets: musically gifted, classically trained but with a charmingly willingness to explore other traditions; the resulting work expresses a subtle understanding of the inherent complexity of mixing these practices. Like a plant that does best in poor soil without water, Kinsella thrives in the challenging context of rural Australia. In “Digging” he suffers his landscape even as he praises it:
Ground baked so hard you can only scrape
And pick at it, occasionally shattering
Into sheets and chips around a rocky protrusion.
It is dirt around stone. Prise and quarry.
“Prise” and “quarry”: What English words! So English that they catch my attention when I find them in Jam Tree Gully where the “kangaroos are gathering.” With metrical and direct allusions to Hopkins and Heaney, the (truly excellent) opening poem, “Prologues,” situates Kinsella’s work in the English tradition:
Sprung, the wild-oat seed cocks
a grasshopper leg ,and another
corskscrews into a heavy sock,
too thick for summer.
Sun skinks are fat on the fence
And a Christmas spider – horned
And enameled – puts on a different face
To each approach – none is scorned
Like Hopkins, Kinsella finds himself enraptured with the natural quotidian and with the pulsation of the language he uses to express it. (Of course, for Kinsella, that quotidian is as banal as cleaning gutters, something I don’t imagine Hopkins mucking about in.) Romantic nostalgia for Nature in its full, voluptuous summer self permeates the text, but Romanticism does not blind Kinsella to the underlying reality of the setting. Like Heaney Kinsella knows his place at the periphery of the English tradition, in its vast colonial borderlands. In the landscape of “Digging,” a queen moves insidiously, leading “white ants” who “migrate to their next meal.” The poem ends, like many do, a bit melodramatically, explaining the speaker’s irrevocable attachment to the place: “The dirt stays under / my fingernails. There’s not enough water / to clean it away.” Where the human figure of Heaney’s father emerges in the foreground of his “Digging,” the dirt itself, the “cellulose” digested by ants, stays the focus of Kinsella’s poem.
In Jam Tree Gully, the very dividing line between the human and animal, the political and the natural is at stake. What divides the human political realm from the natural, polis from physis, order from becoming, the realm of speech from the unspeakable? In his landscape, Kinsella seeks to understand what Hegel and Foucault called the prose of the world. The world has not only meaning but an almost grammatical structure. During a storm, “night has already collected” and “in there are / the mixed metaphors and split infinitives/ you grew up fearing.”
In this study, Kinsella echoes Thoreau to whom he often alludes, directly in epigraphs and indirectly within many stanzas. In the same strong sense as the German Romantics, Thoreau writes poetically to escaped standard conception of the world, thus forwarding unsystematically – but no less effectively – his perception of it.
Kinsella achieves a similar effect, but he does not philosophize. He provides no theories to explain the underlying conditions in his neighborhood. Thoreau’s famous phrase, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” is followed by the verdict, “But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” Thoreau passes judgment on his contemporaries who have not yet chosen to live deliberately; he writes a prescriptive not only descriptive account of his life in the woods. Kinsella does not attempt this. Much could be said about the causes or results of colonization, climate change, or economics that shape his landscape, but he resists diagnostic commentary. Kinsella describes; he does not prescribe. He rests less comfortably in his retreat than Thoreau and without the surety that he lives an exemplary life. He chooses more often an intimate “we” as subject rather than the sturdy “I” that for Thoreau indicates “a simple and sincere account” of life: “We look hard at what might / have been. We listen and taste the air. Our skins / tingle…” and so on. He knows he is neither the only nor the first person to appreciate his landscape. Even the epigraph to this book – like others – makes an acknowledgement that approaches apology (for theft? for debt? for ): “The author wishes to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land he writes.” For this humility, I can only respect him more.
In “Goat” he sees a goat with one hoof missing who “scratches its chin, back left leg hobbling, counter-/balanced on rocks. Clots of hair hang like extra legs / off its flanks.” This goat is a “devil,” it is “Pan in the frolicking growth / of the rural” but “to us, it is Goat/ who deserves to live.” Elsewhere, he comes “across the leg of a sheep, flesh / eaten away, bones held together by sinews… It points neither up nor down the hill, nor divinely / the length of the waterway.” This sheep part does not serve as a sign through which he can divine another spiritual realm. The sheep leg delineates the contours of this world: where “clump of fat and wool remain. And the leg. / It keeps its own counsel.” For Kinsella, as often as possible, legs are legs and goats are just goats: they are not metaphors, not allusions or signs. Their prosaic existence alongside his own fascinates him, and his success as a poet lies in communicating this fascination to his readers.