John Kinsella’s poetry presents an enormous challenge to readers. Armour, which won the Victorian Premier’s Award in 2012, is a book of big ideas: it leaves you in no doubt that thought is the predominant feature of Kinsella’s work. It can shut you out with its combination of technical vocabulary (including mathematical symbols and formulae), semantic indirectness, fractured syntax and the tendency to freely associate around a theme rather than bring ideas together in a synthetic and intelligible way. The poetry itself is armoured against the reader.
Needless to say, if the ideas are complex, the reader may have to struggle to extract the thought in all its intricacy. But difficulty is not a guarantee of profound thinking; in fact, it may suggest a failure to think things through in a sufficiently poetic way. Certainly, the reader is not always to blame.
The general method throughout Armour is an embroidering around the explicit subject of the poem. The most conspicuous of Kinsella’s elaborative devices is his use of unusual and often technical language: terms such as ‘urticaria’ (a skin rash, usually occurring as an allergic reaction) and ‘frass’ (excrement or debris left behind by an insect or insect larva). Armour is full of such words: cognomen, endosymbionts, tetrodotoxin, adiabatic, hemistiche, dyadic, lipidic, cartilaginous, aketon, poleyns. The poet aspires to a kind of omnivorousness, bringing all kinds of knowledge to bear on his subjects, often from disciplines that are remote from one another. Such words are, for the most part, derived from specialist discourses. They tend to distance the writing from the reader, suggesting technical understanding and expertise. They also slow down the process of reading: in many cases, there is no choice but to reach for one’s dictionary.
Kinsella will often describe a familiar feature of our world in an ingenious, slightly hifalutin way to make it seem more arcane or ‘poetic’. There is a type of caterpillar called a processional caterpillar; these are sometimes seen walking in single file from place to place. In ‘Processional Caterpillars Mistaken for Spitfires’, this is rendered:
they peel off tail to head, a procession
of dead giveaways, to ward off
the predator, to cast the illusion
of holism, one-ness, the serpentine.
I imagine that the caterpillars are described as ‘dead giveaways’ because their processional activity makes them visible and thus easy targets for predators, while the phrase ‘to cast the illusion of holism, one-ness, the serpentine’ wittily makes the point that they walk in lines to fool predators into thinking that they are a larger and more dangerous creature. Kinsella excels at this kind of recoding of the everyday, and it lends his work an aura of sophistication. Once ‘decoded’, however, such passages often turn out to be fairly mundane: they have the appearance rather than the substance of abstruseness.
An impression of intellectual significance is also the product of Kinsella’s complex syntax. In Armour, this is often the result of abbreviation – the bringing together of telegraphic fragments of language or the omission of bits of grammatical structure. For example, in the second stanza of the caterpillar poem we read:
Word of mouth,
their inheritance is narrative, a route
of lines – silk spat out, woven as cable;
daylight manoeuvrings, slower than night
when they break away to feed
on jam tree, to shed hairs and frass,
The gist of the thought is comprehensible, but the choppy diction – the result of the juxtaposition of short phrases of three and four words – and the lack of grammatical completeness (there is no main verb in the second part of the sentence beginning ‘daylight manouevrings …’) prevent a full understanding of the writer’s thought. Complex syntax may create more possibilities for meaning, and Kinsella seems keen to maximise such possibilities wherever he can, but excess can also lead to loss, disorientation, non-sense, dullness.
Rather than elaborate their ideas or themes organically, the poems in Armour develop a series of inventive intellectual associations. When the associations run dry, the poem ends, whether any real conclusion has been reached or not. In the final part of the poem, for instance, the caterpillars climb the veranda wall to spin their cocoons, something they do collectively. This fact introduces two associated ideas remote from entomological reality. The first deals with radical politics – the caterpillars ‘weave a communist utopia’ and ‘revel / in mutual aid’ – while the second, triggered perhaps by a perceived resemblance between the caterpillars’ weaving and the rigging or sails of old-time sailing vessels, introduces several nautical associations:
ships of the line? Heave ho, onward,
haul the sheets.
On their own, each of these devices – Kinsella’s semantic indirectness, his obscure vocabulary, his complex syntax and his use of association – poses a considerable challenge to readers of Armour. When they are combined, the result is frequently formidable. Vocabulary is, in its own way, power, and in ‘Words of Power’ the poet playfully endorses the notion that big words correlate with intelligence:
found an old book
in the Salvation Army shop:
Six Weeks to Words of Power.
‘Learn that in two weeks,’
she said, ‘and you’ll be steps
ahead of those stuck
in the classroom. The New Age
girls who neglect you
will take notice – an inheritance
Apart from awing the reader and conveying the impression of erudition, Kinsella’s technical vocabulary appears to be aimed at disrupting readers’ expectations with regard to the language of poetry. Lyric poetry tends to derive most of its vocabulary from the everyday world and from nature, because it is rooted in concrete living and because it seeks to share an experience. For this reason, it is often relatively easy to read poetry in a foreign language when it is still impossible to tackle a newspaper confidently. Technical language is also part of our contemporary experience, but it is often fraught with alienation. It is by no means democratic: rather than solidarity with the reader, it expresses a chilly exclusiveness. In a recent interview, the writer and savant Daniel Tammet praised France as a country in which literature and mathematics could come together; Kinsella is right to interrogate this division in anglophone literature and explore ways in which the two realms might be brought into fruitful conjunction. But the formulae in lines such as ‘I favour 3π2’ or ‘Decay constant? / dN/dt = -λN’, while they might be thrilling to the mathematically literate reader of Armour, will strike the rest of us as ungenerous. No effort has been made to bridge the domains or to combine them in a poetically accessible way.
The battery of technical terms in Armour has a counterpart in certain forms of grandiloquent phrasing. One quite prevalent formula is ‘the A of B’, with A often being an impressive Greek- or Latin-derived word, and B an abstract noun: ‘eschatology of display’; ‘The causality of mice’; ‘The Decay of Hemispheres’; ‘The Vitiation of Presence’. Such phrases sound impressive, but the context generally provides little help in unpacking what they mean. Another common formula – ‘A is B’ – looks like a metaphor, but it can be difficult to see what the two terms brought together have in common:
is embryonics; hay is cryogenics
is proximity cross-pollinating
to make food an essential alibi
(‘Beetopic or Beetopia?’)
Pine is ritual
(‘The Sway of a Coastal Pine Tree’)
Granite is resilience
(‘Waterwheel by the Oceans’)
Living is knowing
These phrases have the potential to mean something, but the grandeur of the phrasing promises rather than delivers concrete instances of meaning. In ‘Wreck at Coogee Beach (1905 – )’, Kinsella writes:
let backwashed footprints
push up to reset perfect
sandy pictures, lit by kelp
With reflection, you can see that this means that the backwash of the waves smoothed out the footprints in the sand. Such indirectness is commonly used in poetry and can be productively employed to make us see a familiar circumstance in a new – and therefore more vivid – light. It can also be suggestive, setting our minds thinking about things in a way that may lead on to an unexpected understanding. There is also a puzzle-pleasure-principle at work here. When we ‘solve’ the enigmatic description and break through to the meaning disguised within it, we experience a certain joy of discovery. But I am not sure that the formulation of this example contributes anything productive to the sense of the text: it is more convolution than revelation. We do not see the scene any more sharply; nor do we sense that the scene was deeply felt by the writer.
Occasionally, Kinsella’s poems compensate for their difficulty and come to our aid with a plain-English explanation. In ‘The Sleep of Blowflies’, for example, he writes:
of heat and light disrupt
circadian manifests, the sense
of day and night.
‘Circadian manifests’ appears to mean, more or less, something like ‘the sense of day and night’.
The use of specialist terminology is perhaps a symptom of Kinsella’s view of poetry as ‘an accumulation of words’. This would seem to equate diversity of vocabulary with a richness of poetic significance. Speaking very crudely, many of the poems in Armour are, to a large extent, conglomerations of phrases, often stripped down to a syntactic minimum. This generates poems that are analytical rather than synthetic: meaning accumulates through the addition of more and more discrete associations rather than from the imaginative fusion of perceptions, emotions and insights. It is precisely for this reason that Armour so often verges on diffuseness and disintegration.
The technological bent is evident in a range of examples. In ‘Write-off’, a mass of insects squashed against the front of a car is described as
Picking wrecked bodies
from filaments of radiator, even mangled into one body
with many more legs than genetically encoded.
There is a certain kind of wit involved here, but there is more genuine poetic flavour in the phrase ‘wrecked bodies’ than the indirectness of ‘many more legs than genetically encoded’. Aiming for an excess of meaning also plays a role in the use of this device. In ‘Dog-Shape Elegy’, a memorial to a beloved pet dog, we read:
Shep stretched out, all senses alert,
in his dog-tired sleep-lite phase,
tiles cooler than air,
a spreadsheet occupation
of the facts.
A ‘spreadsheet occupation’ repeats the idea that the dog was lying stretched out on the ground, with the hint that he was, dog-wise, ‘occupying’ a territory. But the word ‘spreadsheet’ jolts us from domesticity to computer discourse, and while it implies that the dog possesses a complex knowledge of his environment, tonally it serves as an intrusion. It favours a play on words at odds with the gravity of mourning.
Occasionally, Kinsella’s semantic indirectness is linked to humour. The line ‘with many more legs than genetically encoded’ is gently macabre in its mirth. A more conspicuous example appears in ‘Reverse Anthropomorphism’:
I connect with them in no way. No displacement
to fill the page: no female pushing a pram
full of letters, ‘protecting the male’.
The poem deals with sex roles: while watching a pair of birds hunting insects, Kinsella observes that they seem to behave in identical ways. This leads him to various thoughts on the subjects of anthropomorphism and gender. Hence the phrase ‘no female pushing a pram full of letters’, in which ‘letters’ is a synonym for ‘mail’ and therefore a pun on ‘male’. In the context of a poem that deals ostensibly with a pair of birds, such humour is intrusive and (ironically) anthropomorphic.
A dominant feature in Armour is the use of an abbreviated sentence structure to create another type of complexity in the realm of grammar. Cutting down on ‘structure words’ makes it harder to identify grammatical relations, and this can produce an impression of enigma or urgency. This is done to great effect in ‘Write-off’, which deals with a state of turmoil:
‘Brace. We’re going to hit!’ –
followed by impact, radiator meeting fan, fragmenting
into manifold and grinding out valves, cylinders –
flip of carcass past windscreen, over curve of roof,
into the aftermath of passing, wake of darkness, a sickly
tail-lit epilogue of care and obsession.
The phrase ‘aftermath of passing’ is another example of Kinsella’s impressive diction; it is interesting too in the way it strives to multiply the meanings of ‘passing’ in terms of both road-talk (the car passed the kangaroo) and mortality (the kangaroo ‘passed away’ in the collision). The same applies to ‘wake’. Even ‘sickly tail-lit epilogue’ tries hard to preserve the road-talk (pale tail-lights) and mortality (sickening death of a tailed animal). On the whole, however, this striving for multiple meanings often feels like a lack of balance or proportion: any concern for the fate of the animal gets lost in the hectic polysemy. Notice, too, how short phrases replace clauses. All the verbs – meet, fragment, grind, flip, pass – are transformed into nouns or verbal nouns. Articles, apart from a single ‘a’ towards the end, are dispensed with entirely. This enacts the idea of collision, in which disparate objects are brought into contact with one another; in other words, the poem mirrors the crash between car and kangaroo in the collision of linguistic elements. At the same time, the disorientation produced in the mind of the speaker by this traumatic event is recreated in the rapid succession of incidents, a succession accelerated by the telegraphic absence of dispensable words.
Elsewhere, this kind of abbreviation, while heightening the appearance of intellectual density, can make following the sense of a poem extremely demanding. The following example from ‘Cutworms’ is not unusual:
Sharp as necessary,
maybe even sharper, you can’t compare
to human tools of cutting,
slashing. Though incisors
mix media, to fell that tall timber,
for here flees a grey pudginess
as bogong moth, flies
out of its skin, its cage, its crib,
so sleepy in summer wings,
so willing to fly far and wide,
The thrust of the meaning here concerns the destructive power of cutworms: they eat their way through crops with a terrifying rapidity. Perhaps the syntax is trying to convey something of this power, but it fails to maintain a basic level of control. In line two, the object of the verb to compare is understood; this is an acceptable omission. After that, however, the grammar becomes deficient. The clause ‘Though incisors mix media’ is dependent and so requires a main clause to complete it; this main clause seems to be lacking – instead, another dependent clause is added. Moreover, a comma is put between ‘bogong moth’ and its verb ‘flies’; this only adds to the grammatical confusion.
The diversity and audacity of the constellated associations in Armour can be stunning. Here, for example, is a marvellous sample from ‘Beetopic or Beetopia?’:
Near the hamlet, in the hollow
of a York gum – fruits of dead core,
living tree eaten out, dead bone within
living bone, all trace of age digested like ritual –
a message from Rumi, master of the whirling
dervishes, implanted like compassion shaped
as ‘hive’ amidst ‘nature’, God’s exotica,
we are annihilated, forgetting consequences,
disciples threaten, letting the ‘wild’ be ‘wild’
and the farmed be farmed, a cartoon-gimmick
in the age of cinematography: Australian
cinematographers famous for their clarity,
preciseness of imagery exported across
the world stage, elevation of local
to a universal chatter, blasphemy
holy and healthy, desirable.
Within the hive . . .
The excerpt begins with a reference to a bee’s nest in a hollow tree, and comes back to the hive in the final line, but the intervening passage is pure mind-mapping. The text first picks up on the notion of hollowness to evoke death, bone and ritual. This then leads to several religious associations involving the Persian poet Sufi Rumi, as well as ‘God’s exotica’ and rebellious ‘disciples’. After a brief farming association, the poem then moves on to film: ‘Australian cinematographers famous for their clarity’. This in turn leads to a comment on the local versus the global, and a further religious connection.
The effect is vertiginous to say the least. All the reader can do is take a deep breath and try to assess which of the associations are relevant to the topic and productive of some level of meaning. Brain-storming of this kind, however, represents a low-level of thought: a wealth of connections is indicated, but nothing is unpacked or worked out. It is as if the quantity and diversity of associations are considered adequate to the creation of a satisfying poem. And if it turns out that the associations are not particularly appropriate to the topic, this is of no real concern. They can be superseded at will:
It whipped back and forth,
rare – if-ever-seen-here – twister,
like a builders’ chute swallowing scraps
of masonry and waste,
shitting it out into a rusted skip;
but this worked in reverse,
long and slender as the throat
of a vacuum cleaner, coiling
dust like a cord.
(‘Dust Funnel Cloud’)
The image of the builders’ chute is flawed in several respects: it expels rather than sucks in, and it involves downward rather than upward movement. The poet realises this, but instead of deleting it as a false start and trying again, he simply acknowledges its imprecision with the line ‘but this worked in reverse’ and goes on to try a second association: this time a vacuum cleaner. Again, a lack of precision creates difficulties. The implicit idea of a long, slender ‘throat’ suggests a confusion with ‘neck’ (can you have a ‘long throat’?) and, sensing this, the poet adds the related association of the vacuum cleaner’s ‘cord’. This association depends on the fact that the cord of the vacuum cleaner can be spooled back in to the body of the machine, a motion broadly comparable to the spiralling motion of the dust funnel. However, this spooling cannot be seen, and it does not involve any kind of suction.
In his introduction to Zen Poetry (1995), Lucien Stryk writes instructively about the pointing of the mind at objects. The student of meditation is warned against moving metaphorically away from the point of focus and ‘instructed to continue until it is possible to remain strictly with the object … no longer looking at it but … as it. Only then will [she] attain the state of muga, so close an identification that the unstable mentalizing self disappears.’ In Kinsella’s case, the mentalising is at times more important than the pretext-objects of the poetry; that is all the more reason why it should be handled with scrupulous care.
The quality of poetic thought in Armour is erratic. To a significant extent, it borrows the prestige of technical and specialist realms, while using devices that obscure meaning with the aim of suggesting a profundity beyond the commonplace. Despite the flexibility and richness of Kinsella’s associative powers, thought remains largely undeveloped, unassimilated, disembodied. It is one thing to have ideas, but another to communicate them lucidly to a reader.
One big idea does come through in Armour, and it concerns our relationship to Australian nature. In ‘Hyperbole’, Kinsella indicates his approach to poetry in the lines
Poète engagé, ha! I pursue data,
inform my protest,
wrest lyrics from the brutal.
The formulation of the phrase ‘wrest lyrics from the brutal’ connects with the belief that nature has been misrepresented in poetry that insists on pastoral beauty. This attitude is most clearly expressed in the morbidity in many poems: an owl hunts mice, sharks hunt whales, sheep die and their carcasses swell, a house is covered in blowflies, cutworms decimate crops, borers kill almond trees, gnats are eaten in clouds, snakes wake and go after mice, blue-ringed octopuses develop their lethal toxins – even the relatively benign western flycatchers ‘target their prey’. At times, there is immaturity in this morbidity: it suggests lurid fascination rather than mature acceptance of the fact of a self-consuming universe. Hence the occasional links between this animal theme and absurd sexual imagery: ‘that gaping mouth, caught perversely / wide, a universal fellation’ (‘Megamouth Shark’); ‘like that unfamiliar vestigial horn – clitoral / to be stroked in violence?’ (‘Dürer’s Rhinoceros’).
The one-sidedness of this view is valuable as a corrective, but despite its clear-sighted recognition of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, it is just as partial as the warm and fuzzy view of nature found in traditional Australian lyric poetry (Louis Lavater: ‘Mopoke! . . . Mopoke! . . . / Mysterious bird, / What loneliness / In thy one word!’). Nature is not that simple, and surely one task facing Australian poetry is to come to terms with our natural world in all its majesty, complexity and terrifying otherness. Kinsella’s work makes an outstanding contribution to the last aspect, but to the exclusion of the others. Furthermore, the morbidity of the natural world is apt to be overlaid with feelings of disaffection. Seen in this way, nature becomes the target for a disgust that probably has its origins in the human sphere.
According to the back cover blurb, Armour is Kinsella’s ‘most spiritual work to date’. After numerous readings of the book, I have been unable to locate anything that I recognise as a spiritual dimension in Kinsella’s poetic thinking. There are occasional references to religious themes (the evocation of Rumi), as well as lines such as
from axle to those great circles
we build religions from, spiritual
affirmation in the light of need
(‘Waterwheel by the Oceans’)
us into sacred
There is also a poem about a cemetery and another one that is, indirectly, about a church:
Where the church cracked in the quake
we could open and see the people;
lines are decades old but invoke
those moments of being fearful.
The flooded gums that hold the river
are dying before red roots reach
foundations – prayers deliver
either too little or too much.
The sun pulls the town together –
hint of green frosty mornings;
church door is locked to outsiders,
cracks follow mortar, bricks, bell rings.
I think, however, that this is more likely to be read as an attack on religion rather than as an expression of spirituality, and link it to the following lines in ‘Idyllatry’:
in churches goes like the clappers, clustered
against any glister of winter.
If there is a numinous element in this book, it is conveyed in such a way as to make it invisible to the uninitiated: the thought gets lost in a wish to be seen to be thinking.
Three books Kinsella has published since Armour suggest that there may be a good reason for the difficulty of his poetry: his idea of writing is haunted by bullying.
The short fiction in Tide and In the Shade of a Shady Tree is about West Australian country towns. Because most of the stories are only five or six pages long, they offer a minimum in terms of plot, character, setting and dialogue. There is generally just enough development for a twist or an unexpected event, but not much more than that. The writing gives the strong impression that it is unwilling to give too much away. Significantly, however, it frequently deals with the themes of embarrassment, humiliation and intimidation. These are clues to a deeper understanding of Kinsella’s work.
Two stories tackle bullying in detail and both connect with Kinsella’s poetry. We can think of poetry as naming, as an attempt to name those experiences in human life that exceed the capacities of everyday language. There is also no bullying without name-calling. In ‘Grief’, a boy in high school is the victim of organised persecution at the hands of his classmates. He dreams of going to sea in order to escape – a fantasy perhaps, but one that involves wonder, the unknown, adventure, innocence, childhood longing. Opposed to his escape are the bullies, who represent all that is the opposite of wonder:
He stayed in a crouched position, walking like a chimp. At that level, he’d survive. If he lifted his head above the metaphoric parapets, someone would give him a thick ear. He staggered forwards, swinging his arms – careful not to flail them, just swing them. To show subservience and humiliation only up to a certain point. Over the top of his glasses he could see Kirsten, the Year 12 spunk, pointing and laughing at him. I bet his dick is small, she sniggered. Wanna look? the boys called. I’m in for it now, he thought, but kept loping on, knowing it was unlikely they’d go the distance in public. That one was a change room specialty. He’d already been stripped, beaten and thrown out of the change rooms in front of a class of girls from the year below. He’d managed to fold his hands around his genitals and stagger back in before they could make an appraisal. One of them said, You’ve got a dirty bum, I’ve seen it, every time she saw him in the school grounds, even though he was her senior.
Small Dick. Dirty Bum. This is the poetry of the bully – a memorable naming that resonates with those who hear it. On the one hand, bullies rob you of a neutral, social name; on the other, they give you a new name that is meant to define you in terms of a specific failing. I remember being mildly bullied (perhaps some would say it was only teasing) by a couple of girls for a while. They would follow me around and call me ‘Zombie’ – that was the name they assigned me and they also did a kind of exaggerated, funny walk that was meant to imitate me. Both the walk and the name were strategies for shaming but, thankfully, my bullies were both incompetent poets. I know this because the name never caught on and so the bullying never spread to a wider group of people. Because the name failed to stick (I hadn’t been named properly), I was eventually spared their attentions.
The narrator in ‘Guilt’ is driven to the point of despair, but when a new boy joins the school, he realises (and his realisation is completely unconscious) that there is a way out: if he becomes the one to give the victim his new name, he will escape from further bullying:
There was only here and now, the green grass and the wedgied kid crying like a sissy sprawled over the ground. The boy called out, Lamington, Lamington! That’s what we’ll call him! The crowd turned around, stunned, and stared at the boy.
The name sticks and the new boy is doomed.
Kinsella’s depiction of bullying is sexual: bullies who have lost their childhood world and embraced conventional heterosexuality (the dismal world of ‘sports stars’ and ‘spunks’) try to force this order on those who have yet to enter it and who are perhaps wary of all that it entails. The bully can be seen as a perverse kind of love poet, a fact that gains some support from the etymology of the word: it may derive from a Middle Dutch word boele that means ‘lover’.
This aspect of bullying is described in the story ‘Falling’. In Romantic love, the beloved is ‘picked out’ or ‘singled out’ from a crowd, while in bullying the victim is ‘singled out’ or ‘picked on’ – the terms of selection are similar. In ‘Falling’, the chosen victim seems to fit the bill perfectly:
At first I thought we had our gimp for the summer. A pathetic, long, thin streak of a fifteen-year-old wearing glasses, who carried a poetry book around with him. He even read out a poem about daffodils (honestly) to one of the hottest girls in town, one not even Tender Terry had been able to nail.
The aside to the audience – that ‘honestly’ – signals that the narrator is sure that others will share his view that a poem dealing with lyrical beauty is the ultimate provocation. In other words, he anticipates the stereotypical Australian response. Because it stands diametrically opposed to the values of the gang of bullies, it invites destruction.
The narrator, however, underestimates Four Eyes’ poetry-reading skills. The poem – and we are encouraged to assume that it is the well-known Wordsworth poem beginning ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ – so completely captivates his listener, Jess, that Four Eyes proceeds to have sex with her. As Jess later confesses to the narrator, Four Eyes’ words seemed to come from somewhere else: ‘Somewhere cool and fresh and full of daffodils. Not scummy plants that live without water and huddle under the sun. But plants that love the sun and reach to the sun because it is comforting.’
Poetry, then, is acknowledged as having a seductive effect. The vile gang-leader Tender Terry claims, after Four Eyes’ performance, that he too intends to write poetry. The poor narrator, who has been ejected from the gang in favour of Four Eyes, also confesses his own poetic inclinations:
I’ll tell you a secret. Don’t tell the gang because they’ll use it against me. I write poems. I do! Honestly. I just keep them to myself. And they’re all in my head. And all about me. I write poems about the dry and the heat and the dust and the tailings and the stunted trees and the hot chick I can’t have. But keep that to yourself!
There is ambiguity and, possibly, black humour in this confession. Is he telling the truth, or is he just trying to make a move on the hapless Jess? There is no reason to believe him: he doesn’t go so far as to share any of his work in public. And yet he does seem to want to out-do Four Eyes; after all, Four Eyes only recites poetry written by others. More importantly, the narrator claims to write poems that deal with conditions in Australia rather than those in England. There is a disquieting suggestion that Jess has been duped by mere talk of an exotic elsewhere and has been deflowered by a daffodil. In other words, lyric poetry is blamed for her rape.
The Vision of Error is comprised of six sequences which present ideas and images associated with activism, but without any direct description of activism or calls to resist; there is more of this in stories such as ‘Dozer’ and ‘In the Shade of a Shady Tree’, a piece about a landmark tree that is cut down so that a hamburger joint can be built. The Vision of Error is full of anger about the state of the world, an anger that many of Kinsella’s readers may share. There are also occasional glimpses into his personal life. In the opening sequence ‘Harsh Hakea’, we read:
like BP in the Gulf
of Mexico and their sell, use by truth
moment dispensed etiologic gas-guzzling
epiphany and rejection of the ’70s when
I was a kid being bullied in city and country
schools alike, hey, what does that say
about my inadequacies? Way way harsh.
Even this short extract is enough to convey some typical features of Kinsella’s style: documentation of the devastation of the natural world, use of unfamiliar formal and scientific terms (’etiologic’ and, a great favourite, ‘epiphany’), strings of words that verge on nonsense (‘use by truth / moment dispensed etiologic gas-guzzling / epiphany and rejection of the ’70s’), as well as sudden shifts in register – in this case, from environmental discourse to a private, confessional mode. What seems clear is that the poet is drawing a parallel between his own bullying and bullying of the natural world. In this sense, understandably, Kinsella’s poetry is concerned with defending the planet against such brutality.
And yet, as Kinsella hints in ‘Guilt’, the logic of bullying is insidious and is capable of undoing those who seek to resist it. To attack the brutal head-on is to become caught up in brutality. What I cannot help feeling is that poetry itself is being bullied in much of Kinsella’s work. Lyrical poetry, conceived as superficial aestheticism and escapism, has failed the world, just as it failed the unfortunate woman who listened to Four Eyes’ recitation. In the opening poem, Kinsella writes
Please place on my grave, ‘he resisted’,
and wasn’t hoodwinked by the lyric
or its digressions, remouthings
The poetry’s defence of the environment becomes entangled with an attack on poetry itself, as if subverting the conventions of lyricism somehow equated with the protection of the natural, non-human world. Consider the following passage (fairly typical of the texts in this collection) from ‘Harvest Ban’:
I regurgitated, feet vulnerable to double-gees
spread to hobble nomads. I type blind.
I see nothing but shadows and dark shapes
absorbing unnatural moonlight, military
gestures of its global urge, the night sky a Tessler coil,
striking wrong keys.
Centipedes and scorpions, humidity
cloying ink, fainter now.
And so, I turn to Saint Augustine’s Confessions
and the isness of the I declaimed through ontology
and a singular perfection manifest as core
of Western self-narrative, as Baby Tuckoo
or the resplendent self-damnation of Rousseau,
to rise in the small room made large (enormous),
ruins of Meckering reassembled, to be made chaste
but not yet, O Lord, as inside a wish to find a bed
in which to lie, dreadlocked protester
moving stealthily through forest,
mushrooms urging out of leaf litter: I of beauty
hallucinatory wonder of a twig
deeply desired or feared,
the hand that grabbed me,
limb I stretched into thin air,
to touch nothing visible ― to come round
with splinters at your feet, a clear vista,
the forest lasting no longer than your revelations.
as intriguing as contents . . .
The process of quotation may deprive this passage of indispensable context, but much of this is strictly unreadable. Such writing offers itself first and foremost as a challenge to interpretation – the kind of interpretation that would make the logic behind the network of associations explicit. There is a persistent diffuseness. The emphasis is on the unexpectedness of the collocations rather than their aptness. Combinations such as ‘gestures of global urge’ or ‘the isness of the I declaimed through ontology’ are big-sounding but hollow; they gesture towards ideas but they do not present a thought in the actual ordering of the words.
Perhaps Kinsella knows too well the taunt of the bully. Certainly, his short stories insist that the standard Australian reaction to creativity and intelligence is belligerence. And so he responds with a way of writing that is designed – as far as possible – to be bully-proof. The conspicuously impressive vocabulary (Kinsella’s nickname at school was Dictionary), the disguising of ideas within constellations of associations, the authority of the cultural references, and the absence of any obviously pleasurable rhythmic or phonic effects all contribute to this concerted attempt at self-defence. This results in a poetry that is energetically invulnerable but torturous to read, and this may prevent it from ever reaching those people most in need of hearing what it has to say.
In Kinsella’s autobiography Auto (2001), he refers to an incident in which he was attacked by a local gang member. This provides the starkest expression of his experience of bullying and what it must mean to him:
I was stabbed with a rusty fishing knife on Gunbower Road Jetty and my bike was thrown into the river. I’ve written a poem about this and the agony is held taut in a fabric of meditation. The recollection is reduced to the moment, a glimpse. But this is what holds it in place. It is the fear, the trauma of riding to school, down the shops, to the river with the local gang – the Brentwood Rocks, subsidiary of the Freo Rocks – on the lookout for prey. They hate kids who read. They hate kids who have chemistry sets. They hate kids who are black. They hate kids with foreign accents. They hate kids with glasses. They hate kids who don’t play footy. They hate and they hate and they hate. And they mean business. And stab to kill. My brother pulled my bike from the river and I had a tetanus injection. I kept my mouth shut.
That’s it, I think. Kinsella’s is the paradoxical language of a man who wants to write poetry – for its power, its authority, its glamour – but who has learned from his peers how to disguise all trace of vulnerability and human tenderness.