Words, Land/Activism and Ink as a Testimony of the Poet Juan Garrido-Salgado
John Kinsella’s Supervivid Depastoralism greatly contributes to the scope for readers to gain insights into the ethical complexity and poetical challenges of the world created by Kinsella in this book. My first thought on opening this collection of poems was to go back to my time in Chile, reading Pablo Neruda when I was a young activist for human rights and against fascism. Kinsella’s world reminded me of the chapter in The Heights of Macchu Picchu where Neruda explores the natural world, humanity, and the suffering of ancient Indigenous cultures:
Here man’s feet rested at night
Beside the eagle’s feet, in the high gory
Retreats, and at dawn
They trod the rarefied mist with feet of thunder
And touched lands and stones
Until they recognized them in the night or in
Reflecting as a poet and activist, I find the poems in Supervivid Depastoralism deeply moving not only as words in ink on the page, but also, like Neruda’s work, as a footstep that connects life past and present. Supervivid Depastoralism confirms John Kinsella as one of the most important poetical voices of contemporary Australian literature. The neologism in the title of this collection captures the poet’s observations about the impact of past colonialism on the land that is part of his life now, and on how that land is cultivated, used, and abused:
I had to rebuff my delusions of photosynthesis
So as to welcome a feeding of body and soul,
Of all we love and will love, welcome and rebuff. Loved.
Reading each poem is to enjoy verses well-crafted from ancient rhythms, such as the eclogues—lyric and prose poems—which evoke the sound of the wind, the vast land occupied by farmers, the sound of native birds at night, the bleat of a stranded lamb, and the “zip zip” of the lorikeets’ call (90). Such eclogues track Kinsella’s resistance to colonialism and interrogate the history of survival in a land where the poet finds a home in the natural harmony of places: “The sense of a drumbeat I’ve fallen in with” (55). Through his verses Kinsella also condemns the damage caused by mining companies, where the land remains unproductive for decades without being of any use to the communities, and where the native animals, insects, and vegetation are ruined. His poetry is written from the intimacy between the earth and poet, and reckons with the poet’s daily struggle to establish a more ethical relationship between the non-human and human worlds. For example, in ‘Thinking over Two-thirds of a Line of Radnóti’s ‘First Eclogue”, Kinsella reflects:
A lot of this has nothing to do with HATE and LOVE and many
paths converge to catch the last shade of a last tree before
What they generally term ‘winter’ in distant weather reports.
Kinsella observes that although local Indigenous knowledge is available through an ‘Indigenous Weather Knowledge’ portal, some farmers will ignore this while:
evaluating versions of ‘pastoralism’ beyond anything conjured
on the shades of European mountains and glades but every
bit as vulnerable and deadly, every bit as faith-based as the LOVE
undone by wars of annihilation that deleted Lorca’s and Radnóti’s lives.
As previously mentioned, in several poems Kinsella uses the classic form of eclogue, which is a canto to the love of land and pastoral life. This form was first used by the Spanish poet, Garcilaso de la Vega (1501–1536), before spreading to different cultures. An eclogue is usually written as a dialogue in which voices in rural settings (historically shepherds) would converse about issues that concerned them. In Kinsella’s eclogues, the issues are those of concern to all humanity—the environment, climate change, sowing seeds to produce food, war, and abuse of power—issues that span the immensity and complexity of contemporary life. Kinsella’s poetry evokes the spirit of earlier poets and their relevance to our daily lives and struggles—poets such as Virgil, Garcilaso de la Vega, Federico García Lorca, and Miklos Radnóti. For example, in ‘Thinking over the Missing Sixth Eclogue of Miklos Radnóti’:
There many poets voicing
Out of isolation or demi-isolation
Or ranging about around isolation: all types.
How silent we are together in our lonely speech,
Our shouting into disrupted winds, the range of spread.
This eclogue, which includes a quote from Miklos Radnóti, is a very moving verse paying homage to the life and poetry of the Hungarian poet whom Kinsella admires, and who was shot in the Second World War (1944). Both Radnóti and Lorca faced the bitter taste of death at the hands of hatred—of fascism. Lorca was executed by General Franco’s Falangists during the Spanish civil war for political reasons and because of barbaric homophobia, while Radnóti was murdered by the Nazis for his Jewish heritage. His last poems survived—as a miracle of courage—and were found in the clothes on his exhumed body. There is a parallel here with Pablo Neruda, who was poisoned in Chile by Pinochet’s secret police; the evidence was only found after the exhumation of his body decades later.
Kinsella revives the power and beauty of Radnóti’s lyrical verses through his series of poems dedicated to the murdered poet. These poems lift us out of our comfort zone to confront the cruel face of war that exterminates the body but not the soul, whose creations flourish in new collections of poems:
Knowing what became when bullets rained horizontal the dip
Of gravity the bloody pocket of hope in the heartlessness of killers,
Intertext is lost to all but the poet and shepherd letting flocks
('Eclogue and Future’s Past' 38)
In one of the long poems in this collection, ‘Cultivating a Testament: Bending Space’ (50-5), Kinsella creates an atmosphere through references to the music he is listening to as he reflects on what it means to be a pantheist in a world challenged by the commodification of space, both on earth and beyond. This is why the relationship between his verses, gardening work, crops, honeyeaters, kangaroos, and life on the land makes Kinsella’s poetry so unique and inseparable from his activism to save the land, live a life of cultivating crops, and listen to the birds and the silences of the land and water. He is guiding us, as a poet, to question how we live in our world, not only through the pages of books, but also by embracing the land on which we live.
There are also two poems which are intimate dialogues dedicated to Les Murray. One of which takes the form of a dream, with Les and John obsessed by landscape and pastoralism as poets for whom the sound of the crow, the smell of the wood, the kangaroos, wind, water, and gardening are drawing the lines of their relationship:
Did you say that in the dream or am I losing touch with its intensity
Having watered the garden and collected wood and watched crows worked?
To enjoy this collection of Kinsella’s poems, readers don’t have to be activists or environmentalists, but should bring to their reading a love of poetry and the land. Each work is unique and conveys a deep vision of what the poet stands up for in his living and creating. Kinsella reminds us, too, that it is stolen land. In the first poem of the collection, ‘Court as a Hill’, Kinsella guides readers to see what is around us through the critical eye of a First Nations’ person:
It is for Aboriginal poets to talk
Of where this stone comes from
And what holes it left behind
And what holes it was forced
To make sliced and diced stood
End to end to raise up to shape
A hill of discontent to progress
Stone to stone to blocks to mortar
And keep the spirit level to hand
In the final poem of the collection, ‘The Darkest Pastoral’, Kinsella highlights the loss of habitat in the darkness of the concrete city: “I am stranded in an open area / that’s still enclosure / and in an instant all / -consuming darkness / denies access to any / senses—just darkness / of the field darkness / of the pastoral and / the city (never a refuge)” (138).
The poems in between draw the reader's attention to the real dilemmas in modern rural communities, where land ownership comes into conflict with preserving the land for the good of all in the face of abuse by mining corporations and the use of chemical fertilisers that destroy the ecosystem and the land. In ‘Supervivid Header Fire’, Kinsella addresses the tension between working hard to cultivate crops in the best way to feed families and communities, and the risk that ‘cropping in the dry’ (122) will result in another fire:
Each year we hear of a header fire, and each year we see a photo of a wreck,
And each year the ash and char of burnt hectares and reports of lost cropping,
And each year the delusion that next season will bring a fire-free zone.
In his reflections through the poems that make up this collection, John Kinsella poses many questions, to himself as a poet-activist living on the land, and to us, his readers. In ‘Pastoral Conspiracies’, he asks “who will salvage protest from symbols of inequality” (130), observing a readership “angry, too that species is deleted but reading on & on” (131). Yet he also makes a declaration about “Poetry having so little to do—really—with the pastoral, it rabbits- / on about changes to practically nothing because it hears only its own song-strains” (132).
John Kinsella’s Supervivid Depastoralism is a book to read as a living debate on humanity, art, the environment, and our existence. In Kinsella’s hands, verses can create life on earth “for the loss of time, / acts of recall— / the ‘loss’ of habitat” (138-9).
Neruda, P. “The Heights of Macchu Picchu, VI.” Canto General, University of California Press, 1950.
Supervivid Depastoralism by John Kinsella. Vagabond Press, 2022. ISBN 9781925735246