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Drowning in Wheat by John Kinsella
Picador, 2016.
ISBN 9781447221487
Philip Harvey reviews

Drowning in Wheat

by John Kinsella

This brown brick is the latest addition to the wall John Kinsella has been constructing for thirty-five years. He is the most prolific publishing public poet in Australia. Open at any page and his distinctive characteristics catch the ear and the eye.

There is his technique of uplift, wrought by surprise turns, rapid image and sustained continuity. He displays consistently the valuable gift of compression. His timing is so often impeccable, even as the manic or febrile content of his poetry threatens to get right out of control.

His language is often a set of rivets of the present. The present is remarkably often the outset of a poem that can turn to future or past, inner or outer worlds as thought patterns shift. We are never far from themes of survival and canny experience. There is the vernacular delivery of his own people:

My oldest cousin’s heart

is not in it – shooting

parrots that is.


He’s taking me

because I’m up

for the holidays

and hungry

for trophies.                                    ("Shootings", 92)

Through to modes of communication that only a seminar room could appreciate.

A lifetime challenge in Kinsella’s work is the question of pastoral. Versions of pastoral extend into versions of anti-pastoral as he seeks to invoke and describe and explain human perceptions and experience of the natural world. His poetry is driven by this question, which is more like a need in the poet for personal clarification. Along the way new discoveries are made.

As well as the terrain of his own living, Kinsella’s poetry involves other terrains, which in shorthand may be named Theory but extend to countless cultural references, both urban and rural. Sometimes covert, but frequently overt on the picture plane of the poem are philosophical premises or hypotheses that tip off the reader to a poem’s genesis or purpose. This contest with the credo "No ideas but in things" enlivens our appreciation of the poet’s personal analysis of nature and his aliveness to poetics as integrated and integral to meaning. Any long-term reader of Kinsella will be confronted again and again by his foregrounding of the dilemmas of the language game.

"Selecteds" don’t demand a rationale and no selection process is given in this one. The reader is therefore left to her own intuitions. Western Australia seems to be the main interest, that is the great south-west, locus of Kinsella’s existence through youth to maturity, from the madcap hoonish capers of his teens to the considerations of his Thoreau-like life today. Viewed in this light the collection moves steadily from the early Australiana charm of "The Orchardist"

His oranges are small suns

and he is an astronaut

floating slowly

through their spheres

of influence.                                   ("The Orchardist", 23)

through the visual and verbal crises and rushes of  something like "Dispossession" or "Hectic Red":

Quartz sparks randomly

on the pink and white crust

of the salt flats, spread out

beyond the landing,

where bags of grain –

wheat and oats

in plastic and hessian –

lips sewn shut,

packed tight, flexing dust

and dragging their feet

to the edge, are tipped

onto the truck                                 ("Hectic Red", 183)

to the pillared big-bodied verse of recent times. Voices diversify without seeming effort, from personal intimacy to political rhetoric to relaxed yarning. Rimbaud’s "Le bateau ivre" looms into view like an indicator.

Yet, for a "Selected" of 390 pages, what could be called a contradiction in terms, there are noticeable absences. I missed the stunning wit of his Cambridge pictorials and the intense and offbeat prose poetry on focussed themes like cars or sex. The collection wishes to be representative of a particular place and time, of one individual’s arguments grown out of ecopoetics, exercises of considerable depth with the possibilities of English now.

The publisher on the back cover claims Kinsella is “arguably the most important ‘eco-poet’ of the age”, which seeing it is the age of the eco-poet places him on some special kind of Parnassus. Reading Kinsella en masse reminds me of the style tensions in contemporary jazz music. How far can experiment go before it stops working? Are the conventions not more fun than their transgression? Can tradition serve a variety of new directions and expressions? Somewhere amidst these vying ideals Kinsella works. His prolific exercise with the page comes in many turns and styles. Put in the context of restless determination to rally new forms of expression about ecology, this book reads like a guidebook to different forms.

I like the grandiose excursions in Murrayesque and other styles, their breathless minute minute-by-minute detail, but also their many dry ironies. Ditto the narrow poems of chosen words that deny grammar and simply speak to the politics or generalities of a place. I soak up big picture poems like his visit to the Cocos Islands:

The tide’s retreat is in full swing.

We anchor a couple of ks from the beach.

Mud crabs bubble just below the flat.

Stands of driftwood lurk like booby traps.

("A Short Tour of the Cocos Atoll", 119)

I relish his adventurous takes on the conventions of creature poems, as for example the suave comedy of "Echidna":

            At risk, this bristling heart

litters the roads with dedication,

symbols of the national psyche

left to bloat in the sun’s blistering

prosody.                                          ("Echidna", 140)

I skip about upon the Ashbery-like contusions and mash-ups that glow along the way, sometimes in made-up language or, as in "Marginalia", conscious anachronism:

Unlettered nature

pshaws the annotation

roused up and bordering

distinctly white torrents               ("Marginalia", 222)

Identification of the forms could take up a whole day. They are one of the book’s great pleasures, as well as being instructive to a writer or thinker in the field.

The very last poem reflects on the differing fractured inheritances of Ireland and Australia. Kinsella writes

… the Noongah people

know how it all fits together, and the cost of pulling it apart.

("Oileán Chléire Rejuvenation Poem for Gráinne", 388)

That cost is his preoccupation over half a lifetime of poetry. But the fractured inheritances that broke open the eco-poetic venture can leave us with more troubled results. It is said of poetry that the things it praises are simultaneously a lament for their passing. This is the unsettling feeling we meet reading Kinsella on a large scale. His very honesty about degradation and loss of land and species, his delight in a nature that is under threat and crying for restoration, lends to our reading an ambiguous sense of the poetry as at once laudatory and elegiac. Is eco-poetry, that would push the wild excess of the created world into every syllable, not yet still and against its own instincts, a poetry alive to that world’s irretrievable loss?

John Kinsella, Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems 1980-2015. London: Picador, 2016. ISBN 9781447221487

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Plumwood Mountain Journal is created on the unceded lands of the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora Nation. We pay our respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to elders past, present and future. We also acknowledge all traditional custodians of the lands this journal reaches.