The Tomb of the Unknown Artist
In a collection sweeping up much of the pivotal experiences, richness and complexity of human life, Andy Kissane displays a mastery of the poetic form developed over his four previous poetry collections. The Tomb of the Unknown Artist deals with the fundamental experiences of being human: birth, death, and the living, loving and losing we do in between. With his characteristic close attention, strong narrative structure, and full palette of protagonists and perspectives, Kissane looks at what it means to be a relational being, exploring our capacity for connection and disconnection with humans and the more-than-human world.
The collection is divided into four unnamed parts. The poems in the first part are the broadest in scope and the most universal – dealing with the essential human experiences of birth, death and the big questions around how we should live. Elements of the natural world serve as similes and metaphors for some of these fundamental experiences, such as in ‘Alone Again’ (3), which won the Australian Poetry Journal’s 2015 Poem of the Year, and ‘Domestic Dreaming’ (21), where the rhythmic pull and wash of ocean and river waters are compared with the calming certainty of the womb.
Other poems explore what it means to experience and connect with the natural world. In the poem ‘A Personal History of Joy’ (8), moments of interaction and union with the natural world are among the key pleasures that the protagonist considers marinate a full and well-lived human life. In some of the strongest lines of the poem, the protagonist muses:
I love how we live in sensual, sensing bodies,
how when I spy the pied cormorant lurking
on the mangrove flat, then hear the flapping of wings
and look back to see that the bird has gone, I still
have a nanosecond of its presence in my head
Other noted instances of union between humans and the natural world are even more commonplace: ‘while digging in the vegetable patch, say, / feeling for the familiar globular solidarity of a potato …’ (8).
Many of the poems in part one adopt a phenomenological approach to the natural world. Rather than it being a passive backdrop to the protagonists' lives to be sensed and consumed, there is a real dance between the protagonists’ sensory modalities and the evocative, beautiful and wise natural world they open themselves to. The poems also reveal their protagonists’ adoption of an ecocentric worldview, acknowledging both the primacy of the natural world and appreciating the wisdom and sentience of certain non-human organisms. They explore the interconnectedness and commonalities between humans and the natural world, but ultimately arrive at a view of humans as the children of this other world, both born of it and with a lot to learn from it. In ‘Walking the Murrumbidgee’ (12), the protagonist muses that
are so embedded in our consciousness
that we no longer see how we are their offspring—
how we begin underground, then bubble up
in heath and bog country, how we join
with other streams and gather momentum
and how at any moment of our lives
we are a droplet, a transparent surface and a deluge
In ‘A Personal History of Joy’ (8), the speaker reflects that, ‘walking in an angophora forest I can believe that trees / pass on their wisdom in ways we are just beginning / to understand’ (9).
In part two, the poem ‘Modern Whaling’ (34) examines the contemporary whaling industry and the way in which imperatives of efficiency and yield take precedence over considerations of fairness and compassion. Many readers will be affected by the accounts of the apathetic and sometimes cruel practices of modern whaling crews, such as: ‘the Japanese Captain takes out the cow first / so the bull will surface beside her, howling / for the love of his monogamous life, / a sitting target of blubber and barnacles …’ (34). The relationship between human and whale in this poem serves as a broader metaphor for our lack of empathy for and connection with the natural world. The poem ends with an invitation for the reader to consider what the current state of this relationship means for our own humanity: ‘Is this the measure of our progress—gelignite / stealth flensing the sky to a rainbow white?’ (34).
Part three contains a series of monologues by a soldier fighting in the Vietnam War, including ‘Searching the Dead’ (57) for which Kissane was jointly awarded the 2019 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. One of the strongest parts of the collection in terms of poetic technique, it contains imagery so evocative and visceral that the reader feels present on the frontline, experiencing the devastation of the local communities, soldiers, and the natural world. The latter takes somewhat more of a backstage to the human drama in this part, although the protagonist still observes it and bears witness to the fact that nature too is suffering the impacts of the conflict.
The final part deals with various ideas, many of which could be said to fall within the broad themes of art and death. The most timely poem, given the climate and bushfire crisis we are currently experiencing in Australia, is ‘Ash Wednesday, Aireys Inlet’ (74). This poem captures the experience of a resident of a small Victorian coastal town on Ash Wednesday who is watching from the beach as the fire begins to ravage the town. The fire is personified in parts, but it also transcends the human as it gains intensity, ultimately becoming the embodiment of concepts like apathy, fury and hell. The protagonist, a painter, recovers some sense of agency in capturing with his paintbrush the burning trees and the pain writ large on his fellow townspeople’s faces and some solace in the knowledge that the bush is reborn through fire. ‘But what of us?’ he or she questions towards the end of the poem, and from the empathy and inclusiveness displayed both in this poem and the collection in general, it is no stretch that the ‘us’ may encompass not just humans but also other animals and the other elements of the natural world which do not benefit from fire.
In its entirety, The Tomb of the Unknown Artist is an enriching collection, taking readers on a journey from the womb to the tomb (quite literally) and through a range of emotional and natural landscapes. It demonstrates the kind of close attention to and delight in the natural world that is sorely needed in our present moment on earth.
Andy Kissane, The Tomb of the Unknown Artist. Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2019. ISBN 9781925780376