Skip to content

Parallax: Negative Lyricism in Dialogue with John Kinsella

by Jonathan Dunk and John Kinsella

Je est un autre‘, wrote Rimbaud in 1871, answering Keats’ negative theme fifty-four years earlier, an echo athwart a palindrome. Both were writing letters, as though the scaffold of dialogue, the fiction of an answer, allowed them to arrive at what Blanchot considered the unanswerable conditions of literature. These negative configurations articulate a knowledge implicit in mimesis that the subject is itself a text, itself a shadow on a cave-wall. The negative ontology of lyricism might be described as a further edge of mimetic epistemology; the basic assumption of the self’s expression in literature becoming identical with its impossibility. This apophatic response to the limitations and inclinations of ‘voice’ and ‘presence’ was among the forces driving the Language poets’ rejection of lyricism, which as Marjorie Perloff notes, correlates a wider post-structural critique of authorship (1999, 406). There are aspects of Language poetry and its descendants however, which can be argued to occlude their own complicities in the attempt to resist other paradigms of authorship. The consolidation of John Kinsella’s Graphology project clarifies his writing into an alternate lineage of critique exemplified by Paul Celan, and extensively theorised by Derrida. For the present purposes I’ll refer to this tradition as Deconstructive or Negative Lyricism.

To generalise, the negative lyric uses formal violence to disrupt and move beyond the hierarchies of presence implied by the lyric – by the text as a form of signature, a machine which can activate presence through time in consistent spectral meaning. Needless to say we no longer understand authorship or textuality in these Pentecostal terms – but the way forward from the post-structural paradox of radical doubt remains less clear. Loyalty to a regressive or nostalgic form is both bad faith and false consciousness. A poem which purports to facilitate a Platonic encounter on the road to Emmaus – an inerrant and repeatable convergence of consistent subjects and objects, replicates the innumerable violences of hegemony.

An ostensibly logical response to the closure of the lyric, one epitomised by conceptual poetics, would be to dispense with the representation of subjectivity altogether. However, this route brings us to a conceptual and political cul-de-sac visible in the privileged semantics of Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘The Body of Michael Brown.’ The rarefied absence of the writing subject constitutes the political landscape as a horizon of homogenous objects readily available for variation in a theatre of cogital agency. The thought-structure of this poetics is predicated upon the occlusion of late capitalism’s master/slave dialectic.

An alternate route is exemplified by Celan’s poem ‘A la Pointe Acérée’; the title of which borrows from and writes towards Baudelaire, published in Die Niemandsrose in 1963, the year John Kinsella was born. In Shibboleth Derrida writes that this poem ‘seeks its way in the night along paths of questions’ (1992, 374). In it the negative capabilities, the presences and absences which haunt inscription are translated from a repressed object of influence into a narrow gate or path towards what Walter Benjamin called messianic time. Celan discussed this dynamic in his speech The Meridian, delivered on receipt of the Georg Büchner prize in 1960. He argued that through strangeness and distance poetry traverses a margin between an ‘already-no-more’ and a ‘still-here’. This no-more utters both the historical temporality of inscription, to which the poet is always posthumous – and the formal death of genre – the killed chalk star of the word calcified into mere language – in semiotic terms the distinction can analogise Barthes’ demarcation between the texts of pleasure and of bliss. However, he adds crucially that the ‘still-here’ of a poetry ‘set free under the sign of a radical individualization’ (2003, 49) is achievable only through awareness of linguistic limitations, and only through the work of ‘poets who do not forget that they speak from an angle of reflection which is their own existence, their own physical nature.’ (2003, 49) Neither form nor theory escapes us – and the syntax of subjectivity is unavoidable. Celan’s underwriting conceptual axis might seem reductive – but his poetics are not Manichean; the encounter is achieved through the articulation of its impossibility, still-here resides on the margin of already-no-more. The method is clearer in praxis. ‘A la Pointe Acérée’ is structured by a series of lyrical gestures undoing, deconstructing, their own mechanisms. The calcified forms of language offer penetrative clarities

The ores are laid bare, the crystals,

the geodes.

Unwritten things, hardened

into language, lay bare

a sky

(Thrown out upward, revealed,

crossways, so

we too are lying.

Door in front of it once, tablet

with the killed

chalk star on it: that

a – reading? – eye has now.)

Ways to that place.

Forest hour alongside

The spluttering wheeltrack.



small, gaping

beechnuts: blackish

openness, asked of

by fingerthoughts

after –

after what?


the unrepeatable, after

it, after


Spluttering tracks to that place.

Something that can go, ungreeting

as all that’s become heart,

is coming.

– Trans. Michael Hamburger and Derek Attridge.

From the fractal, or obsessive variation on communicative and scriptural tensions the poem leads to another structure of meaning registered in spatial and temporal dislocations. The place of annunciation, prophesied but not arrived upon, figured by the unstable impressions of signs and objects, its time is the negative locus of poetic encounter, the sign of poetic meaning erased in inscription. The negative lyric avails itself of – or perhaps prefigures – the Derridean concept of the trace –the absence and unmeaning all signs imply through demarcation – the absence that meaning carries along with it. Any inscription or gesture or representation of selfhood – itself a declaration of self-knowing – inscribes with it the otherness and alterity of self-being – the recognition of self strangeness. For negative poetics, the absence of self-contiguity – or at best the presence of an archipelagic or fractured recognition against the desire for islandic or Cartesian integrity – becomes a field of possibility obscured by the metaphysics of communication. In the slippage of its radical individuation the othered I of the written self becomes an interpretable space to the reader – and the solipsistic abyss underwriting all ideologies of community is tenuously spanned. This problematic is concretely actualised in the final line of Celan’s ‘Vast, Glowing Vault,’ which obsessively striates Derridean thought : ‘Die Welt ist fort, ich muß dich tragen / The world is gone, I must carry you.’ At its purest the Derridean conception of literature lives in this line’s caesural comma, and Celan’s negative sense of the poem as a way to nothingness implies the other connotations of the French word ‘trace’ as a path or a track – both a mark of presence and a route, an opening.

Negative lyricism lies at the heart of John Kinsella’s long commitment to ‘Linguistic Disobedience’, and contributes to the landscape of ideas in which his work should be situated. In these schematics – and in light of most modern philosophies of literature – the vituperative attempts of some critics to rhetorically hold his work to notional and normative hierarchies of ‘clarity’ seem at best inept. Kinsella satirizes this predicament in the discursive poem ‘Graphology 2855: Translation Loss’- ‘by whose loss/ are they measuring?’ (vol. 2, 224.) In other contexts critical investment in narratives of poetic production has read his Anti-pastoral, or immanent environmental poetry, and his more abstract linguistic work, into separate conversations. Nicholas Birns notes that the Graphology series effects a rupture of any solid division between these modes I’d go a little further, to suggest that the duality of Kinsella’s formal emphases, clarified by this collection, articulates the central pivot of his praxis. It reaches towards the reality of the environment but refuses to speak for it, foregrounds textual mechanisms but refuses their limits. Graphology is a parallax registered in double exposure, a monumental, strange, and generative contribution to negative poetics.

Criticism is always a form of translation – and a ‘reading’ of Graphology can only be a bad translation, or a creative one – a variation of sorts. Kinsella knows this, describing the Graphology structure as a form of “flick-art” against which readerly presence occurs – this is one such.

‘Graphology Relapse 41’

We want to speak the loss

while we curl up inside and close

doors and windows. A poem,

a letter to the editor, an anonymous

call to talkback radio. It wants to be heard,

and us through it. Self-pity has no place,

but the public service of grief

needs a reef to anchor against, the soft

sifted sand, the short shrift, not enough

through green shallow waters or drift

in midnight-blue seas with no hope

of bottoming out. So, it matters

most, words written for someone

else, glimpses of what was, what might

have been, and what’s left behind.

I hear, I hear. I hear myself

writing script for someone else

to speak. All those lists of birds

and animals I’ve compiled; I wish

long lives away from surveys

and reports.

(Vol 3, 91)

The communicative field of this poem is structured by slippage, ironising the work of elegy. Poetry as an institution of private loss, a linch-pin ‘as-if’ underwriting ethical discourse. But speech is mired in ambivalent closures, in failure, and the truer privacy of silence, or perhaps of impossible speech, is longed for. The lyric signature is finally inescapable; the poem can neither hold presence, nor be absolved of it – felix culpa – a necessary fall, and on the cusp of speech, poetry as a way of being silent.

Graphology’s movement in time is also a work of mourning, a form of proleptic elegy. The writing act rehearses and anticipates death, it prepares to be posthumous. As the form of the text bodies the textuality of the self so the temporal structure of lyrical mortality reaches towards the certain hour when the I, when I, shall absent life as I absent this writing. Kinsella discusses the elegiac futurity of writing in his essay ‘Ageing, loss, recidivism’ included in Disclosed Poetics, where he reads a developing ecology of grief in his own and his partner Tracy Ryan’s poetry. Registering an enormity of human and other loss over its length, Graphology has much to say about mourning. I confine my discussion to ‘Graphology: Pastoral Elegy – An End Written for the End When It Comes.’ The first movement ‘Lechenaultia macrantha’- or wreath-flower – situates not merely the physical act of death but also its languages and knowledges within an ecology, and so arrives at a wholly immanent consolation:

… ahead of my time

and the time

of those I will lose

or who will lose me, initially; cinema


and debris

of suffering

the suffering quid pro quo, hayfever; both aches

work ‘alter egos’,


pure and applied mourners

about material portraits,

I live, just keeping emotive


flakes of lichen fell

from granite, the storm

took a crow’s nest to ground,

shattered loose ends,

micro-eaters already latched on,



by crow-parents; what wreath-flowers I place,

what flowers sprout to augur

seed we’ll all eat, mainly-harvest,

procession of pickers; pre-empting

the eating of Spring.

(Vol 2, 182)

The poem’s reaching towards death is translated from a revenance into a shape or gesture of natural temporality. Of course, though, the gesture towards natural consummation is textualised by irony, the moribund Latin linkage between loss and lostness foregrounding the construction of the proleptic mechanism, the distance of the alter egos augured by language. Kinsella’s metalyricism observes or anticipates where the knowledge of poetry halts.

The poem’s second movement ‘Towards Sunset’s House’ offers one of the gentler moments in Kinsella’s oeuvre, all the more arresting because it does not suspend his other concerns or arguments, but uses their inflection to explore a syntax of grace. As I understand it the poem takes Kinsella’s dialogue and collaboration with Charmaine Papertalk Green, and respect he has learned from it, and from Culture more broadly, as the springboard for a partial vision of place revealed by Aboriginal perpetuity, articulated with a respectful acknowledgement of the poet’s own subjectivity:

This end to split of script let wander,

outside my door

women speak of fishing

in evenings

baskets woven from local grasses

for the new baby;

there’s strong politics here,

and politicking in ‘that’s nice’ and ‘that’s nice’ also.

She, and she, knows that

‘part of the world’.

I know too this part unfurled

when I forget

The every name of animal and plant …

(Vol 2, 183)

Aspects of this poem’s work are inarticulable, but it demonstrates the political possibilities of the negative lyric as a means of working against colonial discourse. The poem does not attempt to contain Aboriginal knowledge, does not speak for it, but structures lacunae through which it may move. It’s one of the rare ethical approaches to Country in contemporary settler poetics.


JD: John Taggart writes that the poet’s power over language is a metonym of the hunt, and figures language as the site of that power’s assumption – with the usual pastoral metaphors ‘wilderness/ woods/ field’. While your work consistently speaks to the rights of the non-human, large swathes of it grapple with cruelty. If we grant Lyn Hejinian’s – possibly tenuous – claim that formal resistance in poetry analogises political resistance, is violence, the violence of the hunt, say, implicated, in the formal violences of poetry? Or might that textual violence possess an Artaud function, reawakening ethical sense through cruelties of attention?

JK: I would argue my poetry is an undoing of the hunt both literally and figuratively. I offer refuge to all prey in my work. One of the books of my pastoral trilogy is entitled The Hunt (it is the middle volume — the first is The Silo, the second The Hunt, and third The New Arcadia), and explores violence in pastoral motifs as well as literal rural Wheatbelt life (it was going to be called The Book of Rural Disasters) and offers an anti-pastoral critique of these motifs and the circumstances of received and delivered violence in Australian rurality.

I equate ‘the hunt’ in my work with a colonialism of the few over all other living things (animal and human) and this is bound up in a theatre of cruelty in which the performative aspect of the hunt segues with the bloodlust for control, the blooding ‘rights’ of (especially though not exclusively) patriarchy.

I do not equate the traditional culturalities (or branchings from) of, say, Indigenous Australians with this — that is a more complex set of totemic relationships with place and life than I feel I have the right to comment on.

Having said this, wilful cruelty that operates outside tradition is pretty clearly marked and is reprehensible. I do not have some othering view of the ‘indigene’ as purity incarnate, but as a human with rights both cultural and political and collective. Anarchism is in there as well.

Difference is to be respected and I feel ‘power’ should be returned. Discussions of cultural difference and, say, feelings over the rights of animals, might be discussed in the appropriate ‘power’ relationship. In other words, I am happy to discuss with a traditional owner my view regarding an animal’s rights, but only if the decision-making on his/her land is in his/her hands. Then I come from a position of respect and appreciation for the rights of sharing discourse. Then I can say openly what I think and they can accept, reject or discuss. That’s how it should be if it is at all.

The hunt in this context steps outside the language of violence to become a negotiation of how to live. But outside this dynamic, I see the hunt as exploitation and brutality both as reality and political analogy. Pathetic fallacy is its camouflage and its weapons are grammar and syntax — a patriarchy of inheritance designed to enact and enforce control.

I don’t see the poet as having any ‘power’ over language, though I do see that poetic interaction with language can potentially generate violence (much militaristic poetry shows this — ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ being a supreme example in which failure valorises violence through slippage of harsh sounds and a flow of consonants mediated through repetition mixed with mellifluous relaxations in tension). What I am saying is that the ‘poet’ has no power over language, and to think so is to be complicit in the damages done by language when it resides in the hands of fascists and capitalist exploiters and colonialists and advertisers and ‘pop’ musicians. The power is in the language, and in some ways the poet in trying to resist tyranny is actually undercutting language’s power — recognising its odd fusion of reliance on the human condition and its autonomies, its unpredictable and predictable growths.

I always worry when we hear of the ‘power’ of the poet — I feel the poet should renounce all power but understand the power of language and create slippages which thwart its empowerment. Sometimes I think gestural sound the most honest form of activist poetics because of this.

So, textual violence is a stimulant that gives us a choice to indulge or to resist — I resist, I hope, by undoing language or reconfiguring it in such a way that it cannot sit firmly in its grooves and arrangements of power. The hunt is there and we must evade and thwart it.

JD: When I asked you in Sydney how you avoid reinscribing colonial violence in the writing of place you replied that such avoidance was impossible, but that through acknowledging that violence metatextually, a settler writer could approach country more-or-less ethically. Could you speak to that more? Reading Graphology chronologically I noted a gradual increase in Aboriginal terms and language, might that imply an intensified engagement with Culture? What hope do you see for a meaningful dialogue between Culture and settler poetics?

JK: The latter first. Not a stronger engagement — that’s been there since I was a child — but rather a feeling that as language and culture are more discussed by Indigenous speakers and poets, then I have more of a ‘right’ (wrong word — and ‘permission’ is wrong, too … maybe a sense of ‘right’ …) to use this information and knowledge as it is relayed to me without, I hope, this act/process being totally appropriative.

Issues of appropriation are vital to comprehend and can be extremely destructive if not understood or if treated with insensitivity. Even if one is trying not to appropriate, one can be doing so brutally.

You are right in your observation, but in some ways the intensity of my awareness comes from childhood rural experience and seeing issues of injustice and justice played out before my own eyes. I believe in total return of land to be followed by negotiations on the rights of all ‘others’ here. I am pro migration, pro refugee, and pro all people/s living in Australia, but unless it’s a living in the space with restitution to, and communal consensus from, Aboriginal peoples, it is in reality an ongoing colonialism.

Settler writer? Well, by definition and heritage I am. The Scots side came via New Zealand and then the Victorian Goldfields in the mid 1800s to Western Australia in the 1890s, the Irish side beginning of 1850s into Western Australia escaping the great famine where they had literally resisted the English who killed many of my ancestors. They arrived and became colonisers — under the yoke of the British but ‘exploring’ and renaming as they went. My Gaelic-speaking great great grandfather becomes an English-speaking (first) Catholic teacher in south-west etc. A forestry and farming history through which a large part of the jarrah forests south of Perth on forestry maps are labelled ‘Kinsella’. That’s as brutal, ironic and paradoxical as it gets. The colonial name/s need erasing, the gestures of naming undone. I wrote a radio play called The Petition (part of my ‘forest trilogy’ of plays), which looks at issues of complicity in the colonial acts of attempted deletion of Indigenous rights, law and country. Acknowledgement is a small step in the process of writing ‘ethically’.

But maybe most importantly is the willingness to create lacunae in the writing in which the critic, especially one with Indigenous knowledges, can enter and challenge and dialogue or reject or claim or depart. I try to do that — try to create those spaces. Also, there are clear wrongs and rights regarding how one treats country and environment and there are numerous points of crossover between culture and ethical ecological activism — I ‘trace’ (Derrida a bit, but not entirely!) these in my work, but I think most vitally try to demap them. Regarding my notions of ‘demapping’ see Activist Poetics: Anarchy in the Avon Valley, my new book Polysituatedness and our blog, Mutually Said.

JD: You’ve written that modulation of themes and limits is at the centre of the Graphology project, and as I understand it the fluidity of your approach has allowed you to create a sequence that is self-analytic and in some sense autobiographic, but at the same time dialogic and rhizomic, an open text. Suffice it to say that your work elsewhere has also been characterised by a formal variousness of unusual breadth – particularly in Australian poetry – do you think there’s a conceptual link between your graphological modulation and the extents of your work in different styles?

JK: Absolutely. For the last twenty years (and actually for a couple of years further back than this) Graphology has operated as a field of potential in which my other writings have segued and departed — been in conversation with etc — operating as echoes and stimulants. I see these things as very interactive and don’t believe in the intactness of either form or meaning. Form obviously informs meaning and vice versa, but form shouldn’t give the right to dictate terms, especially as (I feel) poetry should challenge all formal constraints of ritual when it operates as a control mechanism. Display of text — the curatorial aspect of writerly text-making — can merely end up feeding a regressive and restraining status quo rather than undoing its own terms of production. The book, the reading venue, the anthology: context is relevant.

Form is taught and learned and held accountable. I run in horror when I am told a poem should be totally ‘under control’ — why? Who has to gain from this? I deny the generative in aesthetics and largely see it as constraint. Modulation — varying of the frequency if you like — also means it’s harder to intercept, harder to tap. The readership of poetry, as much as the receptive spaces of all art-creation, needs to be mindful that it is only permitted to exist within a sovereign state because it either serves that state (even in obscure ways that seem to undermine but show a tolerance — often a smokescreen — on the part of the state). One must be wary how one is being used, how the text which we release (we surely don’t possess texts!) might be used and abused by centres of power.

So much of the metaphorical language, and direct language, around the discourse of form has military undertones (and overtones!). I see the Graphology sequence as an open text trying to destabilise the militarism of language and culture/s, in all its/their guises. It’s about alertness, about an understanding that all text is under surveillance (is this ‘criticism’?), and that all text can serve destructive purposes by feeding that surveillance. There is knowledge and there is information. The latter can feed the databanks of control.

So the broad range of formal and informal approaches I utilise in framing and unframing poetry is really to avoid entrapment by the critical apparatus of the state, however that manifests. To outwit the troops of the state trying to stop you saving bushland, you have to use many morphing non-violent direct actions. That is the core of my poetics. Graphology is a means of understanding this but not a literal key insofar as revealing where it or I or the text will go next.

Twenty years ago I co-wrote a (seemingly lost) book-text with the Swiss writer and artist Urs Jaeggi entitled D & G. It was a pastiche of ‘poetic texts’ by us, and a destabilisation of aspects of Deleuze and Guattari’s writings offset in the body without organs of the fax page. Back and forth. A concrete poem in a bunch of languages, it avoided its authors and sometimes ended up on fax machines after we had moved on from places. Not sure what people made of the texts arriving at two or three in the morning with no recipient stated! That was done with a consciousness of the Graphology work. Rhizomic and yet fading, reaching out to a question…?

JD: Your praxis is concretely and conceptually anchored in political and environmental activism, but despite – or because of – this your stance towards certain forms of ecopoetics or environmental representation is complex – I’m thinking particularly of ‘Graphology 300: Against Nature Writing’ here. Do you think these genres do more harm than good?

JK: Anything packaged and sold is doing more harm than good. Nature is the essence of existence, but fetishised as a value-added commodity it is an eco-tourism of the capitalist endgame. Writing classes that package writing and nature as practice, run the risk of closing the senses to the damage being done. All writing is a field activity, I feel, and is as much a question of where we shouldn’t go as to where we should. Some spaces of nature should remain out of our reach.

I am not a nature writer, I am an environmentalist activist writer. Nature is us — is me — as well, but it’s also itself with its endless array of languages (no matter how ‘close’ to the ‘natural world’ one may be). Nature will always (and must always) remain outside human comprehension at some level/s. All living things deserve some privacy! The communal being is not without separate agencies within. The relationship between the social organism and ‘individual’ subjectivity is of constant relevance in the Graphology poems.

Cultures that respect the rights of non-human nature (i.e. that conceptualize both the human-nature dialogue, but also conceptualize aspects of ‘nature’ as being beyond human comprehension and control), and respect the dialogic relationship between human autonomies and non-human difference and rights (and autonomies!), have always intrigued me. For me, all writing should carry a sense of respect for the natural world, even if it’s about a painting of a building in an art gallery! Not necessarily overtly, but at least in the ambit of presentation and discussion. There’s a consciousness behind the discussion of poetry that matters. Graphology is an attempt to bring this discussion into the dynamic. I believe this matters. It’s a complex portrait — and as Derrida said, we must apply complex thinking to complex matters. So much seems contradictory, but only because we don’t think about it in multilayered variant ways constantly. So form is a gesture, but process is about integrity … I think.

JD: It’s fashionable to parse Australian writing through different scalar and spatial paradigms: nation, tyranny of distance, world republic of letters etc. Your trajectory strikes me as anomalous to many of these patterns, you seem to move closer to the Wheatbelt, the Avon valley, even as you traverse global or academic centres. I imagine that your forthcoming book has a lot to say about this dynamic, and it’s often been linked to the digital age, but if we bring in Harold Bloom, do you think the range or eclecticism of your influences has any bearing on your particular negotiation of literary space?

JK: I’ve long talked in terms of what I call ‘international regionalism’ to cover the conceptual and temporal spatialities of working out of a very specific locale and conducting conversations with a world poetics and ecological activism. I believe intrinsically in the regional, in the local, and in community; but community is a complex thing and isn’t just a case of who you live with or around but how you configure relationships of responsibility regarding others in those ‘communities’. So, for example, here (where I write in the ‘Western Australian wheatbelt’), I think in terms of degrees of connection and intimacy, and the desire for connection, and failures of connection. To my mind, this land is Noongar Ballardong land/Boodjar, and I envisage a conversation with traditional owners in all I do, even if I am not having, or can’t have, that conversation literally at a given time of writing.

I am also writing in knowledges of events and situation in other places (especially, say, in Schull, West Cork, Ireland, or the fens near Cambridge, or mid-Ohio, or La Réunion). The pressures of history and displacement are in tension and dialogue in terms of colonial intrusion here. It’s not an easy unravelling, and I find the only honest way I can engage with place is by constantly acknowledging this difficulty.

So, the faux grand narratives (or maybe paradigms) of Australian national literary discourse, tend not to fit, or only to partially fit, at any given time. And when they do rub at the edges, my anxiety increases and I reject and seek to undo them. They seem to me implicitly dubious, and most often ‘wrong’. The process of belonging-unbelonging I work through, introduces constant slippage and acknowledgement of personal (and sometimes collective) culpabilities. It is a state of mea culpa in terms of personal subjectivity in these contexts, and the failure of the personal subject and the self in any discourse of literary ‘production’ (which is always a lie).

Some things are quite fixed in my poetics, other variables are more unpredictable. I am interested in engaging with different creative and critical discourses and voices to see how they reflect, inflect, and depart from the variable model of locality I work out of. Influence is a variable outside the prescriptive, as one can be highly influenced by textualities that are very politically different from one’s own. I am massively influenced by Milton, but one would never be expected to share Milton’s version of the world. Now, we can easily fall into the ‘trap’ of saying that’s because he’s a ‘great’, and we have so much to learn, and that’s true of all the ‘greats’. Utter garbage! One shouldn’t respect Milton because he was a ‘great’ but because he offers us new ways of seeing which keep renewing themselves and actually escape his control/intent.

The reading of a text is as political as the writing. Often I read against the grain. And often we read to fill in the gaps our own investigations into responsibility, witness and response create (for me, Walter Benjamin is superb in this). The poetries of Judith Wright, of Lionel Fogarty, open these doors of possibility, but it doesn’t mean they are fait accompli in themselves, in their texts. There is no closure, and if and when there is, we sign off on the injustices of the world. Those poets wouldn’t sign off on these, and nor would I. And nor, for that matter, would Harold Bloom.

Bloom is too readily ‘understood’ by conservative embodiers of authority (canon) and too easily misunderstood by his critics. By which I mean that I have found him a brilliant reader, a brilliant mind, with subtleties of literary analysis not always obvious in his declarative summations. These are statements that need to be taken in context of his own cultural engagements and displacements. It is surely not contradictory for one to engage with Bloom’s reading and create readings that depart from this. It’s not a game of simpatico arrangements for the gallery of aesthetes. It’s not cadre social politics. It’s not making yourself agreeable to a movement. Stuff that! I only want to activate text to resist capitalism, to resist cultural imperialism, to resist the exploitation of animals, to resist the exploitation of the biosphere, to resist racism, to resist bigotry in all its forms, to resist developers, to resist the deniers of Indigenous knowledges, to resist the exploitations of ‘science’; to activate text and to use poetry and text as a means of repair, of justice. And Bloom can be part of that, is part of that. Read him in his entirety! It’s a complex and sophisticated body of critical work.

I belong to no party, I vote for no one (ever), I believe in no centralised state, no nation, and no hierarchy of power. I am a vegan anarchist pacifist and mean all of those ‘labels’ literally. I believe in consensus with cultural respect. There can be no making of minorities — we are all ‘majorities’, we all have equal rights, but the context of loss of rights has to be placed into the equation and rectified.

JD: In a similar vein but with a different emphasis, you’ve written that Language poetry is about America; and – paraphrasing here – that your innovations derive more from the linguistic interiorities of place than they do from global movements, forms. I think this is interesting or generative, given the range and extent of your work’s dialogues. Is it about the locality of poetics, regionalism? Or more about the rejection of hierarchy – does one imply the other?

JK: It’s about both — as (I hope) is shown in my rambling previous answer. The interiorities of place have no limits — the more time I spend interacting with the same trees, the same bobtails, the same sand, the same firebreaks, the more language evolves in a personal sense but also as a means of reaching out to the world. I seek to ‘translate’/transcribe not only what I observe, but to create a conceptual dynamic equivalent — to bring what’s happening elsewhere back ‘here’ in the least invasive and least spatially-occupying way as I can envisage. Language is about ‘power’, as we know, and the loss of language is disempowerment at its most brutal, but if you don’t ‘believe in’ power to start with (or, rather, desire its power to be undone), then the power of language is something in itself that (literally) needs deconstructing.

The essence of language is a response to stimuli, to necessity, to grasping the pragmatic and ineffable at once, but as poets we are primarily (too often?) dealing with the verbal. Non-speech can be richly informative, and those silences and even acceptances of non-language can be vital. Or, if you like, they are language, too.

But imposed silence, the theft of language, the assault on language, is something the poem resists. Celan is a vital poet for me because even in his experiencing/witnessing/conveying the breakdown of language due to the most horrific harm humans could/can inflict on human bodies and souls (which was/is also a violence against the planet itself), the broken fragments of impaired, smashed, and/or corrupted language accrue and rebuild and defy the horror. And we have need of Celan’s poetics now, desperately so. As we similarly need the poetics/poetry of, say,  the brilliant Miklos Radnoti. Language is part of poetry, but it’s not all poetry. Language is what we struggle to represent and reconfigure in poetry while constantly questioning its basis, its need, the trauma of (its) loss.


There’s something inherently pyrrhic about attempting to interpret or theorise Graphology, because its truest form is another book, written with Urs Jaeggi and lost, or unwritten, like Mallarmé’s total poem, or written elsewhere, written and unwritten in reading. In the pages of that book the poet John Kinsella is signlessly present only in the silent questions of cast shadows. That silence is representable only in translation, like this:

I parrot dog bushfruit butterfly mistletoe bird eucalypt mistletoe snake wheat dingo oak lizard monitor fox chicken bird tree hawthorn birch ash hazel ash maple oak karri jarra ash blackbutt bird eel oak bird geese widgeon mallard ibis cormorant egret blueheron reed sheep kangaroo sheep sheep merino mushroom fish oak yorkgum jamtree magpie tree duck duck-rabbit rabbit crow tree dog robin cabbage elephant tiger bear echidna flower buddleia iris leaf wildflower weed kite tree fungus tick tulip fox lamb lamb sheoak waterfowl snake weed sunflower horse flax grass bird leaf fly undergrowth bird titmouse fowl fish beast tree herb flower seed spice gum nuthatch ash aspen beech birch hickory oak spruce moth worm bird daffodil leaf tree bird sparrow bird deer dog horse cow groundhog raccoon bluebird flower tree fish bluebird flower bird cedar blackbird birch crow bluejay wagtail cockatoo tree flower bird hawk weed locust flea wheat bowerbird dog wheat bird bullant bark yorkgum jamtree bird swallow hippopotamus squirrel squirrel squirrel squirrel tree silkyoak horse sheep wedgetail bird mallee gimlet rockdragon acacia donkey spider wallaby serpent blackshoulderedkite rodent emu kangaroo blackshouldered kite fieldmouse powderbark scrubbird whitefacedheron dampiera rabbit grevilleahookeriana galah striatedpardalote buttonquail mallee samphire saltbush wedgetail casuarina melaleuca grevillea hakea acacia eucalypt wheat yellowskink wattle redcappedrobin herons floodedgum galah whitetaileddeer woodpecker grass walnut cardinal cardinal jarrah rabbit bluejay parrot parrot parrot crow crow crow crow plover tree fox rabbit eagle mallee songbird crow bird crocodile newhollandhoneyeater wattle rabbit fox tree tree sheoak bird swampgrass sargasso christmasspider plover gnat tree mulgaparrot zebrafinch blackfacedwoodswallow clamorousreedwarbler samphire grass insect blood-orange wandoo nankeennightheron crustacean redcappedrobin tree marsupial fly cat rabbit jarrah marri bark yorrel eagle frog sheep fly pine tasmanianbluegum eucalypt malleefowl bandedplover horse bandedplover cat bird fox weed whale malleefowl malleefowl hawk xanthorrhea honeyeater hawk wheat lotus rat snake frangipani flower broadleaf whitegum stringybark eucalypt fungus galah gimlettree kingfisher crow kookaburra salmongum sheep elk weed deer corn maple sequoia pumpkin wolf cat bird duck raccoon cat owl bear tigershark whitepointer snake deer sparrow horse roach suckerfish sargasso vulture sargasso rabbit parrot opossum kangaroo marsupial kangaroo dog possum possum dolphin magpie hare worm lamb bird tree squirrel eagle wheat cardinal titmouse turkeyvulture cherry deer deer deer tomato deer bird bird kangaroo bear antelope bird blowfly cat bird parrot sulphurcrestedcockatoo bird shark greyheadedflyingfox lyrebird blacktailedwhitecockatoos sheep kite turnip bird II tiger fox marsupial chicken horse dragon flycatcher fantail floodedgum floodedgum wandoo wodjil tamma sheep saltbush waterbird whitefacedheron bluetonguedlizard duck spoonbill spoonbill spoonbill spoonbill bluewren marsupial westernrosella marri jarrah tree mosquito flower bird parrot calf lamb lupin corn whitefacedheron heron snake bird fly dog bird quail wandoo yorkgum tree oat bird wandoo bird palmtree redtail yorkgum termite wheat bird tree tree bird trapdoorspider mistletoe acacia tree tree birch acacia snake wandoo jamtree yorkgum lichen patersonscurse capetulip wildoat yorkgum eagle mice tree grasshopper yanjidi typhaangustifolia butterfly tree tree wheat orchid megafauna meatant wasp beetle ant seaweed palm mistletoe limetree songbird magpie wildoat dragonfly yorkgum brigalow dog lupin mice acacia insect arachnid rodent reptile bird eagle snake crow paddymelon pigmelon almond gecko antlion blackshoulderedkite redwattlebird peacock bird gladiolus redkangaroo galah gimlet echidna eagle melaleuca bird rat bird whitetailedblackcockatoo grass flower lucerne flower gull olive tick grass redbackspider redback mallee malleefowl dragonfly bluebutterfly ant wattle moth flower marri casuarina songbird mistletoe bird seasnail tree wallaby malleefowl acacia casuarina redtailedblackcockatoo bird bird tree dove eucalypt termite horse horse horse horse bull dog horse horse flower olive grape wheat sheep parrot gull dog dpg dog pine owl nightbird daffodil beech carp carp hen rooster  bird rat kraka corncrake crake bluewren whale apple jarrah cedar sapling redrockcrab seaweed anemone greyshrikethrush greyshrikethrush wheat fox broadbean wheat yorkgum termite mallee wodjil corella bird gimlet emu tree bird floodedgum rodent reptile marsupial gum horse horse thornbill thornbill wagtail jamtree bird gull fox wattle floodedgum snake snake snake wadjil wandoo moretonbayfig tree tree galah bird tree cow sheep scorpion bat citrus olive dove lichen bird beetle skink mushroom bird grass grass lichen redcappedrobin greyshrikethrush pig eagle carpetsnake mice horse horse carpetsnake laurel eucalypt laurel ‘phoenix’ wasp mistetoebird bluebutterfly ant santalumspicatum tree sapling sandalwood weebill bird tree grasshopper gecko grasshopper gecko sandalwood sandalwood mistletoe jamtree lichen blackmouse wreathflower lilac lichen crow crow wreathflower flower fish grass lilac wheat quandong tree mackerel cow sheep corn melon greentomato parrot acacia eagle spider jamtree jamtree jamtree wasp spider grub nightshade horse wandoo jamtree yorkgum nightshade potato eagle wattle galah ringneck galah bird reptile bull meatant nightshade insect sedge floodedgum sapling whale wheat dragon tern bird bird tree ant yellowparrot goldenwhistler ant wolfspider lizard bird insect reptile blackheadedmonitor skink gecko bluebush saltbush acacia salmongum goldfieldsblackbutt dog dog eagle yorkgum mallee dragon olivetree parrot tree floodedgum ringneckedparrot wheat parrot rockwallaby sheep zamiapalm melaleuca fox acaciatetragonophylla zamiapalm peabellflower bottletree bottletree riverredgum redrivergum echidna termite bird finch needletree emu termite emu emu boar sow piglet goanna sheep bird bird ant ant meatant ant bluebell kangaroo lion marsupial sheep fox cat termite sheep wandoo steer lion lion lion lion grass dog rabbit tree wallaroo yorkgum oat kangaroo tree grasshopper swan gnat cat fox tree goldenwhistler wheat tree yorkgum alpaca sheep fox sheep serpent slug frog blackgecko bluetongue mouse insect bird egret III spinebill goldenwhistler eagle mulgasnake joey tree sheep grass tree mulgasnake sheep sheep songbird insect crab cuttlefish opossum shortbeakedechidna groundhog westerngreykangaroo raccoon redcardinal redcappedrobin barnowl barnowl crow crow mosquito mosquito tree acacia termite sugarant bullant horse camel tree coconut dragon zebrafinch doe dragon tree hornbeam spindle blackberry fieldfare dunnock gecko duck mosquito monkey horse moss bird dinosaur cuttlefish peyote berry lapdog beagle rabbit dog primate jamtree karri karri tree tree deer larkspur delphinium bat berry willow tench barbel stoat vole moss snail goat jarrah seahawk root snake bird bird falcon bird emu eagle rabbit horse bird pinusradiata jarrah pine pine pine limetree bird bee flower sheoak tree bird insect bird ant shark blackhousespider tree turtle flightlessbird flyingfox pigeon owl parrot whale heron sandalwood bird fish wattle fruit tree mulgasnake monitor eagle wheatbeltstonegecko bird goldenwhistler spider weebill weebill bird lizard bird eucalypt bee flower whale tree mouse housemouse sapling fish villageweaver redwhiskeredbulbul seagrape bat stonefish flower datura dog bandedcoralsnake fish pailleenqueue whitetailedtropicbird pailleenqueue dragonfly corbie wheat corbie blackshoulderedkite bunny tree insect grass bird bird wattle wildoat bird yorkgum insect blackshoulderedkite mouse eagle nightparrot eucalypt furze fuchsia gorseflower grouse palm coconut palm palm arecaceae dragon palm palm date houseplant palm palm palm palm palm palm coral coconut cat rat wagtail spider scarletrobin westernspinebill scarletrobin yorkgum wattle wattle flower grass insect grass kangaroo skua grass root wolf sheep redfox bird bird termite bird kangaroo seed ant jamtree mistletoe parasite mistletoe grasshopper jamtree mistletoe parasite magpie horse horse horse gum parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot darlmoorluk ringneckedparrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot jamtree bird bird parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot parrot fruittree lily bronzewingpigeon bird lizard tree bronzewing wheat wheat wheat moodjarblossom christmastree tree nuytsiafloribunda wheat moodjarblossum eagle parrot flycatcher wagtail sheep insect oak algae floodedgum motorbikefrog bronzewing wheat moth bat yorkgum parrot olive blackwingedstilt blackswan coot pelican whiteswan eagle blackwingedstilt teal spoonbill floodedgum blackwingedstilt oystercatcher nankeennightheron mite blackswan nankeennightheron tree caltrop kangaroo horse bluebutterfly mistletoe songbird grass horse insect bird blackheadedmonitor songbird mouse monitor blackheadedmonitor magpie wheat tree bat bat rose tree


Birns, Nicholas, Landscape Eaten by Foliage: John Kinsella’s Graphology Poems,

Brown, Marshall, ‘Negative Poetics: On Skepticism and the Lyric Voice.’ Representations, vol. 86, No. 1 (Spring 2004), pp. 120-140

Celan, Paul, Selected Poems, trans. Michael Hamburger, Penguin, 1996

—. Collected Prose, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop, Routledge, 2003

Derrida, Jacques, Acts of Literature, Attridge ed. Routledge, 1992

—. ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’ trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2. (Winter, 2002), pp. 369-418.

 —. The Beast & the Sovereign, trans. Geoffrey Bennington. UCP, 2011.

Foucault, Michel, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, Faubion ed. Trans. Hurley &c. New Press, 1998.

Kinsella, John,  Disclosed Poetics, Manchester UP, 2007.

—. Graphology Poems, vol 1-3, 5 Islands Press, 2016

Perloff, Marjorie, ‘Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject: Ron Silliman’s Albany, Susan Howe’s Buffalo’ Critical Inquiry 25, no. 3 (Spring, 1999): 405-434.

Published: May 2017
Jonathan Dunk

is the Kenneth Reed postgraduate scholar at the University of Sydney, where he teaches Australian and Comparative literatures. His poetry, criticism, and fiction have been published in Meanjin, Cordite, Southerly, Mascara, The Australian Book Review, and shortlisted for the Overland VU prize. He was born on Dharawal, and lives on Wangal.

John Kinsella

John Kinsella‘s most recent volumes of poetry are Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems (Picador, 2016) and Firebreaks (WW Norton, 2016). His most recent collection of short stories is Old Growth (Transit Lounge, 2017). His investigation of “place”, Polysituatedness: A Poetics of Displacement, was published by Manchester University Press in late 2016. He is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University and Professor of Literature and Sustainability at Curtin University.

Other readings you may like

An Australian and international
journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics.

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.