John Kinsella, The Vision of Error: A Sextet of Activist Poems. Parkville, Victoria: Five Islands Press, 2013. ISBN 9780734048691
John Kinsella, Tide. Melbourne: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2013. ISBN 9781921924491
In his collection of short stories, Tide, and in his poetic rollercoaster through The Vision of Error, John Kinsella, the activist-vegan-anarchist-pacifist, has written what he might describe as “poison pastoral” but he reminds us that: “as steeped in death and destruction as [his pastorals] might be, they are actually affirming as much as they are condemning … Pastoral in Australia is about confrontation, recognition, conversation, and, one would hope, reconciliation” (Kinsella 2008: 132–33).
Kinsella is certainly combative: in his Vision he writes (perhaps with some self-deprecating irony) that he lives amidst “collaborating wankers”; given “up to juxtapositions”; that he doesn’t “mind being hated”; and that he intends to “lay [himself] down before the bulldozers … pouring abuse from [his] lips”. He is a poet (one of Australia’s most prolific) but not one, he writes in The Vision of Error, that is “hoodwinked by the lyric … nor by epics (or) damned elegies” (10); he does not write “for entertainment” (62). So what is Kinsella’s passion for poetry and short story? In The Vision he recalls a conversation between father and son where the father is asked “Dad, write a poem / to make them stop, to stop / them tearing down the tree”. But, we are told, the son “has more faith in poetry//and people than I have”. So is Kinsella’s Sextet of Activist Poems and collection of short stories, Tide, a poetics of zealous – though impotent – protest; an energetic portrayal of the interrelated public and private abuses of power evidenced in environmental degradation, state sanctioned capital punishment, schoolyard and work place bullying; a requiem for the Western Australian wheatbelt; a poetics of rant against mining companies, climate change, GM crops, land clearance, pollution, gun culture, sexism and racism? How do we read this prolific, highly awarded, university professorial-protestor-fellow?
In Britain Greg Garrard (2004: 33), has written that “since the Romantic movement’s poetic response to the Industrial Revolution, pastoral has decisively shaped our constructions of nature”. For this reason, Garrard (2004: 33) writes, “the pastoral trope must and will remain a key concern for ecocritics”. This is certainly true for Kinsella but what have been his conversations with the pastoral? What is pastoral to Kinsella? In Australia Ivor Indyk (1998: 353) defines “pastoral” as “the poetry of fulfillment and ease, in which the world of nature acknowledges and celebrates the desires of man”. As Indyk (1998: 353) shows, given the difficulties that many experienced in learning to live in the Australian landscape during colonial times, it is hardly surprising to note that there are “not many genuine examples of Australian pastoral”. Kinsella himself has argued that the pastoral can only be approached ironically in Australia [because] “the Australian landscape is not European … if anything, it is really the Storm that belongs. Australia is a place of extremes. Furthermore, a sense of belonging to the land for a non-Aborigine is marred by guilt” (Kinsella 1996: 36–37). For Kinsella, the idealisation of rural life is not possible because the contexts of ecology and colonialism must be paramount; anti-pastoral is about confrontation, recognition, conversation, and, one would hope, reconciliation.
What is John Kinsella “confronting” in The Vision of Error and Tide? With careful attention to the ecological detail, and in moments of great lyrical imagism, Kinsella evokes the world of the Western Australian wheatbelt and coastline as ecologies of intense – but damaged – beauty: “to hear the sea … to watch fish swim the shallows, waders test the foam, skimmers take the surface, pollution’s oily film rainbowing a still, fine day” (Tide 121). While in The Vision:
the header comb strikes quartz and sparks and fire
runs through wheat like Crete where fire has left
earth bare so it is here, bare of scrub.
While later we are told that:
… we are turning this place into the sands
of Egypt. The canon is a crown of death –
seventy-foot high York gums
rustling like dragonflies
over the waters
of the swimming
leaves too dead to write on…
But for Kinsella the cost of “the Big Australian eating / his country out of house and home” (31) is not only environmental but also psychological – “SOLVENCY IS MUTE” (30) – where:
What cruelty in a place of shrines tossed
over, like boulders toppled from the arena,
monumentally heavy and impossible to make
upright again, spiritual icebergs leisurists
wrecked themselves on without knowing
they’d sprung a leak, dragged us to the bottom.
The costs of collusion are degrading to our environments, our relationships, and our inner lives: we are all made “bullies”, “semi useful foot soldiers” and “collaborating wankers”, “watching seven-year-olds / that beat up ‘our’ seven-year-old, eye of parents, / repressed in their freedoms” (10). So:
show your weapons, count calibres.
Adults don’t kill children, says
the seven-year-old. Not ownership
but pastoral care amidst sheep
bred for flesh not wool: meaty meat.
In degrading our country we degrade ourselves: “I know the reality. And there was the war. It is eternal. There are no armistices, no sides. All is war. We don’t seem to be able to get beyond it. And there’s childhood. And there’s the factory. And there’s the Sound” (Tide 123). Kinsella confronts with so much beauty, the ugliness we do to our environment, each other, and to ourselves by our abuse of power.
What does John Kinsella “recognise” in The Vision of Error and Tide? Like Judith Wright before him, Kinsella does not shy away from confronting the consequences of his own family’s environmental decisions. In The Vision Kinsella records how his “family / crossed the oceans – freely – to be in the vicinity” and how quickly they were “among the jarrah, the clearings; / his [grand]father’s team scouring and planting / pine trees’ (Vision of Error 55–56). But Kinsella’s poetry of dwelling is as informed by postcolonialism as by ecopoetics. Kinsella tells us that “some people remember ‘the old people’ and the names / of goanna and parrot, trees” and that “the other law troubles” while:
In the dry bed of the South Mortlock River
we see through red-green eyes
the white trail of the farmer;
downriver, a bright flash
of the serpent’s tail –
serpent escaping salt’s
ghosting of water,
embouchure split harsh
In these beautifully descriptive and fragmented lines Kinsella evokes the various layers of Indigenous and non-Indigenous land settlement; seeing within the current water management practices of farming communities a human induced salination – a palimpsest of “white” over the Indigenous Knowledge of rebirth and seasonal rain encapsulated in Stories of the Rainbow Serpent. In Australian poetry there have been few more beautifully lyrical acknowledgments of Country.
What “conversations” does John Kinsella initiate in The Vision of Error and Tide about the costs and interrelationships of the abuses of power on personal and public levels? He asks us to remember that “towns / in the goldfields and Pilbara / aren’t just there for extraction, / but perpetual colonisation” (Vision of Error 35). In addressing climate change – in a region where so many remain “deniers” – Kinsella tells us that:
there are thermometers everywhere
here: in the house, on the veranda, in the shed. It is compulsive;
so the sun activates flight.
This is keen, intimate, observation rich in its sense of place; and in another juxtaposition he asks us to consider further “how the plans to make an abattoir… / are progressing? How they are working out, / public submissions in, votes taken, planning done”. And he reminds us, ironically, that “sheep / somewhere waiting in line … / shorn before slaughter” might “know” (107). Kinsella asserts that the state might “deploy violence / to thwart [protest]” (47) but “remember where you’ve come from” and “join up / to make little difference” (33). In Tide Kinsella creates thirty-two character sketches in richly evocative and descriptive prose; these are heartbreaking in the way they show the costs of not “joining up to make little difference” as we experience and exercise power – we are left isolated, vulnerable and damaged, living amidst all the bullying, teasing and humiliations; always reaching for an intimacy that is somehow unattainable:
I leant across and pulled a long strand of hair from her eye, wet with perspiration. She moved my hand gently away and said, We are all falling to death. All of us. Even Four Eyes and Tender Terry. They are falling as well, and it’s terrible. (Tide 202)
But there is always the possibility of a “little difference”; amidst the threat of fog and storm there remains the hope that:
Sanctuary is at hand. We’ll follow the light and when we reach the shallows, I’ll step out and drag us in… The fog won’t matter a damn – we can lead each other up the beach by the hand. (Tide 129)
What is John Kinsella “reconciling” in The Vision of Error and Tide? If power corrupts, Kinsella – in his prose and poetry – examines the manifestations of the abuses of power. The degradation of the environment is one expression of this abuse. In Kinsella’s creative world there are numerous others: sexism, racism, a refusal to acknowledge First Nations, gun culture, work place and school yard bullying, state sponsored capital punishment. Sometimes the zealous nature of Kinsella’s exposé might verge on a poetics of rant (and I find it difficult to take as seriously as he does his melodramatic rant against infant male circumcision – but then I have Jewish and Indigenous family and a history of self-harm) but the energy, breadth of referencing and numerous moments of great lyrical beauty just catch me up in their magnificent tide. Kinsella compels me to reflect on my decisions regarding power as I accept his invitation in The Vision to:
Remember where you’ve come from
and the general fixedness of celestial bodies: flaw
therein worth a life-change
as purpose is to accolades,
ministries to choirs
near the river
so join up
to make little difference, thwarting
mortgage-ocracies, national corporatism
rejigged as mountain ducks
up on the hill where native growth
navigate via call
of male white-winged triller
The clever use of juxtaposition is a Kinsella feature; and the fine attention to detail and naming remind us of Gary Synder’s (1995: 171) request for an ecopoetics that is “nature and place literate: informed about history (social history and environmental history)”. Kinsella’s “poison pastoral” in The Vision of Error and Tide is a magnificent model for what this politically engaged ardent tour de force to save the planet – and ourselves – might look like. This is “Captain Planet” making himself vulnerable and riding a tsunami of “little [but all the] difference”.
Indyk, Ivor (1998) “The Pastoral Poets”. In The Penguin New Literary History of Australia, edited by Laurie Hergenham, 353–69. Melbourne: Penguin.
Garrard, Greg (2004) Ecocriticism. London: Routledge.
Hall, Phillip (2011) “gathering points: AUSTRALIAN POETRY: a natural selection”. Doctor of Creative Arts thesis, Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong. http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/3471
Kinsella, John (1996) “The Pastoral, and the Political Possibilities of Poetry”. Southerly 56, no 3: 36–42.
— (2008) Contrary Rhetoric: Lectures on Landscape and Language. North Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
Snyder, Gary (1995) A Place In Space: Ethics, Aesthetics and Watersheds. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.
Phillip Hall works in remote Indigenous education in Borroloola, the Gulf of Carpentaria. He has been adopted as a Gudanji man; known also by his skin name of Jabala and his traditional or bush name of Gijindarraji where he is a member of the Rrumburriya clan; he is Jungkayi (custodian) for Jayipa. Phillip published Sweetened in Coals with Ginninderra Press in 2014.