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Carolyn van Langenberg reviews sack by John Kinsella

John Kinsella, sack. Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle Press, 2014. ISBN 9781925161229


Carolyn van Langenberg


John Kinsella is in career terms successful, a Professor of Literature and Sustainability at Curtin University, Western Australia, an Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University in the UK, and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia. He is also the editor of The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (2008). He is an established poet, but his poetry is not as widely known as it deserves to be.

Kinsella is an energetic contributor to poetry at the theoretical level (see for example, Redstart: An Ecological Poetics. Contemporary North American Poetry Series. Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2012, which he wrote with Forrest Gander) as well as writing and publishing poetry itself and, I assume, teaching poetics. Has he achieved his objectives as he set them out in Redstart: An Ecological Poetics? Are the poems in sack ecopoetry, raising questions or unravelling the intricacies of being human in the physical world?

I contend that the poems are successful as ecopoetry, although the poet is not generous to humans. The poems in sack are written with fervent attention to the rural environment of WA from which they spring and with which they resonate. The linguistic swerve vibrates with the elementally brutal landscape that has become an Australian icon in many art spaces – on canvas, in advertising, as irony in “Australia!”, on postage stamps and so on. It is the landscape that people outside Australia expect of us, as if we people ingested its harshness. The cloudless blue sky, strip of iron red, a rock and a saltbush are supposed to be our (white capitalist resource-stripping) received image.

Much that has been lived and continues to be felt viscerally by Kinsella has never been part or portion of the world of many of us. We do pullulate along the coast, especially the eastern seaboard. The rich green and the brilliant large flowers of tropical trees, the Pacific Ocean side of the island continent, and those sweeping sandy estuaries of the North aren’t inscribed in these poems. It is as if Kinsella writes with matter of fact ease a world artists such as Arthur Boyd painted a few decades ago.

Therein lies my problem.

I am latitudinally connected to East and Southeast Asia, seeing it in ceramics and many other artistic interpretations of the real, the lazy adaptation of Buddhism by some Australians, the developing cuisine and indeed in the depth and breadth of the novel The Long Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Australia for me is populated by those derived from Europe as they are deriving from East and Southeast Asia.

Kinsella is attached to Northern Europe, especially Great Britain. On first reading, I found this point of reference conservative, even old-fashioned. On the other hand, given how mobile is the job market, I accept that the location of his employment informs his autobiographical background material that in turn informs his focus.

Arthur Boyd painted some of his best work from about the 1940s to the 1980s. He had an attachment to the northern hemisphere that was shared with other painters at the time. Those artists went to Europe, explored European mythology to understand Australia in their attempt to decipher the images – the sky that laughs with ribald glee at the burning neck of a thirsty drover, the squint-eyed passive stare at the bleak and shimmering horizon and the lone woman unaesthetically clad – extremes of lovelessness or heroics that we are meant to have stamped on our wizened hearts.

Kinsella is at his most deft when he writes his experience of rural Australia, the one he knows. He doesn’t labour Greek, Nordic or Celtic references, exhort Buddha or Krishna. He is nostalgic, not as a bourgeois sentimentally indulging an idealised past, but as an aspirational success recalling the bittersweet sunniness of life on a large wheat farm, vividly written screen memories pummelled and occasionally enamelled into a poetry of images that refers to the unspectacular routine of farming. Chooks are debeaked (“Coop”). A sow rolls on her litter (“The Fable of the Great Sow”). The “mince of kittens”, some “with mouths carelessly wired together” in the title poem, “sack”, is meant to shock. And the reader complies – the stomach recoils and the mouth tastes as if blood is oozing.

Charm is not the enterprise, although the desire for explanation of confused emotional habits of thought rests on tenderness. “Peter Negotiates the House Paddock, 1965” is suffused with light. Peter of the title is not a child. It is a toy vehicle Kinsella calls a push-car. I wondered if it was a billy-cart or a pedal-car. I don’t think Peter is a stroller. It is a child’s vehicle wheeling through a world remade for the poet’s memory as it was remade many times over in the past by human interaction with nature. And in this poem Kinsella touches close his rawness, uneasily traversing a world that he finds unstable, at risk of ever-changing chances and possibilities.

With a masochist’s fear and thrill, Kinsella clings to the ugliness. Unlike Boyd who transformed the black rabbit, abandoned skulls, the bleached landscape and dead swamps into muscular art, Kinsella is left with words that dig deeper and deeper into a fractured (should I say disturbed?) vision.

Perhaps the Welsh Penillion, an ancient stanza based on a well-wrought tradition that hones lyrics, releases Kinsella from the stark and painful clarity of barbed wire, rabbit guts and cattle crammed into road haulers. The stench of the road kill is held at bay, the formal discipline of the Penillion allowing the poet to show how good he is without giving up those things that have made him both fragile and resilient, like celadon or porcelain. His honesty is at home within the constraints. And speaks further than the Western Australian wheat belt.

Time and distance.



Ploys of nation.


Those filled with hate


And discover

Home was never


Theirs for taking:

That’s just faking

A love of soil

In hope for spoils


And brute power.


(“Penillion Definitions of Exile”)

The poem is one that comes from a colonised land regarded by the political and corporate powers as a resource to exploit, not as an integral part of life. I read it and its fellow Penillions with pleasure.

When freed from the discipline of the Penillion with its rules about rhyme and rhythm, nothing one would not expect from a culture underscored by music and singing, Kinsella lets himself conclude sack in stream of conscience, “Letter to a younger poet: for James Quinton”. I prefer the constraint. In the Penillion, the poet does not lose himself in his political understanding of the venality of the capitalist mining state, WA inc. By contrast, “Letter to a younger poet: for James Quinton” is too pat, swinging through acid trips, lots of received wisdom to food security. The tactile linguistics that John Kinsella is capable of bringing to his work is better than this.

We live in Financial Times, checking the super fund and hoping like crazy we won’t be defrauded. We live in the Petition Age, signing for the future in the hope that our children will have affordable medical care. We live in alliance with Lock The Gates, worried for farmers who fear that Coal Seam Gas Mining and the poison released by fracking will drive them off their land.

We live, knowing Uncertain Futures. Ours is an age when Grandparents fear they are leaving the generations after them with less than we had in the 60s and 70s when Arthur Boyd painted so well and John Kinsella was born. When Kinsella is forced by an old tradition to look into the power of poetry, he addresses those feelings for us all.


Carolyn van Langenberg has had poetry and prose published internationally and locally. Carolyn is the author of the novels fish lips, the teetotaller’s wake, blue moon and sibyl’s stories (Indra Publishing). In 2000, fish lips was short-listed for the David T K Wong Fellowship, East Anglia University, UK.

Published: January 2015

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.