Thom Sullivan reviews Graphology 1995-2015 by John Kinsella

John Kinsella. Graphology Poems: 1995-2015. Parkville (Victoria): Five Islands Press, 2016. ISBN 9780734051639.

 

Thom Sullivan

 

John Kinsella’s Graphology Poems: 1995-2015 – published by Five Island Press as a limited edition, three volume set – has been long anticipated. Kinsella hinted that the poems accumulating as part of the Graphology project may appear in a single volume as early as 1998, in an essay entitled “The Long Poem and the Sequence”. In the essay, he describes Graphology as a project “about how and why we write […] about the word itself, about the line, the stanza, the typography, font, the very page” (97). He adds that Graphology was “conceived right from the earliest drafts as being the long poem that one writes over a lifetime” (97). It’s a characterisation he repeats in the volumes’ introductory notes: we’re therefore dealing with a significant addition to the oeuvre of an important Australian poet. The publication of the three volumes provides the first opportunity to encounter and evaluate the work comprehensively.

“Graphology”, Kinsella reminds us in his introductory notes, is a pseudoscience that claims that aspects of personality can be deduced by analysing a person’s handwriting. It requires an examination of form, movement and use of space, all of which are important stylistic and thematic considerations within the Graphology poems. The volumes feature – in places – reproductions of Kinsella’s handwriting, hand-drawn charts, scribbles and rudimentary drawings.

The Graphology poems, Kinsella says, were “often composed in a sequential and chronological format, [and] numbered accordingly”, though the numbering is regularly – and enigmatically – non-consecutive (1.13). Discrete clusterings of poems develop, then the sequence breaks off or shifts again, allowing themes and stylistic elements to modulate and re-emerge.

In “Graphology 3727: A Deformed Nautilus Is Surely More Perfect” and “Graphology Appendix 2: Spiralling”, Kinsella seems to offer the nautilus shell – renowned as a natural illustration of the “golden ratio” – as the antithesis of his sequence (2.208). Instead, he tenders the “deformed nautilus” or “triple spiral” as a model for the complexity of its structure:

Gold sections and golden rectangles but only a logarithmic

spiral, though poets would have it golden and make more

maths of their poems than poems possess: bend those

stanzas and their word-orders, mimic sequences of numbers

to find a place in the logic of Eternity

(2.208)

The poems are cumulative and faceted in their effect, even as their arrangement resists a neat summation. Nicholas Birns writes, in his essay on the poems, “we are not so much concerned with how and if the series will end, or even with a sense of progress or development through the series, as we are with the total effect of a set of instances that we know will never add up neatly.” The sequence isn’t readily conceptualisable by form or theme, as in some of Kinsella’s earlier books, such as The Silo (1995) or Divine Comedy (2008), or inflected with a distinctive characteristic, such as the strangeness that pervades Visitants (1999).

The energies and impulses of the poems, or clusterings of poems, remain in flux, creating a sense of impermanence or capriciousness. It requires some trust that an individual poem, or clustering of poems, is of-a-piece with the sequence, and creates a sustained tension in the work. A resistance to closure also allows the sequence’s inclusiveness of reference, from the organic to the cultural, which is itself an exploration and substantiation of identity. As Kinsella comments in “Graphology: Un-numbered Series 3”:

[…] It doesn’t matter

whether or not this satisfies the rules of lyrical

preservation, the law of reader satisfaction.

It is a record, it is a witnessing.

(2.61)

The sequence ranges in its style and subject matter, including formalist and ekphrastic poems, such as the poems that respond to the works of icon painter Alexander Deriev and abstract painter Karl Wiebke.

The project is consciously and relentlessly, though not always overtly, political – if we accept the axiom that everything is political, as an assertion, rejection or disregarding of values. As Kinsella acknowledges in his introductory notes: “These are all poems of resistance and protest, even when affirming. I write to resist” (1.15). The poems return to many of the political and ecological concerns that recur in Kinsella’s poetry: salination, land clearing, the use of insecticides and herbicides, cultural imperialism, recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, and – more broadly – a sustained critique of certain aspects of modernity (“When knowing was not search-engined”, 3.38). However, as David McCooey noted when launching the volumes, “In popular mythology, [Kinsella’s] politics sometimes gets more attention than his poetics. Of course one cannot separate the two.”

The sequence’s politics and poetics are spliced through language. The sequence is linguistically rich, with injections of wordplay (“Bard hair-day joy flourishes in whiff of quiff”, 2.255), humour and satire. Kinsella’s critique of modernity is expressed and enacted through language itself:

[…] watch out or we’ll super-size our right

to freedom, extend the pusillanimous

soft-drink musical download hand-gun freebies

of the freest of the free world giveaways

in your ‘battle for ideas’

(1.221)

Much of the sequence is concerned with notions of place, as Kinsella’s body of work has been: the poems are “revelations of locality and self”, he writes (1.21). The poems primarily feature the landscapes of Ohio and Cambridgeshire (where Kinsella teaches at Kenyon College and Cambridge University, respectively), and Western Australia’s wheatbelt. It’s particularly through the wheatbelt poems that Kinsella explores some of the sequence’s key preoccupations, including the act of witnessing and recording (“Making a record is barely witness, I know that, / but I am compelled”, 2.228), and rejecting claims of proprietary ownership. The landscapes are overlaid with their social and political contexts:

With parents born pre-Second World War

we are vestiges of Elizabethan colonialism,

 

plantations made into ‘the wheatbelt’,

roots of western-white, a type of house paint

 

for all weathers.

(3.178)

The sequence incorporates, with minimal amendments, a series of poems that was published as America, or, Glow (A Poem) in 2006. The America series – comprising forty-nine poems, most of them short – complements the project, yet retains its distinctiveness. It’s the clustering of poems that’s most overtly and consistently political, presenting Kinsella’s reaction to America’s political and social conservatism:

[…] God

is pro-life, pro-strength, pro-family

pro-space and pro-martial arts.

(1.213-14)

 

praise O holy Green Card,

lottery Whitmanesque exclusive

democracy and camouflage

in school dining halls: the ‘bad’ food vending machines

to be used only after lunch

(1.198)

The poems portray a flawed and damaged America that’s nonetheless retained its glamour: a promised land of privilege, opportunity, junk food and adolescent gun-violence.

Graphology Poems, particularly the third volume, includes many short, highly-distilled poems – for example, “Graphology Heuristics 83: Death by Identification” (quoted in its entirety):

Night parrots worked hard not to be found

by the invasive, the protective and exploitative.

‘Found’, they know for certain they are extinct.

(3.172)

The poem brings to mind Kinsella’s 1989 collection of poems, Night Parrots, in which the title poem refers to the species, then believed to be extinct, with the refrain “If at all”. The species’ totemic and mythopoeic status in Australian poetry has been eradicated by the recent “(re)discovery” of several birds in western Queensland, rendering it extinct as a metaphor. According to Kinsella, it’s only by evading identification or detection that the birds can continue to exist. It’s telling, too, that Kinsella doesn’t distinguish between the “protective” and the “exploitative”.

Kinsella concedes: “I write a lot of vituperative verse” (3.226), but the sequence works towards glimpses of conciliation and optimism in the closing pages of the third volume. This movement reaches its apogee in “Graphology Appendix 11: Burlong Pool”:

and even now, just upriver, an excavator

up to its rusting hocks in rocks and sand,

a mining company extracting what it can

from the artery of the valley. But the pool

itself is working to health, and community

has resurrected its fortunes – gatherings

of black-winged stilts, a flight of teal,

a spoonbill on a submerged flooded gum.

Language is gifted on signs that do more

than mark location and provide visitor

information – they are statements

of presence, of reclamation.

(3.229)

The poem describes the slow regeneration or reclamation of the river, after years of abuse by industry, mining companies and the military. It opens the sequence to the possibilities of renewal, expressed in religious or spiritual terms: resurrection, prayer, ritual, reverence and worship.

According to Kinsella, the Graphology project is “a lifework” (1.13). It is an expansive and inclusive sequence that provides a reference point for much of his work since the early 1990s. As recently as August 2016, Kinsella has published poems identified as Graphology poems on Mutually Said, the blog he shares with his partner, poet Tracy Ryan. And this leaves us with a final, unresolved question as to whether these recent poems were excluded from a now completed sequence, or whether the Graphology poems will continue to accumulate and evolve into the future.

 

Works Cited

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Birns, Nicholas. “Landscape Eaten by Foliage: John Kinsella’s Graphology Poems”, viewed 1 January 2017, http://fiveislandspress.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Landscape-Eaten-By-Foliage-Nic-Birns.pdf

Kinsella, John. Night Parrots. Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1989.

Kinsella, John. America, or, Glow (A Poem). Eastbourne, East Sussex: Arc Publications, 2006.

Kinsella, John. “The Long Poem and The Sequence”, Spatial Relations: Volume II: Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Chorography. New York: Rodopi, 2013: 95-98.

Kinsella, John. Graphology Poems: 1995-2015. Parkville, VIC: Five Islands Press, 2016.

McCooey, David. “Launch Speech: John Kinsella, Graphology Poems (Five Islands Press)”, transcript, viewed 1 January 2017, https://www.davidmccooey.com/graphology-poems-launch-speech

 

Thom Sullivan grew up on a farm in Wistow / Bugle Ranges in the Adelaide Hills. He had a short collection of poems, Airborne, published in New Poets 14 (Wakefield) in 2009. Since then he’s edited or co-edited seven published books of poetry. Most recently, his poems have appeared in The Best Australian Poems 2014, The Best Australian Poems 2015Australian Love Poems, and as part of Australian Book Review’s “States of Poetry” series. He was a featured writer at Adelaide Writers’ Week in 2016.

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