Thom Sullivan reviews Open Door by John Kinsella

John Kinsella. Open Door. Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2018. ISBN: 9781742589954.

 

Thom Sullivan

 

Open Door, the third and final book of poems in John Kinsella’s Jam Tree Gully Cycle, which includes 2012’s Jam Tree Gully and 2016’s Firebreaks, expands his radical pastoral aesthetic. The Cycle focuses on the rural block in Western Australia’s wheatbelt where Kinsella lives with his family, a location that has become familiar to readers of his work. The book is divided into a ‘Before’ and an ‘After’ section, with an addendum of ‘Late additions’, and the poems read as a chronological series of occurrences and reflections.

The poems have their source in a deep and sustained attentiveness. ‘I watch, I listen’ might be the book’s central axiom (‘Wiping Away Stigmas’, 59), or, perhaps, ‘I dwell, as always, on loss’, a phrase that’s given its full weight of exploration (dwell and loss) across Kinsella’s work (‘Stereotypical Proemia on Predictable Subjects: Stereotypical 8’, 35). Kinsella writes:

So to reach truth,

to represent what I see in the acts of ‘flora & fauna’

I am hobbled by settler heritage, coil I don’t want

yet have to acknowledge but not respect. My respect

goes to original words, sentences and affixing

of meanings I overhear and gather

and reconstitute into my own spiral of here

 

‘Volute’ (111)

The block’s ‘flora & fauna’, and human activity, provide the impetus for many, or most, of the poems. A list of species referred to in the book – birds, insects, reptiles, autochthonous and introduced animals, and plant species – might run into the hundreds. It gives a light irony to Kinsella’s objection to the national census (‘the national fact finding mission’), when the poems constitute an extensive register of the what and where, across the days and seasons (‘Census 1: Twas the Night Before’, 158). It is, however, a record of rural life in its perilous, and often deadly, realities.

The poems’ attention to detail naturally registers incremental changes, the what-is-different and the what-has-changed. Sometimes the changes are commonplace: ‘I do notice, however, that Easter / lilies that had emerged entirely / white a day or two ago / have now flushed pink’ (‘Preparing for the Arrival of Olwyn’, 82-83). At other times, the poems recognise aberrations in larger systems or patternings, things that are ‘out of kilter’, a phrase Kinsella uses in ‘‘28s’ – Possession’ (56) and again in ‘Pacifism’ (164). So he writes of the arrival of flocks of silvereyes late in spring: ‘We’ve just not seen / them here before […] Maybe prior to our five years / here it was an annual journey’ (‘Conducting the Extinction Spasm’, 51), or else: ‘Where we’d seen no roos for two years as we / travelled between Walwalinj and Toodyay, we just saw three // does with joeys’ (‘The Open Door?’, 66). In other poems, his attention is drawn to the presence of rabbits, or songbirds singing out of season, or the sighting of a bird that, though ‘common’, hasn’t been noted at Jam Tree Gully before (‘Pacific Heron’, 174). Kinsella is often, also, an interpreter of change or a foreseer of consequence: ‘but all changes mean much more: erosion / tells dry and sudden downpour, / expansions of ant cities and a concrete poem with wings’ (‘Whys and Wherefores at Jam Tree Gully, 24).

As the book progresses, the attention of the poems shifts subtly. Their focus remains incidental and observational – from a gale lifting the roof of a water tank, to a resurgence of caltrop, but there’s also a perceptible (re)turning of the mind to the affairs of the wider world, ‘the marginalised, the besieged, / the dispossessed’ (Reclusive, 183), and the ‘age of global fascism’ (‘Failed Georgics: Epilogues’, 205). It is as if Kinsella has become re-accustomed to the familiarities of Jam Tree Gully, and his attention is being drawn ‘further afield’ once more, a phrase he uses in ‘Sui Generis’ (228), the final poem of the ‘After’ section:

[…] Proximity, and in the catchment of our days.

And reports from further afield. The boats turned

back on the high seas – the drownings we no longer

hear of inland, just a couple of hours drive from the sea.

 

All of those closed doors.

(228)

Importantly, for our damaged world, as for the ‘traumatised habitat’ of Jam Tree Gully (‘‘28s’ – Possession’, 56), the Cycle closes with a sense of optimism about the possibility of some restoration. Kinsella writes in the book’s first (untitled) poem:

This is nothing more than a statement of hope – a hope of

minimising the damage, of keeping the door open to those in

need, to respecting the fact (glorious fact) that non-human life

lives here too, and has rights, if you open your sensibilities.

(15)

The block manifests that cause for hope: ‘You’ve got to understand, that when we arrived here / almost (almost, but not quite), a decade ago, this block / had been eaten out by horses and sheep, cleared to outcrops’ (‘The Miracle of the Shy Sun Orchid’, 243). Instead, Kinsella offers a single sun orchid, a remnant of the tenuous things that have yet remained ‘intact’, as ‘a bloody miracle, / an open door for restoration, / restitution, possibly deliverance on its own terms.’ (244)

Through Open Door, and the poems of the Jam Tree Gully Cycle, Kinsella draws us into his own deep and sustained attentiveness. Though Kinsella will, no doubt, continue writing in the mode of the radical pastoral, the trilogy that composes the Cycle offers us a discrete body of work with its own patternings and inner resonances. Open Door, and the two books which precede it, are an accessible and immersive encounter with a vital strain within Kinsella’s extensive oeuvre.

 

 

Thom Sullivan lives in Adelaide. His debut book of poems Carte Blanche (Vagabond Press) won the Noel Rowe Poetry Award and the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award.

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