Thom Sullivan reviews Renga: 100 Poems by John Kinsella and Paul Kane

John Kinsella & Paul Kane. Renga: 100 Poems. Melbourne: GloriaSMH Press, 2017. ISBN 9780994527578.

 

Thom Sullivan

 

In his foreword to Renga: 100 Poems, Paul Kane explains that his collaboration with John Kinsella began with an initial tête-à-tête, and a proposition: ‘Why not continue an hour’s conversation over an extended period – and in verse?’ (iv). The result is ‘an exchange, a private correspondence’ (‘Renga 100’) written between 2002 and 2012, as the poets – ‘never in the same place together’ – move between America, Australia and England (vi). The chain of alternating poems traverses ideas of home, place, belonging, memory, mirroring, juxtaposition, criss-crossings, and seasons, and its fundamental mechanism is alluded to by Kane when he writes: ‘Call and respond was the modality’ (vi). The renga is a collaborative form insofar as the poets’ contributions give rise to one another, in ways that are discernible or intuited, whether by framing, contrast, association, or subject matter. Stylistically, Kane retains the strict syllabic scheme of the traditional renga throughout the work, while Kinsella’s poems are more variable and lyrical.

The poets’ first exchange sets up a direct mirroring, creating a frame through which we enter the work. Kane writes in ‘Renga 1’:

Back where I come from,

hills – an eroded plateau –

send green up to meet

the sky in summer, then red

blazing, then white in winter.

Kinsella’s parallel phrasing in ‘Renga 2’ underscores distinctions in location, season, and palette:

And in the place I come from,

hills – an extinct volcano –

often in drought, yellow

fusing with summer sky, the red

that comes with a short green season

surprising the sun

Kane’s location, at the time of the initial exchange, is ‘dairy farming / land, with corn, hay’ (‘Renga 1’), whereas Kinsella’s is a landscape where ‘sheep and wheat / work with each other, against the grain’ (‘Renga 2’). Each location represents an agricultural system that’s binary, but complementary, a model of the dynamic at work between the poets. In ‘Renga 3’, Kane reflects on how seasons are generative by the fact of their fluctuation:

Yet think of the paperbarks

along the Murray

wetlands, how they need an ebb

in spring floods to grow young trees:

alternation rules.

The generative power of alternation within the work is evident as Kinsella’s poem about the farmer ‘who grubbed the last mallee fowl / mound out of Mount Hardy’ (‘Renga 26’) elicits an exchange of poems about the mining of Toodyay quartzite and Appalachian coal. Further on, the final phrase of Kinsella’s ‘Renga 62’, ‘black black earth’, is taken up in Kane’s lines ‘the black dirt is the blackest / black I know’ (‘Renga 63’), then varied by the repetition of ‘black and white’ in Kinsella’s ‘Renga 64’, with Kane’s ‘Renga 65’ completing the transition with: ‘let light suffuse / the hour with white, with white white.’ This play of one poem upon another creates a sustained tension in the work.

An essential theme is the necessary correspondence of place and time: each poem’s moment is an inextricable juncture of a here and a now. This underpins Kane’s ‘There is yesterday, / here is now’ (‘Renga 77’) and Kinsella’s ‘Night is the space / I occupy’ (‘Renga 80′), and gives the poems their sense of immediacy: “’Now is a word for / never again, and here means / wind chimes ringing clear’ (‘Renga 13’). But, even as the poems represent a here and now, they’re framed by an inherent awareness of the absent other, so Kinsella writes: ‘from where I look out you’d see’ (‘Renga 12’). There’s also an understanding of the influence of place on what’s written: in ‘Renga 6’, Kinsella pre-empts a move to Jam Tree Gully and remarks: ‘I will talk to you / in a slightly different way.’

‘Home’ also emerges as an essential theme, an important consideration for two poets who’ve spent much of their lives alternating between continents. Kane states: ‘We’re at home in two / worlds’ (‘Renga 33’), to which Kinsella responds: ‘For years I’ve been split / three ways’ (‘Renga 34’). Following on from their considerations of home is the poets’ rejection of claims to the proprietary ownership of land (as Kane writes, ‘I own property, but it / isn’t mine, nor am / I its’, ‘Renga 41’), an idea uniquely appropriate to the renga as a form. As Octavio Paz argued in his introduction to Renga: A Chain of Poems (1971), co-written with Jacques Roubaud, Edoardo Sanguineti and Charles Tomlinson, a renga is ‘[a]n antidote against the notions of author and intellectual property’, insofar as it resists neat claims of ownership (27). The poets’ reflections on ‘home’ culminate in Kinsella’s ‘Renga 78’, where the undercurrent wells up into a litany: ‘Homecoming homebound homebody homebred. / Homeland homemaker homeomorphic homeless.’ Kane’s response moves the conversation forward, but takes its cue from Kinsella’s wordplay:

We’re at the cliff’s edge

plunging into the new year –

polis, politics,

politicos, pointless pols,

pals, posses, past the last post –

(‘Renga 79’)

The poets’ exchanges also respond to public and private concerns. References to the death of mutual friend Peter Porter in 2010 establish the timing of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth poems. To Kinsella’s ‘Peter Porter died in London / yesterday’, Kane counters that ‘Poets are always / dying, it’s how they make their / living’, while Kane’s ‘The days grow longer / as everything grows apace’ finds its antithesis in Kinsella’s ‘But here the days / are getting shorter.’ Elsewhere, the poets are preoccupied with the seasonal quotidian (frozen pipes, or cutting a firebreak), domestic and international politics, species extinction, drone strikes, wind turbines, and ecological concerns – particularly climate change, which looms larger as the sequence progresses: ‘Venice / is in our future. / We’ll be toast if we’re not sunk’ (Kane’s ‘Renga 75’). Kane’s response to destructive mining practices in the Appalachians is: ‘Start small, I say each morning, / a bird cry can crack a shell’ (‘Renga 29’), and Kinsella’s affirmation is direct: ‘Yes, I say the same thing: miniscule / is large, and the morning is wide / as an eye’ (‘Renga 30’), though their optimism is less conspicuous in the later poems.

A consciousness of mortality or finalities inflects some of Kane’s later poems, as in ‘Renga 99’ when he writes: ‘when time / will be no more and / this book will be part of what / I leave behind.’ His words emphasise the work’s importance to the poets’ oeuvres, anticipating any inclination to dismiss it as an aside or addendum. The book’s driving call-and-response mechanism propels Kane and Kinsella into new and worthwhile terrains, and the work is a valuable demonstration of the renga’s enduring possibilities, particularly in the hands of these two highly accomplished poets.

 

Reference

Paz, Octavio. Renga: A Chain of Poems. New York: G. Braziller, 1972.

 

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 2014The 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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