Review by Robyn Cadwallader
John Kinsella’s latest collection of poetry, The Vision of Error: A Sextet of Activist Poems is, as Kinsella says in a speech on video link to the book launch, ‘an activist book … with one purpose in mind … to facilitate conversations about the necessity … of change’. It is a call to action with a desire for communication. It is surprising, then, that much of the poetry is so difficult to understand.
This is not an easy thing to say. Kinsella’s credentials are impressive. He is well known on the Australian literary scene; he has published more than thirty-five collections of poetry and two novels; he has worked as an editor and critic; he is a Fellow of Churchill college, Cambridge University and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia. It is easier, perhaps, to consider the reader — myself — lacking in perception, awareness, the patient skills of careful reading.
The book’s focus is, as the title suggests, error: the powers of capitalism, corporations, pollution, climate change, and governmental abuses of power, most especially in the death penalty, the subject of the final poem, ‘“The Killing State” / The Murdering State’. The desperate plight of the natural world is a dominant theme.
‘Harsh Hakea’, the first poem, reads as a gathering of thoughts, musing and anger; it shifts between close observation, personal recollection, outbursts of anger, passages of wordplay, soundplay and highbrow philosophical and literary allusion. The shifts occur quickly, apparently at random, with the appearance (whether intended or not) of thoughts jotted down as they occurred. There is an atmosphere of the land, and the writer of the diary, being besieged:
I will learn to block out the assaults of scramble-bike riders
I will learn to block out the gunshot that ravages animals and birds
in the valley
I will learn to block out the riproar of U-turning jets while their pilots
ready for war
I will learn to block out my shifts in body chemistry and reception theories
that undo the way I see (17)
And his resistance is a stance that seems hand-in-glove with a resistance to literary conservatism :
Please place on my grave, ‘he resisted’,
And wasn’t hookwinked by the lyric
or its digressions, remouthings
or retextings. Nor by epics,
nor damned elegies. (10)
He resists also in that most practical of ways, by planting hakea:
A sharp one, groundcover, to hold and ward
off: ah ah ah; letters don’t correspond to sound,
no matter your languages;
HARSH hakea; (11)
Just as the groundcover he nurtures is prickly, and necessarily so, apparently, his words attempt to unpick and undermine the conservatism of accepted ideas. In his launch speech he says that his poems interact with other texts; they have philosophical subtexts, and play with ideas that should be ‘pulled to bits’, not ‘displayed in museums’. His words are passionate: ‘This is a reactionary time, my friends. Horrendous things have taken place in Australian poetry and elsewhere, over the protectorship of ideas.’ Unfortunately, however, he pulls apart ideas through complex literary and philosophical allusions or perhaps simple playing with sounds — though often one would need to be in the ‘philosophical loop’ to know what is really at work:
Mine. Jacques Prevert. Script. Paradise.
My intimations make exhibits.
Just a coterie quells ululation emphatically sonorous.
Prevent relationships evincing vigorous reality trepidations.
And so on. There are many sections like this, where it is easy to give up, either through anger or despair.
The cost of all this resistance to literary conservatism is communication itself, a cost felt most strongly in a book that addresses issues with which many readers may have strong sympathies. It is not a new thought to suggest that paradoxically, Kinsella’s activist poems end up speaking mostly to the academy, or to his own thought processes (see the online reviews by Anthony Lawrence, Geoff Page, Simon Patton). The reader is mostly left outside.
And so it is worth returning again to his launch speech where he suggests that activism is always a form of propaganda, but ‘although I may rant I hope it’s not propaganda … it’s too paradoxical and too disturbed at points, to fall into that particular trap’. Therein, perhaps, is something of the difficulty of reading this collection, where meaning becomes confused, if not collapsed, under the tensions of Kinsella’s various ambitions. Does his desire to appeal beyond the emotional and manipulative methods of propaganda lead to his use of abstruse philosophical allusion? Perhaps. Or maybe he cannot resist the temptation to play within the academic world of thought.
Nonetheless, the focus returns intermittently to animals, the weather, insects, and plants, close observations of life, as in ‘Requiem’:
November. Shiny green growth
of eucalypts, late spring burst to link
little moisture around — even now the storm is sparing
in its downpour — and heat; humidity
drives the sparkle of growing tips,
These concrete images come as a much-needed grounding, but there is a sense of the poet musing, gathering a thought that runs out, trails of thought in stream-of-consciousness writing where the strange ‘logic’ of associations is known only to the poet. In other poems, such as ‘Harvest Ban’, the moments of detail clearly draw upon a deep intimacy with and between place, weather, emotion and atmosphere.
Humidity has altered the timbre
of bird chatter — wagtails
confront a partner’s call,
confront below the veranda. (53)
As the poem develops, the poet references his past life in this place but pulls away; it is the land and its plight that is most intensely felt:
The trees on the hill are dying.
Years of drought. The watertable drops
beyond the stretch of roots. Neighbouring
properties are drinking the last drops dry, running
Their bores like addiction, making rainbows
in fifty-degree heat over their lawns. You crazy fucking bastards!
I am not writing poetry for entertainment: it’s dying
here, dying! We are turning this place into the sands
of of Egypt. The canon is a crown of death —
seventy-foot high York gums
rattling like dragonflies. (62)
In lines like this, Kinsella’s pain at the land’s suffering are evident, and the seriousness of his writing becomes clear. There are times when plain speech communicates with power. It is unfortunate, then, that despite such a deeply felt love of land, Kinsella’s poetry ultimately keeps away the reader, the possible activist and companion in his cause.
The Vision of Error: A Sextet of Activist Poems
5 Islands Press, 2014
126 pages $29.95