The Long Page - Poetry and Other Genres - An Introduction to the Writings

Pig Melons

As children we dashed
their brains out,
the insipid flesh
drying like chunks of pork
over the yellowing paddocks;
this murder bringing
further ruin to arable lands,
choking the native flora
with spilt thoughts
encoded as seeds
that bided their time
spitefully
until the rains
washed away the tracks
of our games, our conflicts,
percolating beneath the surface,
throwing ropes
that crept out,
securing the meagre
fertility of the place
with their rituals
of bondage.

     from The Hunt (Bloodaxe, 1998)

Order The Hunt


The Bottlebrush Flowers

A Council-approved replacement
for box trees along the verges
of suburban roads, it embarrasses
with its too sudden blush - stunning
at first, then a burning reminder
of something you'd rather forget.
And it unclothes so ungraciously -
its semi-clad, mangy, slovenly,
first-thing-in-the-morning appearance.
And while I've heard it called
a bristling firelick, a spiral
of Southern Lights, I've also seen
honey-eaters bob upside down
and unpick its light in seconds.

Plumburst
for Wendy

The neat greens of Monument Hill
roll into sea, over the rise the soft rain
of plumfall deceives us in its groundburst.

If lightning strikes from the ground up,
and Heaven is but an irritation that prompts
its angry spark, then plums are born
dishevelled on the ground and rise
towards perfection...

Out of the range of rising plums
we mark the territory of the garden,
testing caprock with Judas trees,
pacing out melon runs. Behind us a block
of flats hums into dusk and the sun
bursts a plum mid-flight.

Windows

l

You follow the smoke-column
from a garden fire to a point
near the top of the window
where it liaises with the dark
waste of clouds. From the ash,
still warm, the bulbs - electric -
throw off their shucks.

ll

The wind stirs a vague notion
from its frame - the sweep
of the Sleepy Mallow of Peru,
the shimmering Arizona Cypress,
the hillocked paddocks,
the cankered orchard,
the errant hawk riding the boundaries,
and a fell moon straining to claw
the inhabitants of a dark room
out into the finest of days.

Warhol at Wheatlands

He's polite looking over the polaroids
saying gee & fantastic, though always
standing close to the warm glow

of the Wonderheat as the flames
lick the self-cleansing glass.
It's winter down here & the sudden

change has left him wanting. Fog
creeps up from the gullies & toupées
the thinly pastured soil. It doesn't

remind him of America at all. But there's
a show on television about New York so
we stare silently, maybe he's asleep

behind his dark glasses? Wish Tom
& Nicole were here. He likes the laser
prints of Venice cluttering the hallway,

the sun a luminous patch trying
to break through the dank cotton air
& the security film on the windows.

Deadlocks & hardened glass make him feel
comfortable, though being locked inside
with Winchester rifles has him tinfoiling

his bedroom - he asks one of us but we're
getting ready for seeding & can't spare a moment.
Ring-necked parrots sit in the fruit trees

& he asks if they're famous. But he
doesn't talk much (really). Asked about Marilyn
he shuffles uncomfortably - outside, in the

spaces between parrots & fruit trees
the stubble rots & the day fails
to sparkle.

     from Poems 1980-1994 published by Bloodaxe (UK/USA, 1998) and Fremantle Arts Centre Press (Australia, 1997)

Order Poems 1980-1994


Poem for Those At Wheatlands

You only realise
that the stars
over the low
fluorescent crops
are particular
to the frame
of Wheatlands,
that the canvas
stretched
against the salt
is a photo-
sensitive plate
that might take
generations
to expose
(below, another waits!).
And that family
ashes
are the size
that will hold
souls, stars, and soil
in place.

     from The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony (FACP, 1995; Arc, 1997)


nature morte: Oh Rhetoric!
for John Tranter

Calls for clarity
suggest the breakdown
or rediscovery of a market
like horrible workers
following Rimbaud
as he moves through and out
of the post-modern
work ethic, meaning just hanging there
like an island buoyed by dense air,
as the earth revolves unsecured
beneath.
The masters leave studios
& paint only for personal
gratification - horrible workers
keeping the studios going,
contracting art to a single flourish
of pen or brush. Like Cicciolina
being the model for everything
in the glossy magazine apartments
of meta-kitsch. Or Elle Macpherson
saying you should only read
what you've written yourself.
Or Christo hiding dead art
beneath swathes of wrapping.
On the Island of Doctor
Moreau the animal-humans
animate analogies & moralize
as we take our medicine.
Taking the cure means
making it suffer. Metaphor
is the only way of saying something
plain & simple & as we turn full circle
towards Babel Fowler becomes a kind ofv trendy gibberish. In
Giacomo Balla's
Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash
we notice the energy
of a still in which Balla
delights in the simultaneity
of deprivation. Innovation
is the fraudulent usage
of an established
method of discussion
on the nature of intent
& inspiration
only because there's a market.
We might still be drawn to expression
without a means of exchange
but it's unlikely we'd be pushed
to validate it. But that's
in a perfect world where your indulgence
wouldn't bother anyone a damn.
That if you didn't work you'd starve
alone. A doctor tells the story
of a suicide who survived
just long enough to fully comprehend
the totality of pain. He'd drunk toilet cleaner
& then changed his mind.
Like the late twentieth century.
There's no need to refer to particular
incidents to make this a political poem.
I can analogize by using the Island
of Doctor Moreau & prompting the reader
to consider the tyrannies of science,
which is a euphemism
for. The Law Giver is dead.
The Ipecacuanha like a UFO fixation.
In the House of Pain Moreau said: "You
forget all that a skilled vivisector
can do with living things."
Here, if you wish
for an absolute kind of illumination
you must of course
read the book. I have read the book.
A lot of my friends are writers.
Many are venerated by their peers
& would be considered to have good taste
in things literary. I write a poem & hand it around.
Some praise it as the best thing I've written,
other suggest I return to the draft-board,
others that I scrap it & take a rest.
I consider that the best thing
you've written might not mean much
if deep down they think that the rest
of your stuff is pretty lousy.
Even their judgements
have different meanings
depending on how they tell me & how I listen.
Style doesn't change, but styles do.
I once led into a poem with a quote
from Brodsky: "Everything has its limit,
including sorrow." I read the poem. It's titled
"Trans-celluloid Vision". I consider why
the quote is used? The poem is in three
parts and the last stanza reads: "Everything has its limit -
the train slowing, the journey
almost complete. Relief
borders on sorrow.
I lose track of the plot,
embracing the platform." In the light
of the rest of the poem this is a little "tacked on".
It is a poem about a fragmenting relationship;
a kind of lament.
But this doesn't really come through
so it can't really be about that.
I haven't guided the reader.
through italicizing "can't"
to make my intention clear(er).
My problems continue(d)
with a second reading
& I suggest(ed)
it's another of those I gave up on but wasn't able
to get rid of.
Years later & I'm at it again.
The first line of section 1 (View from a train)
reads "The curve of the track/betrays the engine."
I remember the train going from Sydney to Melbourne.
That the mystery of movement was lost when
the engine appeared out of the window. I think it was
raining & the atmosphere was "surreal". But this
is not my word, it comes from somewhere else.
The poem continues: "Moisture
trapped within the double-paned window
makes liars of manufacturers claiming
air-tight security. I stare past the frame
of lacquered wood & outside the day
is cinematographic. Flickering
from reel to reel until the credits
show the names of logging & catering companies,
trucking & management industries."
The second stanza turns against the first:
"A green desert. Sheep moving slowly
through viscous paddocks, water pooling
like blood. Dry country stranded
on the backbone of grey granite.
A washed sunset emphasizes
the sharp teeth of a retreating city."
I recall being dissatisfied with the "washed
sunset" - maybe "brooding" or "harsh"
or some other more active adjective?
But it was the bitterness of sorrow
that intrigued & this disparate
image stuck. In the dissection
of the corpse of this poem
I recall Lyn Hejinian
telling me how she'd gone to watch
autopsies with Mike Patton,
the lead singer of Faith No More.
I wouldn't have mentioned Mike but his music
has always interested me & if he hadn't been
on world tour I'd have tried to solicit
material for the literary journal I edit.
Lyn said
that in this de-sensitized environment
(actually that's my word, I can't remember
what she said specifically but its effect
on me was to suggest this) the body
wasn't that frightening.
I think she held a liver.
I asked if it was like a collection of artefacts
being removed carefully from a tomb.
I think she laughed.
But it might not have
been a comfortable laugh. The second section
of my poem is entitled: "The Cat
& The Canary or The Absence Of Sorrow
Accompanying A Belated Reading
Of The Millionaire's Will: A Reconstruction
To Help Pass The Time" So, it's sorrow
by association. In true post-modern spirit
I digress into commentary on a 1927 b & w
horror film. Somewhere in there there's
the influence of Tranter. I'm tossing up
whether to "background" this piece.
No, I'll quote it in full & then elaborate,
simply noting that the long lines
do not best capture the short subtitles
that accompany silent movies but do suggest
the notion of linear narrative. Maybe
as you read the long-lined version
you can also visualize how it would
look were it segmented, chopped up:
"The late night silent classic for the real buffs.
Shot in '27. The director died two years later
Of blood poisoning. The screen throws a double image,
The UHF aerial failing, or the ghost of the director
Fermenting 'in-camera' with age. He has the cast
Lip-synching their way through a reading
Of an eccentric millionaire's will in a house
That his ghost has occupied for twenty years.
There is Mammy Patient, Susan & the famous
West Diamonds, Annabelle, Paul, & The Lawyer.
GHOSTS! The portrait falls to the floor.
Mammy inks her brow. The will
Mentions a distant relative & demands
Sanity. The lawyer disappears. The murderer-
Claw-fingered & with nails like razors
Is seen only by Susan, who must PROVE
Her sanity! The doctor with peculiar hands
Arouses suspicion. There's a moth in the safe
Though it's not been opened for twenty years!
And who hired the imposter asylum warder
Who's hunting a madman who tears
His victims as a cat does a canary?"
Strangely, this section stops here.
No witty line that might hint at resolution.
If the title is considered we might
reflect on the ruthlessness
of the participants.
An allegory of the twentieth century.
Or of the human condition generally?
It's been noted that the last stanza
of the final section
seems a little "tacked on".
But in the light of the second section maybe
it's a pretty obvious conclusion?
Part 3 ("Solarization-a celebration") reads:
"Sunrise.
My mind blank.
Spencer Gore's painting
The Icknield Way 1912
appears stereoscopic
on my glasses, or so
I'm told. A geometric
almost tabular sky
registers through a film
of brilliant light
as the train celebrates
the approaching city's
solarization.
The sky inflects
& organizes fancy:
the landscape bright,
explosive, threatens
to ignore the script."
"Organizes fancy"-it reminds me
of a review by James Dickey
on John Ashbery's first
collection of poetry.
I can't remember what he said exactly
but he hated the book.
I tracked the book down
& thought it was great.
But then I like Ashbery{'s poetry}.
There's something about his use of weirs,
I think.
I'm reminded of Vasari
talking of Leonardo
saying that he could find no living model
for the features for his head of Christ,
so it was best left incomplete. It existed in my files
as a kind of still life,
as a piece of dead nature
waiting for clarity,
hinting at de-
composition.


___

On Poetry

A Brief Poetics

It is often remarked of my body of writing that I work in two distinct streams: the experimental and the traditional (or "formal"). Michael Hulse, in his Introduction to my 1996 New & Selected Poems, The Undertow (Arc), says, "Critics have been quick to note that two bodies of work exist side by side in Kinsella's writing. Lyn Hejinian, distinguishing between the 'meditative, narrative' and the 'experimental', goes on to suggest that the difference is in fact an epistemological or temporal one. It is a point well made. Even so, I think Les Murray's famous distinction between the Athenian and the Boeotian is more fruitful in understanding Kinsella."

While understanding what both Hulse and Hejinian are recognising, I'd like to emphasise that there is a third body of work in which these two disparate elements are active. It is this work that I would see as the "true Kinsella". The poems that have been chosen by the editors of Artes from the batch I submitted in many ways belong to this third category. There are obvious meditative and narrative qualities in them, but there are also plays on language and form which I would consider in the context to be experimental. Of course it is not such apparent experimentalism as may be found in a poem such as Syzygy:

The point of impact
fabricates & inde
pend {ates} enhances - a disc plough
or slave cylinder
mixing mediums
with disaster
intra-personally: saltwash,
the creeks are storming

the river But there are plays with mode and content that separate them out from the "pastoral mode" to which they would normally be ascribed. I am fascinated by the effect modernism has had on the pastoral as a form. If we accept the general notion of a pastoral poem being an idyllicising of the rural by the comparatively urban poet, then I see no place for it, in contemporary Australian poetry at least. Of course this definition is purely one of convenience, but what I am interested in denoting is the poetry of an environment that has been much altered and damaged by humans, particularly those who came with European settlement or, as I would prefer, "occupation". In the wrestling with this often harsh landscape, there are things worthy of admiration, but it is rarely idyllic. Australia tends to be a place of extremes, at least in my experience, be it drought or flood.

Much of my poetry is based in rural environments in which I have spent half my life; however, while admiring the grit and humour of those on the land, I am highly conscious of the fact that land "ownership" has come by way of disenfranchising and in many cases genocide. In my 1995 book, The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony, I explore the south-west Australian wheatbelt environment and character through perceptions of both the European pastoral and Romanticism. It is a book that many have commented is devoid of nostalgia, but still open to the possibility of contact with the players in this community.

On the other hand, my interest in linguistically experimental verse has evolved from an intense interest in what it is that constitutes a particular language. There are certain codes that go across not only all language groups but all artforms. This is the language between the lines, between the notes, or hidden in the folds of a sculpture, or within the frames of a painting.

Borrowing a term from postcolonial dialogue, I see this third body of work I referred to earlier as being a hybrid. By hybridising, I don't simply mean a mixing, or a production of a new strain from a set of specific "biological" material. A hybrid is not a possible next stage in a developmental sense, nor is it a "dilution" of the original. Nor is it a fusing of traditions. It is in fact a conscious undoing of the codes that constitute all possible readings of a text. It is a debasement of the lyrical I. It is a rejection not of frameworks but of contents. It recognises frames for what they are: empty shells. Charles Bernstein recently called this my Trojan Horse theory - get inside and dismantle. It is not an ideolectical poetry that replaces certain demarcations, borders, divisions, qualifications. In some sense it highlights those separations. I often use the sestina and villanelle. To utilise a traditional structure is to emphasise the undoing. The result is a denial that is cultural as well as linguistic, a refusal to accept that the component parts are relevant to the discourse. Suffice it to say, I believe that to be experimental one must have a thorough understanding of traditional forms!

Though my influences are wide and many, crossing the gamut from English poetry through European and Chinese poetry, and modern American poetry, there are a number of Australian poets I'd like to mention as having an influence either on my work or on that of my contemporaries. Les Murray and Dorothy Hewett are of course two, but there are also John Tranter, Robert Adamson, John Forbes, Gwen Harwood, Judith Wright and Gig Ryan.


____

from Genre

It was a very ill time to be sick
in, for if any one complained,
it was immediately said he had
the plague...

Journal of the Plague Year,
Daniel Defoe


I got a telescope and looked at
the sun and went blind for five
days. I caught lightning bugs,
lightning shows, sunsets and
followed animal tracks in the snow.
I had a kite. I used the telescope
to burn holes in newspapers.
The sun was brighter than I was.
God was everywhere and I was
desperate. I sniffed gasoline
and saw clowns and goblins
in the clouds.

Dennis Hopper


In the Theatre of the Imagination all but one of the eight stages are occupied - and even on the unoccupied stage possibilities are establishing themselves and probabilities undoing themselves. It's nearing six in the evening. The Renaissance Man is writing an essay on an exhibition and thinking about his latest book on aesthetics. He gets up and washes his hands. His thoughts are interrupted by the video machine in his head which keeps replaying Blue Velvet. His thoughts are interrupted by an idea for a play, by his child rolling on the floor and complaining of boredom, by the likelihood that his wife is reading the letters he's left intentionally on top of the filing cabinet. They are photocopies of his original letters to publishers, writers, artists, academic colleagues ... even movie stars. There are also other documents - drafts of essays, notes, private thoughts and so on. He wonders if the sin of reading them is greater than the sin of constructing such a temptation. He thinks of the letters to "..." he's inserted at regular intervals. He knows they'll annoy her. His wife, the novelist, is working on her Ghoul manuscript. The student in flat five is preparing to leave, he is reading Descartes, in English translation, and intermittently returning to a draft of his first book - a science fiction novel with the working title Lens. He's quite handsome, one might let oneself think, in a stray moment. Though he watches your every step. It's best to pretend to keep your eyes averted. It's best that way. The "girls" are getting dressed. One of them is thinking how much she hates sex. They've both just snorted a line of speed. The bitter taste is just entering the back of their throats and they both, occasionally, snort like pigs. The steroid-hungry guy in flat six is frustrated and starting a journal on the advice of his therapist, his girlfriend is writing up her case study notes; the woman whose child has been removed by the Department is frantically trying to prepare a vase of flowers for possible visitors/ intruders over the weekend while her boyfriend, the addict, is reading Slide Show - a cult drug novella; the Indonesian couple are arguing. Outside it is overcast, inside it is humid. The temperature is diffident. Just cool enough to give a chill when the skin is laid bare. But these are only one set of possibilities - other essays are being written and read, other fictional works being started and completed, alternative life-studies compiled, other relationships evolving or decaying, other tenants moving in and through and out of the eight sets of spaces. The block is a Venn Diagram of fictions and exegeses. Common ground and neutral ground being reterritorialized, edited. There is no room for the author, and only through eavesdropping, surveying the contents, can the reader evolve within the text. I've nothing to apologise for. Fuck! That bastard down there is so up himself. I keep an eye on things around here! An eye on things. And if I let them know what I know, they'd be worried. Omnia in pondere et numero et mensura disposuit Deus. It strikes me that the Plague and exhibitions that purport to represent the richness and diversity of art practice in Western Australia are similar in nature. I feel for the artists, who have been hoodwinked in their desire to be represented as part of the cultural process in their place of working, and exhibiting, who will be assumed to have the Plague when in fact they are merely struck with a sickness that comes with living with the system that feeds, if not creates, the virus. It's not his area, field of expertise, they might say. Apollinaire, O'Hara come to mind by way of a riposte. He's at it again. Dropping phone books. My daughter is rolling around in the corridor claiming, or accusing, boredom. I've a deadline to meet on my review. My wife is sealed in the bedroom, trapped in rewrites of Ghoul. They feed on the dead, you know ... especially on children." It's Friday night so the girls next door will be partying soon. Weekends are "speed time". Dance music reverberating against the walls. At least it'll give Bam Bam something to go on about, though they've got big boyfriends and he's a coward. He'll keep at us, make us pay for it tomorrow when the girls have gone out. Next week we've got to get the final proofs for Poetry Journal in to the printers. Ashbery faxed a couple of new poems through last night. They're good. The student - defeated by Bam Bam's intimidations - is moving out this weekend. He came down and offered us some of his university text books. Doesn't need them anymore. He offered Descartes's Discourse on Method in translation, we've got it in the French. He was impressed by this, but I said don't be, it's rubbish in both languages. He said he'd reread it tonight as his television's gone back to the rental people. "It is three years since I arrived at the end of the Treatise which contained all these things; and I was commencing to revise it in order to place it in the hands of a printer...

     from Genre (Fremantle Arts Centre, 1998)

Reception Poetry? from a correspondence between John Kinsella and Charles Bernstein

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