18 June, 2012Issue 19.5LiteraturePoetry

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Movements of the Earth

Chloe Stopa-Hunt

BritishJohn Kinsella
Picador, 2011
128 pages
ISBN: 978-0330511841


Environmentalism is a Janus among leftist movements, bound to the countryside in its present form but imbued with a consciousness, like Gerard Manley Hopkins in “Binsey Poplars”, that the lasting loss is to the future: “After-comers cannot guess the beauty been”. Much of John Kinsella’s prodigious literary output (he has written more than 30 books) has been informed, even directed, by a politicised ethical drive away from the widespread belief—which Kinsella seems to regard as morally and intellectually negligent—that human damage to the environment is inevitable and, if not neutral, unmeriting of outright critique. Kinsella offers such critique in spades and at times stridently, a faltering of tone that no doubt seems justifiable to this self-styled poet of the environment. Yet his latest collection, Armour, is much more than a bouquet of left-leaning philippics. The book was nominated for the T.S. Eliot prize—a nomination which Kinsella, like Alice Oswald, turned down because of disquiet about the award’s sponsorship—and it is a collection full of bright attention to the flowering and withering movements of the earth.

A case in point is “Wattle”, a luminous piece included in a series of “Lyrics or Caveats Written on Indian Pacific Train Travelling from Perth to Adelaide”. It conjures the “yellow light / yellow rattle // of stamens and pollen”, but Kinsella accepts (as he does throughout Armour) that the visual cannot be met in an unconstructed form. Indeed, the wattle “lures / us into sacred // utterances”—sight calls forth speech and poem answers vision. Yet for Kinsella, this inescapable relation is still an uneasy one:

the yellow light
is not bright
enough, or stress

the yellow light
is too bright,
far too bright
for our limited sight.

It has never been easy to work with the Skeltonic short line in English, and it is especially hard in an age that has seen so many varieties of minimalism. Kinsella is an assured writer in formal terms, however; and the quick, tumbling rhyme that he uses here seems an apt choice, as though the poem’s twists were sparked by flashing glimpses of landscape seen from a train window. “Wattle” is a poem that does not settle, either into the melancholy that closes many of Kinsella’s lyrical narratives or into an achieved connection with the landscape.

This poised irresolution is perceptible in other strong poems from Armour. “The Vitiation of Presence” unpicks the strangeness of museums, their frozen illustrations of past lives. It concludes with a vision of the meeting, half-hopeful and half-pitiful, between mannequin and human viewer:

Dolls for all seasons, bringing fear
and comfort in equal measure. We reach out to touch
their hair and strike the glass which is so much closer
than it seems. In old gaols, judges and prisoners
vitiate each other’s presences and we stay silent.

Several of Kinsella’s guiding techniques are apparent here, from the anecdotal arc of the poem to the characteristically compassionate insights into intergenerational difficulties, above all in rural contexts (Kinsella condemns neither the “smart-arsed son” nor his father, the critical farmer). Yet if this is a poem that uses the inhuman symbol of a mannequin to plumb the delicate psychological qualities of humanness, it is also richly textured in literary terms. “Dolls for all seasons” is not only a distant refashioning of the famous opening to chapter three of Ecclesiastes—”To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”—but also a closer evocation of Robert Whittington’s 1520 description of Sir Thomas More as “a man for all seasons.” The effect of the poem is akin to that of Berryman’s Dream Songs, which are “not meant to be understood […] / They are only meant to terrify and comfort”.

Whether or not Kinsella seeds such echoes into his poems deliberately is less important than the effect that these quasi-allusive moments produce: although poems like “Hyperbole” half-mock the author’s self-fashioning as a “Poète engagé“, Armour is sometimes polemical and occasionally folksy, so the enrichment of these subtler notes is needed. It is noteworthy that Kinsella speaks again of seasons, not least because he has already analysed their poetic validity in a tri-partite piece called “Easterlies” earlier in the collection. This poem is dedicated to the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, whose work has long been driven by a commitment to environmentalism reminiscent of Kinsella’s own. The image of man’s transactional contact with the world that it lays out is striking:

Glitter and fallout.
As others add layers
to keep it out, I stay
in my t-shirt

braced and withered,
gleaning sensation
as my frame shakes,
ribs against the sun,

selfishly gathering
the harsh and the sharp,
windward – numb –
a windsock in the adjacent

paddock braced red,
shout narrowing to where
the wind is going,
going, gone.

This is an openness that has little in common with the “English” notion of Keatsian negative capability. The speaker is up against it, caught by the poem’s freeze-frame in a moment that is defiantly self-chosen, perhaps painful, stitched with ecstasy, and full, in the end, of loud transience. Although the poem presents its scene observationally, it nevertheless has an exemplary air. Kinsella considers his landscape poetry to be oppositionally related to nature poetry in its Wordsworthian, self-magnifying sense, and the note that prevents this section of “Easterlies” from feeling like a “spot of time” (which, in many respects, it is) is Kinsella’s explicit acceptance of the selfishness that inheres even in apparent loss of self—the hunger within human openness. The end of “Easterlies” is analytical:

It’s easy to think seasons –
ironic schemes of things –

of an elegiac

The singular quality of Kinsella is that although he apprehends all the eventualities that might inspire and justify an elegiac pastoral, he does not write one; such a suborning of the world to a psychodrama of personal or collective human loss is apparently intolerable to him, the worst sort of literary sleight-of-hand. Even when most doubtful about his own project, in “Idyllatry”—”This is my swan song. I’ve nothing / more to add to the litany, the testament”—he honours the disjunction between literature, feeling, and behaviour:

I cherish the action of the flora and fauna,
but have nothing to observe that might
traumatise those around me into

preserving the habitat.

A poem called “Habitat” makes precisely the same point as “Idyllatry”, but this shorter piece lacks subtlety: “False elegies turned on a lathe / enslave the grave clarity of the glorious day / you enlist as scenario”. Kinsella is on shakier poetic ground when he turns to abstractions without a leaven either of realism or of the sharply lyrical observation that distinguishes the best pieces in the collection, including “Megamouth Shark”, “Blue-ringed Octopi”, and “Metal Horse Sculpture in Northam Town Park”. The sculpted horse is a “war-weary soul sealed / in metal”, rooted in a park where it “hears / no birds, though white swans and crows ring / its bells”. Like the mannequins, its presence provokes oddly tender responses: “some want the ear to bend their way, stroking / the bright mane and whispering / to someone lost, elusive – best-kept secrets.”

Armour is a collection that seems aware of the difficulties and failures of communication, ranging from these shy attempts at making a connection with some unhearing artefact to the metapoetic challenges of the medium. Several poems deal sensitively with childhood language. In “The Inversion of Simonides’ Line about the Sun”, a schoolboy weeps for the land—”His reality”—from which he is exiled, learning the discipline of “a language / he neither reads nor writes”. “[I]t explains who you are, / where you come from“, the teachers insist, but this is a child who needs no explanation—though Kinsella avoids taking a crudely anti-linguistic stance, doubtless aware that a poem cannot deny its materials without risking bathos. “Words of Power” at first seems like a poem where the idea (in this case, the child’s acquisition of a high-status linguistic toolkit by memorising a vocabulary book) is much better than the poetry in which it is executed, but it is redeemed by an increasingly robust sense of comedy as polysyllabic monstrosities acquire vernacular interruptions and glosses: “I am pertinacious, he laughed, / and it rocks.”

This is a thoughtful book and a heartfelt one. It contains two moving elegies for the poet Peter Porter, informed by a sense of kinship that owes as much to shared migration as to shared original nationality. Porter has received a number of admirable tributes from leading poets, and Kinsella’s elegies can be interestingly read alongside those in Sean O’Brien’s November (2011). In his concern for landscape, his profound emotional investment in the life of the earth, Kinsella never loses touch with the human, though he is at times frustrated with it and even disgusted. Above all, these poems evince a sympathy that takes in humanity and goes beyond it, finding a crisp, affective language in which to describe predation (“owls consume mice, sacks of bone”), colour (“Inside the sun is the blue of our souls. / All other colours are fed by blue”), and destruction (“the almond tree died so intensely / it lost all moisture”). Kinsella sees vividly and charts what he sees, but the active drive for preservation in the poems runs through all their descriptive brightness. In a short poem, “Caveat”, from the extended sequence of “Lyrics or Caveats Written on Indian Pacific Train Travelling from Perth to Adelaide”, his snapshot of rain-lashed trees contracts into an imperative at once affectionate and commanding:

When it rains hard they drum a bold
message, and when the wind stirs
through these sacred woodlands
they pipe like great church organs.
That’s your patois.
Understand. Understand.

The ethical poetics of Armour never relent. Kinsella sends a stern message because he wants to—because he is writing with an urgency born of fear. Yet the poems are often disarmingly tender, as if the best office their author can do the earth is to write about it with the beauty words allow.

Chloe Stopa-Hunt graduated in 2010 with a BA in English from New College, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.