John Kinsella: On the Outskirts

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2017, 123pp.

For readers daunted by the sheer size of John Kinsella’s poetic output (not to mention the at-least-superficially unappetising “experimental” books, beginning with Syzygy and finishing up with the recent publication of a three volume collected Graphology series) this new volume probably provides a welcoming introduction. If you want to get exposed to the hyperactive Kinsella poetic world, On the Outskirts (together with the earlier Jam Tree Gully) can be recommended as a good place to start. Most of the distinctive Kinsella obsessions are there but the poems themselves work in ways that will be familiar to most readers of contemporary poetry.

The title itself is suggestive given the degree to which Kinsella’s attention has been devoted to a block of land in Western Australia, at first five acres below Mt Bakewell (Walwalinj) and later a plot at Jam Tree Gully. The poems of this new book derive from a period spent in Tübingen and some are set in the south west of Ireland. It’s tempting to think of the title as a humorous inversion of the Australian cultural cringe whereby what was once one of the centres of Western intellectual culture, the home of Hölderlin among many others, is reduced to being an outpost of Western Australia. Actually the situation is considerably more complex than that and readers of Kinsella’s other books will remember that the interaction between being ”at home” and being “away” is a complex one. Being in Europe, as he says in one of the prose pieces that make up Auto, “will only make me look closer at what’s here. The further you move away, the closer you get.” And many of the early poems of Firebreaks, which is something of a lengthy addendum to Jam Tree Gully, explore a sense of exile in England. The third poem of On the Outskirts, which begins “I can only be here – there’s nowhere else / I can be at present”, is an extended meditation on what belonging and inhabiting mean, especially in the case of imaginative inhabiting:

I am not of here and a few months (un)mapping
won’t make it so. But I am building a mental
picture, a lyrical self winding out into histories

I can’t grasp, don’t want to mark me. They have.
It’s not contained. I was here when a child
playing medieval knights with the boy

from primary school with “gigantism”.
And at other times. I am temporary
in the wheatbelt . . .

That “(un)mapping” recurs in a later poem in which, walking through rural Ireland and being met by vaguely suspicious locals, he comments, “Been in the village on & off // for three years now . . . . . I am back to fit it all together, this bits ‘n’ pieces (un)belonging”.

One feature will prove unusual for beginners. Kinsella has a tendency to involve (in complex ways that I’ll speak about a little later) other texts at a conceptual level. Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography (a 2008 book also published by the University of Queensland Press) worked its way through Dante, re-arranging the order of the three books as it dealt with life in the West Australian wheatbelt. The New Arcadia “took off” from Sidney’s text and Jam Tree Gully from Thoreau. On the Outskirts begins each poem with a reference not to the Commedia itself but to Blake’s set of illustrations made in preparation for a series of engravings and uncompleted at his death. As you get to know the poems better, it’s natural to explore the interaction between poem and its illustration.

I’ll begin by looking at a poem that appears about a third of the way through the book. It is set, like most of the poems here, in Germany, and deals with the Swabian Fasnet processions. Its illustration is of Blake’s sketch of Dante and Virgil, in Canto XX of Inferno, looking down at the pit of the false prophets and soothsayers whose bodies are twisted at the neck so that they can only look backwards. This is one of Dante’s ironic punishments where the mechanism of retribution says to these sinners: “As you spent your lives thinking you could look ahead, so in Hell you’ll always look backwards”:

Witches with heads on their backs
fixating on those marching behind,
luring them on up into the Old Town.

Old Wehrmacht helmets with horns,
skin-greaves and hooves, the fools
march without giving way. The guilds

ply their trades. When the Duke
banned “pagan mischief” he held back
an outburst that has students festooned

with fox furs, heads lolling, to band
together and shout-sing, “Sieg Heil”.
That’s what’s frightening. Not the witches.
. . . . .
I saw Manto with green hair. She was gasping
for air, her Geiger counter in the red. Those clustered
around her hooted and shouted, driven to a frenzy

by her example of a good time. The fate of a war prize.
Sealed in a room I can hear their ranting. For the fools,
those outside the club are aliens, even enemies.

Malevolence always knows this future. But the sheer
pleasure of letting loose, of indulging fat beneath skins,
brings a smile to children’s faces. Who begrudges?

Many cigar-ends smoulder on the snow-melt streets.
Visitors feel they are having an authentic Swabian experience.
This is culture. The bells can be deafening on Sunday.
              Look forward, not back?

The Fasnet processions are one of those Carnival/Lords of Misrule events that occur in many cultures. It’s an immensely complex subject (about which I’m fairly ignorant) because what seems like a basic impulse – that an underclass is best controlled by giving it a brief time as the dominant culture – is inflected by the almost infinite complexities of difference in cultures. Thus the Mardi Gras processions clearly derive from a period in which slaves mount their own parody of their masters, electing their own temporary rulers or kings. In Hawaii the year was divided into periods ruled by the God of War and then the God of Peace – no mere week of inversion here but several months. In Europe it is often a period devoted not to slaves but to fools. The Fasnet seems to be a mix of fools and other, slightly sinister social outcasts like witches and demons.

Whereas Kinsella’s ethical stance is usually very clear, not to say insistent, it is possible to read the tone of this poem in a number of different ways. The most obvious is as one of criticism: in these celebrations everything ugly and destructive is brought shamelessly to the surface where an outsider, someone “sealed in a room”, can see it for what it is. In a German city there is the additional issue that the horror of Nazism was exactly such an emergence of dark forces writ large on a political level. So chanting “Sieg Heil” is far more frightening than anything witches can do and the procession is a kind of wish-fulfilment of malevolence itself – “Malevolence always knows this future”. The poem says “Who begrudges?” when speaking of visitors seeing an echt Swabian cultural event and locals letting their hair down, and you can feel that the poet is one of those who do begrudge, seeing the tolerant response – kids big and small having fun – as lazy and inherently dangerous. And what are we to make of the question in the final line? It could be saying that such a procession looks back to the dark past when they should be looking forward to a world hopefully dominated by the sort of intelligent resistance that Kinsella approves of. It could be asking Germans to embrace the environmental issues of the future.

Some of my sense that the tone is a little more complex than simple disapprobation might arise because, as a reader, I’m inclined to view things like this a bit more benevolently. If humanity’s dark side is always present in every individual – and Kinsella’s poetry often frankly acknowledges this, seeing in the brainless animal-shooting hoons of rural Western Australia contemporary incarnations of himself as a young man – taking this dark side for a walk and giving it an airing is one way of controlling it to some extent. This is the “pressure-valve” theory and is surely justified when one looks at the origins and functions of these ceremonies on a global scale and thinks of the fate of the Spartans, for example, who never granted their helots such a festival, choosing periodic increases of repression instead. In this view there is almost something comforting in the cries of “Sieg Heil” because the pressure valve theory means that individuals are encouraged to shout obscenities and shouting out a Nazi salute rather than a sexual obscenity means that you register it as the ultimate transgression – and that must be a good of some kind, even if a very limited one.

Perhaps I’m being too optimistic about the subject of this poem but the issue of past, present and future is a crucial one in On the Outskirts and one shouldn’t pass over lightly the references to Manto in this particular poem. In Inferno, Virgil expatiates at some length about the prophetess, Manto, because she is the founder of the town in which he was born – Mantua having been built over her bones. But there is something odd and interesting about Dante’s guide, master and inspiration deriving his origins from a town built on the bones of a liar and, significantly, the account Virgil gives of the origins of Mantua in The Aeneid is not the same as the account he gives in Inferno. It may be drawing a long bow to see this theme of deceitful origins as being part of this Fasnet poem but the theme of the link between past and present as one of conversion is present. And, at the very least, the inclusion of Manto raises the issue of one’s home, something perpetually in Kinsella’s sights.

Before leaving this poem it is worthwhile looking at some of its structural features since they are typical of many of the poems in this book. It begins and ends with the idea of looking back: the “witches with heads on their backs” are, presumably, people done up in costumes which have either two heads – one pointing forward and one back – or only one, backward facing one. In a sense “looking back” becomes the generative core of the poem. In another poem which begins with the fact that bats refused to return to the attic of a castle once it had been “renovated” and introduces the issue of asylum seekers, the key term is “welcome” (the last line is “All Gods welcome!”). In the poem based on the illustration to Canto XXIX which deals with both a nuclear plant but also with Kinsella’s own work – “I cannot write what I was going to write / without this leaking in” – these last two words are the core; and a very complex poem late in the book begins with the Tübingen town clock and ends with an elderly homeless woman bedding down for the night near the church and looking at her watch. This poem is notable for a particularly striking transition. In speaking of horologues and clocks, Kinsella recalls time spent in the clock section of the British museum – Rooms 38 and 39 – and then shifts to lines 38 and 39 in the relevant canto of Paradiso which describe how Peter, by faith, was able to walk over water. The poem deals with this sudden (and, to a reader, illogical shift) by saying “I can hear the sea in a clock. The stroke of small / waves on sharp rocks”.

The point of these examples is that there is a lot of unifying of complex material going on. These poems are shapely and elegant, not adjectives that you would expect to use in discussing Kinsella’s poetry. And on the subject of Kinsella’s poems as poetic objects, it is worthwhile noting that almost all of them work at the same speed, at a steady allegro. Surprisingly this occurs even in those reasonably rare poems which are in set forms. Whereas we might expect these forms (sestinas, villanelles, triolets and, more recently, penillions – an improvised form deriving from Welsh) to impose their own pace, they too are swept up in the same intense assertive briskness.

For first time readers of Kinsella’s work, this method of basing the poems on Blake’s illustrations to Dante will seem odd and illogical. Since the poems of Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography took their cue from Dante’s actual text, using Blake’s illustrations seems like a kind of addendum or incremental modulation. You could imagine them asking: What next? Poems based on critics’ comments about Blake’s work? Or poems based on the work of artists influenced by Blake? The fact is that the process is a little more logical than this. In the first place, Kinsella’s books, going back to Night Parrots of 1989, have always been interested in using art as a jumping-off point (though that crude adjective obscures a lot of very complex imaginative activity). Initially it is the paintings of Arthur Boyd but by the time of his third book, Full Fathom Five, there is a sequence of poems related to photographs by Muybridge and Max Dupain and to paintings by Jackson Pollock. Art and text get to be connected in Kinsella’s imagination in powerful ways: you feel that the boundary between the visual and the verbal is much more porous than it is in the brains of those of us who are less “creative”. In a similar way, Blake’s art and poems have always been present. There is an interesting poem in Night Parrots called “Dissertation on a Flea” which is bookended by quotations from The Book of Urizen. Blake, I think, stands for the idea of the infinite powers of the imagination: as an influence he encourages poets not to think of careful deployments of imagery prompted by intuition or logic, but to begin with the idea that all images are possible, in fact anything the mind can create is a usable poetic possibility. Kinsella’s imagination – as his poetry demonstrates – is enormous, even hyperactive, and the process of linking intense personal experience with texts that are, to most readers, entirely unrelated, makes perfect sense given the set-up of his way of thinking. I would be inclined to think of these links as metaphoric and distinguish them from the metonymic links to Thoreau in Jam Tree Gully. There the connections are logical since Thoreau is also writing a diary-like documentation of his life on the land. But it may be that a more sophisticated approach to tropes is needed. In Kinsella’s Divine Comedy individual poems are often called “distractions” of Dante’s work (presumably in the earlier sense of “drawn awry”) and once in On the Outskirts, the word “template” is used. Here the poem titles speak of being “on”, “in” or “and” a particular illustration, though one is “through” and the final poem is “with a glimmer of Blake’s illustration to Dante’s Paradise, Canto 31”.

On the Outskirts is able to progress through its Blake-inflected Dante in the correct order of canticles. Divine Comedy was forced to alter the order and begin with Purgatorio, not only because the plot of land focussed on was under a mountain and Purgatory is a mountain in Dante but also – presumably – because an ecstatic, paradisal conclusion would have been quite out of keeping with the book’s generally pessimistic account of Mt Bakewell and its inhabitants and visitors. The serendipitous connection in Germany derives from the war-time resistance movement of Hans and Sophie Scholl, a perfectly aryan brother and sister who refused to turn their gaze away from the persecution of Jews and yet practiced non-violent resistance. These, true icons for the present, are commemorated in Tübingen’s Scholl-Sibling-Square where – the epigraph to the poem tells us – two fountains which had been removed by the Nazis to facilitate their mass rallies were remade and re-installed in 1999. The name of the Scholl’s resistance movement was “The White Rose”, perfect for the conclusion of Dante, and the poem begins with the dry fountains, covered in snow, recalling white roses:

The fountains are dry. But then late snow falls on them
and they briefly turn into white roses. Brother and sister fountains.
Resurrected. Students buzz around, checking their phones,

comparing marks, joking about Ordnung society
they will graduate into . . .

This isn’t the last poem in the book. There are three “epilogues” and, lest we be too upbeat about the future, the final poem is a translation of Jakob van Hoddis’s marvellously mad envisioning of apocalypse, “Weltende” (“The World’s End”). Hoddis himself (whose real name was Hans Davidsohn) was a Jew who developed serious psychiatric problems and so had no chance in Nazi Germany: he died in Sobibor.

It’s conventional to distinguish, as Kinsella himself has done, between, on the one hand, the bulk of his work, and on the other his “experimental” poetry, included in books like Syzygy, Erratum / Frame(d) and Graphology. I have to say that I find this second group, with its language orientation, unengaging and I will leave any comment about them for another time when I can revisit them (all critics know that you learn as much by looking carefully at what you dislike as you do by investigating your likes). There is a case to be made that Kinsella’s truest experiments are in the area of how to get his specific land and his specific responses to it into poetry. The early books, while still bearing the imprint of Kinsella’s potent imaginative leaps, tend to mine it for its extremity as though this was a guarantor of authenticity. But successfully getting place, whether it is the Wheatbelt, a German city or an Irish coastal town, into poetry as well as it is done in On the Outskirts is the fruit of a long career of increasingly successful experiments.