John Kinsella: Supervivid Depastoralism

[Sydney]: Vagabond Press, 2021, 144pp.

Supervivid Depastoralism is Vagabond Press’s contribution to getting the prodigious output of John Kinsella into print. It’s an output that seems to require several publishers just to keep up with the author. Its unusual title is also something of a guide, reminding readers that they are going to be exposed to a very complex and highly idiosyncratic approach to the ecological state of the current world and the reactions of one poet living inside it: each of its two words is a neologism pressed into service to play a role in Kinsella’s view of things. It’s the kind of title that doesn’t appeal to the sort of publishers who hope their books will appear on bestseller lists: I’m reminded of the story that Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar had to have, in its English translation, the grotesque title The Beloved Returns because American publishers were worried about a title in which two of the three words would not be familiar to their hoped-for audience. Or perhaps they hoped financiers would buy the book having misread “returns” as a noun rather than a verb.

Seen from a wide perspective, Kinsella’s poetry is largely about the “environment”, that is, the natural world in relation to our treatment of it. But his perspective is ethical as well as ecological, focussing on that old issue of how we should live in the world. Readers’ first experience of this poetry is often to be numbed by the complexity of its analysis, the continual dragging in of new perspectives often reduced thereafter to nonce words: as the title demonstrates. There is some truth in this but beneath it you sense that this poetry is more personal than analytical, more doubting than dogmatic. It’s possible even to see it as a poetry of the self, but a self inhabiting a crumbling environment. Someone like John Clare, faced with the early horrors of the Industrial Revolution might make an analogy, though, as we’ll see, it’s a Hungarian poet whom Kinsella chooses.

At its simplest level, Kinsella’s position is, as various of the poems assert, vegan, pantheist and pacifist. One should disturb the natural processes of the world as little as possible. This might be an almost Jain-like position although in that religion it is the belief in reincarnation which demands that devotees never damage the creatures of the world. But to even mention the Jains raises the issue of limits, something that occurred to me in my reading of Kristen Lang’s book in last month’s review where there seems an absolute break between living creatures and, say, rocks. In Kinsella’s case I wonder at what point interactions “impingings” become insignificant. If you are careful with rabbits should you be careful with mosquitoes? If you are careful with mosquitoes should you be careful with mites? And so on. He is obviously driven to fury by the crassest end of the scale: mining companies destroying country deemed to be unproductive, pastoralists employing mass herbicides, morons shooting native animals. These are at a macro scale and produce a mixture of anger and despair that runs through much of his poetry. It raises the question “What should be done?” but that isn’t quite the same question as “How should I live?” and it’s in the answer(s) to the latter questions that this poetry become most engaging. The major decision is, ethically, to allow all orders of creation their right to exist and to respect their unique and, finally, incomprehensible way of grasping their world. One of the long poems in the book, “Cultivating a Testament: Bending Space” has a fine description of this sensitivity to, especially, birds:

. . . . . 
As light bends
as we see around
the corner of a tree
the bark-piercing
grubber, a magpie code-
breaker as all magpies

see around the limits
of the age so determined
with space a song-reach
a warning a call a consensus
or a tyranny: what’s a yellow-
plumed honeyeater if you watch
without seeing the way

air and light shift
to accommodate its exquisite
presence its claim and no claim
which is what you aspire to
but are stuck in an XY co-
ordinate’s dimensional thinking? 

Pressing the physicist’s notion of the deformation of space-time by mass into an explanation of the way in which all observer’s affect, even if only slightly, the objects they study, may be drawing a long bow here but the point is a good one. The Kinsella mode of living at a practical level will involve respect of difference and as little impingement as possible. It comes in to play when decisions about all aspects of life have to be made: should water be trucked in during a dry spell, for example, or how does one discourage rabbits from burrowing under the foundations of one’s house. But again the issue of limits arises. It’s hard for a reader not to notice that the orders of animals such as birds don’t behave with the same thoughtful care: in the insect world birds are as rapacious and brutal as humans are in their own world. Should one save a bird rather than a fly? If so, why? Don’t flies have their own beautiful “presence”? I don’t think these are objections to the way of life Kinsella is exploring, but I can’t help but feel that a lot of ways of thinking about our environment involve value-derived chains of importance which are only another way in which humans have imposed themselves on things: I’m not sure there is a “natural” order.

This concern with how we should live leads to what has always seemed to me that the most important issue in the poetry of disaster: the positioning of the individual (in this case, poets) and his own stake in the events. One of the features that makes Supervivid Depastoralism such a good collection is that the caustic analytical perspective is turned on the author as well. A simple example might be “Poiesis: Whistler!” in which Kinsella reminds himself that there are many reductive forces hampering the mind and imagination’s desire to be properly attuned to the immensity of experience. These will “close myself off” and may be no more than simple physical issues: “bothered by the glare the overly bright day and my eyes / losing focus which interrupts even stuffs-up my hearing”. But this is followed by a shift in which there are a set of accusations that might be made by outsiders but also might be made by the poet himself “I am second guessing I am filling in the song I am stacking / up my outdoors cred my exposure to the surprises of classification . . .”

All this of course is worrying about issues at the ethical/intellectual level. At the poetic level regular readers of Kinsella’ work will have noticed that poems are often built up out of surprising conjunctions. True, some are logically explicable, usually as metaphors, so that the domestic issue of rabbits undermining foundations (“Destabilising (The) Pastoral” and “Eclogue of Shoring Up”) moves to issues of how to deal with larger scale destruction. But just as I’m always interested when the logical gap between the two parts of a metaphor becomes almost unbridgeably wide, so I’m also interested in experiences that are yoked together (to borrow Johnson’s phrase) in unlikely ways. Such moments I think tell us a lot about a poet’s cast of mind. In Kinsella’s poetry you get a sense of just how intense the mind’s activity is by the sheer unlikeliness of connection. “Decoding a Tartini Violin Concerto” for example connects the music with water seeping from a valley wall and the book’s longest and most expository poem, “Late Sunlift Testament While Listening to SYR4 (Christian Wolff)” also joins its meditations to a piece of music. Again, detractors (Dr Johnson would have undoubtedly been one) will claim that this is nothing but mere quirkiness whereas I find in it the pressure of an immensely active intelligence that really isn’t interested in notions of aesthetic propriety. An interesting poem of this sort is the dauntingly titled “’Screech Owl’ (Eastern Barn Owl) During Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician”. Here Bergman’s wonderful meta-film which never denies the possibility of magic (and explores its effects wonderfully) while continually deconstructing it and showing its artifices gets pushed up against the cry of the owl to argue (as I read it) that the magic of the natural world is of an order that doesn’t need to be interpreted from the human perspective of occult powers. It derives from the alternate universe of the natural world’s methods of operating:

. . . . . 
its mesmerist’s eyes uncloaking night
to show what forces don’t have to be

harnessed as “powers” but are there in their
own rights and not ours to own any more

than their own splice of surprise and apprehension,
and wonder and rodent fear, a most bizarre

mix of compulsion and tendency,
of dark matter and body heat.

Another feature of Supervivid Depastoralism that might conceivably come under the heading of conjunctions are the appearances of two other poets, Miklós Radnóti and Les Murray. If they are conjunctions there is nothing strikingly unusual about them, however. Radnóti is a fascinating presence in this poetry: a poet himself obsessed by the pastoral form of the eclogue who was murdered by his own people having been worked to exhaustion as a Jewish labourer during the war. He continued to write poetry throughout this period in extremis and his last “eclogues” were found in a notebook on his body when it was exhumed two years later. It’s not hard to imagine any poet in the accelerating natural disasters of today finding here some kind of image not only of what might happen to a poet but of how a poet might respond by writing obsessively as the light fails. One poem of Kinsella’s describes the relationship as a bond returned to after a quarter-century and “Thinking Over the Missing Sixth Eclogue of Miklós Radnóti” begins with a passage summarising the situation of contemporary poets:

There are many poets voicing
out of isolation or demi-isolation
or ranging about around isolation: all types.
How silent we are together in our lonely speech,
our shouting into disrupted winds, the range of spread . . .

The second poet is also a ghost figure: Les Murray. Two poems engage with him directly, one as elegy and the other as dream. The first of these, “Elegy for Les on a Stormy Night and the Next Morning (Breaking a Drought)” is an impressive piece confronting immediately the differences between these two poets obsessed by landscape and pastoralism before moving on to focus on what they shared. Murray of course was inclined to blame issues of rural degradation on an urbanised middle-class. In his “The 41st Year of 1968”, recent bushfires were blamed on developments out of hippy culture which refused to allow “settler-style clear felling” of native trees, and destructive industrialised farming was seen as deriving from overseas meat-eating habits, “a London red-shift / on the flesh-eating graphs”. As Kinsella’s poem says, “Leaning, / we might have talked it over, disagreeing / on whom and what to blame . . .” In the later poem, Murray reappears in a dream in which he wants to discuss the previous poem:

. . . . . 
I am obviously bothered because we discussed weather
in my elegy and changes of weather in the state of death,
and I said that the only states I recognise are states of matter.
It was a dream in which birdsong from different parts
of the earth drifted or cut in, and we remarked on their
perspicuity in terms of the travelled words we were using.
You asked after family and friends and I said, I never

knew your family beyond what you told me, Les. And you
said, All the voices are in there and that is my job.
It is my job still, I wished he’s added, but he didn’t . . .

This is the dream presence of a ghost but Murray appears in an even more insubstantial way in Supervivid Depastoralism in a couple of places in other poems where moments of style sound very like Murray’s own poetry. The poem I have spoken about briefly before in which a screech owl interrupts the watching of a Bergman film, has a passage

. . . . .
It’s an interruption that opens hope for all works
and nights of valley ways, the small community

of disassociation and its edgy living, its distress
of semi-older ways . . .

where the phrase “its edgy living” recalls a line of Murray’s (though I can’t at the moment place it). And when one of the poems of “Graphology Surroundings” says that a red wattle bird is “working / its terrain” this inevitably recalls the wonderful sentence, used as a title in “Birds in the Title Work Freeholds of Straw” from the “Walking to the Cattle Place” sequence. The former may be no more than a distant, ghostly echo, but I read the latter as a deliberate allusion in homage.

Radnóti and Murray are specific poets. Poets in general don’t fare so well in Supervivid Depastoralism. As part of the “Arts” in general they must sustain the charge of complicity. It is powerfully put in “Memory and ‘Consolidation’”:

Growing up in an era of settler
“consolidations” where each trail
is re-opened or built-over and each
building rebuilt and each hardship replayed,
“we” trace heritage with funding.

Which is not to diminish any form
of suffering, but to question motives
of fact vs. pathos, The Arts underwritten -
support of consolidation: artistry
and adroitness, so much work
of flair with little protest but plenty

of self-affirmation. Each policy shift
accommodates as much as needs be taken
in to maintain the best interests of the established,
the flow of profits. It’s that base, that ugly. That lyrical. . .

One of poetry’s potent drives – to accurately realise the natural world in words – is also questioned in “Pivots”:

. . . . . 
All “Art” pivots but is it overly satisfied
with its own rise and fall, its accomplishment
of mimicking wing and leg, appendages and hesitations
or tipping into a pastoral reclusivity
because it claims to be able to feed so many? . . .

And one of the angrier, darker poems at the last part of the book speaks harshly of poetry’s obsession with itself, presumably in the dynamics of its history as well as in the way an art looks at itself as it is composed:

. . . . . 
Poetry having so little to do – really – with the pastoral, it rabbits-
on about changes to practically nothing because it hears only its own song-strains . . .

One might stretch the issue of the Arts out into the post-enlightenment development of the sciences in the West. There is a potential contradiction between the gift of the sciences – an unimaginably deepened appreciation of the way the natural world works, its almost infinitely complex web of interaction of which what is called ecology is only a small part – and the knowledge that the sciences are, like the Arts, funded and are complicit in the activities like industrial farming and mining that Kinsella most abhors. It’s a theme touched on in various poems of this book but one would probably need to reread a substantial part of Kinsella’s extensive work to form any conclusions about where he stands on this issue. It may be that he is equivocal about it, in which case it would fit in with my sense of his poetry as being more seeking and worrying than dogmatically conclusive. One poem from Supervivid Pastoral, “Poiesis and the Occupation of the Valley”, does speak unequivocally about the natural sciences. Beginning by observing large-scale landscaping in a valley and seeing this as a kind of reductive response to land, it moves on to:

                     to a display case of singing honeyeaters
pentatonic against all invasive analysis of their syrinxes
those little brag sheets from universities and institutes
from big business and public/private collaborations
about something revealed in the make-up of bird
or insect as utilitarian . . . 

Though Kinsella’s poetry recommends a hypersensitive state of observation, sometimes things have to be dead to show how they worked when they were alive.