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.

John Kinsella: The Jaguar’s Dream

Richmond, UK: Herla Publishing, 2012, 251pp.

The subtitle of this book is “Translations, Adaptations, Versions, Extrapolations, Interpolations, Afters, Takes and Departures” and, although it has a throwaway quality it isn’t a bad description of the contents since these represent almost the entire range of how poets respond to other texts, specifically those in foreign languages. Although it exemplifies the whole range of what the word “translation” can mean, the book itself has a strict chronological structure, beginning with Alkman 58 (from sometime in the seventh century BCE), working through poetry in the classical languages and then providing an anthology of European poetry from Villon to Celan and finishing with two poems by the Australian/Chinese poet, Ouyang Yu.

The major component in The Jaguar’s Dream is a “response” to the sixth book of the Aeneid. At forty-three poems and fifty-five pages it is a book-length work that could well have been published separately. It describes itself, in deliberately vulgar Hollywood-speak, as a “prequel” to Kinsella’s earlier response to Dante, Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography and works in a similar way to that strange book by choosing a base text and then writing poems set mainly in the West Australian wheatbelt which “respond” to moments in that text. Sometimes these moments are single lines, sometimes short passages and sometimes – in Divine Comedy – whole cantos and the word “respond” covers a multitude of things. The response to Aeneid VI is called a “version” while the three canticles of Divine Comedy are called “distractions”. It is an odd and intriguing procedure with just a touch of postmodern parody about it as though it simultaneously stressed the connection with high European culture while making the point that in contemporary Western Australia, on the brink of ecological disaster, this would need a good deal of rejigging. To take a couple of examples from the earlier book at random: the fate of Judas at the bottom of hell – being chewed by one of Satan’s three heads – produces a poem in which the narrative drive pauses for a portrait (in the best Dantesque way though without the magnificent drama whereby the characters speak for themselves). We meet the “nicest-kid-at-school” whose mother works in the abattoir:

. . . . . 
He is sensitive. He hangs
with the girls. He reads books.

He loves his mum. She is deft
with a knife. She cuts fat
for health. She is reliable.

First in line, she trims
the Judas sheep. This sheep
is killed recurrently.

Customers won’t know
they’re eating the pick
of the bunch. “My son

is keeping something back.
Boys at school give him
a hard time.” She doesn’t

cut herself as she thinks.
A leader among sheep. . . .

This poem about betrayal and cutting finishes with the abattoir cutting back the woman’s hours. Another, rather different, example comes from a conversion of one of the particularly abstruse theological/scientific passages of Paradiso (XIII: 97-101) into a “Canto of the Movers and Shakers”, a really interesting and complex piece that, although it contains portraits of the earthly equivalent of the movers of Dante’s primum mobile, contains a lot more:

The compunction of angels
to turn the spheres – sporty types,
or maybe engineers. Obsessive

compulsives. Hanging
about the flightpaths of jets,
turbulent in their wake . . .

Ripples of insects propelling
across a dam, the almost enclosed
world of a rainwater tank,

urge towards right-angled
triangles . . . sail, take-off . . . 
stress tensor, motion

without cause . . .trail
of knickers issuing
from the bachelors’ and spinsters’

ball – it’s seasonal.
Parthenogenesis. Zoology.
Komodo dragons:

travel goes with the job.
CEOs squabble over
the quantity of angels

it takes to counteract
the utility of insider
trading: ultrasound. They

pray in their own way:
Dick and Dora, their phantasmagoria,
Dr Frankenstein and The Team,

cleared by ethics committees.
Productivity. Making the fat lean.
New trees, new fruit, new contracts.

This is a really complex poem with a lot going on, only some of the details of which (the right-angled triangles, for example) derive from the Dante. Of course it remains, at heart, satirical.

There is a lot more that happens in Divine Comedy than these two sample passages suggest but I’ve never been sure that is very successful, though it is full of interesting positions, interesting poems and interesting relations between source text and poem. At times you are inclined to think to yourself, “What has Dante done to deserve this? Why not work through the Shakespeare canon? Or Milton?” The tension between Dante’s voyage through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven on the one hand and a series of poems about life in the Western Australian wheatbelt on the other are so acute that they often aren’t productive. The adjustments required, in other words, tend to stand out as much as the connections made: not least being the altering of the starting point so that the structure of Kinsella’s book begins with Purgatory, and then goes through Heaven then Hell. The central critical question for both it and the Virgil “version” seems to me to be whether the role of the base text is to generate poems (ungeneratable otherwise) or to structure and give some kind of shape to a host of poems built around life lived on the land (though in opposition – on ethical and ecological grounds – to most of the practices of the area).

But if Divine Comedy is, after a couple of readings, at best provisionally successful, the collection based on Aeneid VI seems, at least to me, something worth celebrating. Kinsella’s introduction to The Jaguar’s Dream, gives a clue as to why he has chosen Virgil and Dante instead of any other canonical text when he speaks of being “fascinated by different configurations of the worlds of the dead”. Virgil’s text is the true precursor to Dante and, when Dante makes him his guide through Hell and all of Purgatory up to the Earthly Paradise, he is acknowledging a debt greater than that of inheriting something that would eventually produce a “new sweet style”. The debt is to the author who – in Dante’s knowledge of poetry – was the first to present a detailed image of the afterlife in which an individual’s moral status in his or her life is reflected in the punishments after death. Book VI of Virgil is, in other words, a long way from the dreary, undifferentiated Hades that Odysseus visits in the Odyssey even though that visit may have been responsible for a belief, held by Virgil, that a necessary epic trope was its hero’s visit to the underworld. Virgil’s conclusion in which the dead Anchises reveals the future of Rome as far as the time of writing may also well be what gave Dante the license to let his characters predict so much of the “future” of Florence.

At any rate there seems less strain between the values of the source text and Kinsella’s poems here than in Divine Comedy. The poems roam quite widely as well and don’t seem to try to limit themselves to the experience of living on a particular block of land quite as much as those of Divine Comedy and the poems of the recent Jam Tree Gully do. The Sibyl’s cave can be one of the caves at Yanchep (as in “Crystal Cave”), it can also be those parts of the Nullarbor coast where the sea has undercut the cliffs to form blowholes inland and it can also be (in “Ellendale (Sibyl’s Behest)”) the pool at Ellendale near Geraldton: or at least, if it is not the place of the beginning of the descent, it is the place where the golden bough – here a “dream-leaf” clinging to a red river gum – is found. This last poem is followed by “Madura Pass Resolve” a fine, complex piece set at the point of transition on the Nullarbor from plains into upland country. I’ll quote it in full, long as it is, because it will give some sense of what the poems of this section feel like at their best and also because, set just before Aeneas enters the cave for his descent, it’s an important poem about art, thresholds and transitions.

Climbing to the tablelands,
mallee and limestone, shocks of snail shells
always empty, you feel like a period piece,
or evolution suddenly becoming interested
in this style, this “landscape” as artwork.
The few locals know it as a place of snakes,
and warn you of their bites and the heat.
But it’s the water place, where horses were bred
to ship out to India, mounts for imperial
cavalry, bore dragging water up in conquest.
The roadhouse and motel cling to their
swimming pool. A mockery or just survival?
Orb weaver spiders climbing the face
of the tableland are massive, surprised:
you might celebrate them, mesmerized
by the exquisitely swollen and grotesque.
But why, when air travels in tunnels from coast
further than the eye might wrest false horizons,
limestone conglomerate swirls, fractures
and rattling pods of myalls and the weary
desert oak. Transition never belonged to art,
and its style struggles and resists as long
as possible. Can we say it knows no other way?
There is no value of the Madura Pass present
overtly or even disguised in this rectangle,
but there is the moment blowholes are encountered:
a cool breath in the heat, the rustling of wild oats
influxed as they are at brief points of habitation
on these great canvases, a southerly riding the scarp
and countering blowhole exhalations at intervals,
caprices and interludes, subterranean and surface
air meeting to make sea a mirage inland, nostrils
in stone, navels and eyes emerging where tableland
and plain contest, confer, incline to incline, ice-
age sea-level shifts ocean floor distends. Gallery
is an old refrigerator, dumped sub-glistening
in bluebush and old colours, as much the heart
of Virgil’s after-deaths, underworld of surface,
pronunciation out of blowholes and declarations
of rusty iron, the brevity of visits, fencing that climbs
between states, harsh roots cleaving limestone,
making an old gearbox the trauma of travel
in long dry stretches (my father broke down here
in his utility, once); swallows crossing furtive
and cautious, secretive to us – “welcome welcome” -
we’d like to imagine they say. We’re here, taking photos,
relishing kinship and air and light in isolation,
though down on the highway great road trains
pass at high speed, intermittently, tickling galls
on the mallee, interstices of fixed eternity. Ownership
is not cartography, nor our lines to take.

It’s not an easy poem though it is written in a relaxed discursive way, probing at the issues which arise. If it reconfigures, or springs off from, a classic text, it is probably better to think in terms of Keats’s Grecian Urn than Vigil’s epic. The first third explores ways of relating to this transitional environment. The poet is inclined to see it visually as landscape as though it were a piece of art placed before his eyes. But the poem sketches in alternative perspectives: as a supplier of horses it is enmeshed in imperial histories (a perspective that would have pleased Edward Said) and as a habitat for the locals who turn out to be more interested in immediate environmental issues like the poisonous local snakes. A poet might use a narrow focus and celebrate the orb spiders but this is compromised by a wider perspective that registers that there are massive elements in play as air travels underground to emerge in blowholes. The middle third worries about how art deals with environment. When we are told that art is essentially conservative, clinging to its evolved style rather than registering a new way of looking, it’s difficult to know whether this is a comment about all arts or only the visual arts. It’s true that changes in all the arts – think of the appearance of Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”, for example – come suddenly and irrevocably and show us that a new way of looking arises (metaphorically from underground, through a blowhole) almost fully formed, and rendering past ways immediately out of date. At any rate, a collection of paintings (or an anthology?) the poem says, is a collection of dead ways of looking in much the same way that Virgil’s underworld is a collection of dead people. The rest of the poem is more problematical although it clearly wants to remind us that liminality is a state, the state the poet and family are in, standing at this transitional location, and that fixed styles are an inappropriate way of rendering such a state. I take this to be something of an apologia for what might, on the surface, seem a disorienting feature of this version of Virgil (as it is in Divine Comedy’s version of Dante), and that is the mixing of styles. Apart from an extended discursive poem, like “Madura Pass Resolve”, the poems based on Aeneid VI range from the haiku-like suggestiveness of “Gifts” (“Sprigs of rosemary; / A poem on wheat paper; / Viewed from your photo”) to an old-fashioned symbolic set-piece like “Zoo Ferry”.

If I had to guess about Kinsella’s thought processes here, I would say that the principle behind these “distractions” is continually to widen the poetic base, to prevent his poetry sinking into a monotone. The kind of radical ecology he wants to live must entail a danger of reducing his poetic voice to the registers of exhortation, anger and frustration. The distractions may well be a way to accommodate the processes of accretion and non-logical connection – the more deeply “poetic” in other words. I think that this is what is happening in another interesting poem, “Crystal Cave”:

I have been reading Aquatic Root Mat Community
of Caves of the Swan Coastal Plain, and The Crystal
Cave Crangonyctoid Interim Recovery Plan 2003-2008
by Val English, Edyta Jasinska and John Blyth
on behalf of the Aquatic Root Mat Community
of Caves of the Swan Coastal Plain; what lured
me to this was revisiting Crystal Cave at Yanchep
over the weekend and being traumatized by the glare
of extinction. I could twist this into a lyric, but line
length becomes the gauge of rendering, root hairs
sniffing out water deeper, deeper, until the ghost
flits, crosses over: the underworld is never truly
deeply under. There’s no mystery or intangible
extraction to illuminate an ontology. But personal
history is part of the stimulus to delve deep,
. . . . .

Those opening six lines have their own magic, and show once again that what should be drearily denotative scientific language has its own mad, poetic music – something Auden knew how to exploit. But the rest of this opening is very much about poetry’s desire to extend feelers searching for the nourishment of underlying meanings, especially the meanings buried in those personal experiences which seem, on the surface, to be contingent but always, with deeper analysis, reveal themselves to be strangely patterned. It’s long been known that Aeneas’s taking a golden bow down into the underworld can be read as a metaphor for a descent into levels of meaning that are profounder than those of the sunlit world above and “Crystal Cave” examines the implications of this opportunity.

Of the other poems in The Jaguar’s Dream there are a number which are “free” in the sense of ranging from the extremes of Aeneid VI to “variations”. Three poems based on phrases of Celan are compressed wheatbelt pieces which are suggested by their originals. The version of Mayakovsky’s “Cloud in Trousers” is a treatment of Kinsella’s earlier life in, as he nicely puts it, “the ecology of Mayakovsky’s poem” and the version of Apollinaire’s “Zone” shares with its original a hectic engagement with the cultural life of the moment but is really another wheatbelt poem. A number of poems are based on Villon’s “Jargon” poems but the freedom here seems licensed by the obscurity and marginality of the originals (are they even by Villon?) and, as the short introduction explains, “What has attracted me to Villon’s jargon poems is both this [the way they exploit the language of a subculture] and also the fact that the language is contestable now just as it was by those outside “the crew” back in Villon’s time”.

There are two translations from Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”: the first is a clear rendition of the fourth poem of the second book but the second is an interesting “extreme variation” of the first poem of the first book:

The cold front bands across materiality!
Oh Orpheus rages! The tree blows down and swipes an ear!
The silence of an eye. And that vacuum stuffed
with potential, played out over the year.

Only the edges of forests nurture birds
and beasts, hiding places compiled like follies;
those hanging-in-there go-getters courageous
though inward-looking, as each sallies

forth to let us know they’re there. Roars, shouts, tweets
held close to chests. A jolt to their hearts
impacts his building, a shower of notes

extracting darkness from greatest fears,
migrating into the anemometer’s cups -
Temple of Ear dulls with passing years.

The famous Rilkean original, probably a more difficult poem, might be translated (free of all graces) as something like: “A tree rose there. O pure transcendence! O Orpheus sings! O high tree in the ear. And everything was quiet. Yet in the silence there were new beginnings, beckonings and change. Animals from the stillness pressed out from the clear loosed forest from lair and nest; and then it happened that they were not so quiet out of cunning or out of fear, but out of listening. Growling, crying, uproar appeared small in their hearts. And where once there was scarcely a hut to receive this, a shelter [made] of darkest desires, with an entrance whose posts trembled, – there you created for them a temple of hearing.” (Much of the difficulty of this poem derives from its prepositions – there is enormous weight and ambiguity in simple words like “aus” and “im”. I used to think that it was simply a problem of my undergraduate level German and that native speakers would understand them completely, just as we understand the subtle differences between “in the corner”, “at the corner” and “on the corner”, but looking at the various translations made by sophisticated speakers of German leads me to think that the vagueness of the prepositions is part of the fabric of the poetry.) I’m not entirely sure what is going on in the Kinsella version. At one level it’s a wheatbelt poem about the birds that appear after the storm has passed; but you feel that it must also be a sour little allegory about minor poets, the plucky “go-getters”, who sally forth after a major poet, with their “Roars, shouts, tweets” – criticisms and outrage expressed over social media – held close to their chests.

This leaves me, in this survey of types of translation in The Jaguar’s Dream, with what should be the least problematic: the conventional, accurate verse translations. These actually form the bulk of the book and heavily favour French poetry. But conventional verse translations turn out to be the most troublesome because, whereas the various versions, take-offs, distractions, extrapolations and so on are judged by the creative result they produce, conventional verse translations are judged by a much more exacting standard: how much of the magic of the original they can convey?

I should say, straight away, that I don’t believe in verse translation of lyric poetry in the way it is done here or in the way it is done by almost all translators of poetry. Translating expository and even narrative prose is a different matter entirely and, though it has a lot of problems, they aren’t the ones that cripple the translation of lyric. Even translation of narrative poetry, such as the Homeric epics, has to face fewer problems. Worries about the validity of verse versions of lyric poems aren’t new, they appear in most prefaces to translation work. The usual comment is that though verse translation is unsatisfactory it is a necessary evil and has its uses. It can be argued, for example, that a verse version gives readers some sense that they have read a foreign language poem and thus it should be seen as a sort of crude introduction after which a reader might decide that he or she would like to explore a particular poem and then move on to finding a version of the original with a prose paraphrase and notes and thus begin a more satisfactory and intimate engagement with the poem. But the truth is that even good verse versions leave out so much of what would make you love a poem and go on to visit it in its own language (even, eventually, being so in love with it that you would try to learn the source language) that they hardly represent an introduction at all.

These depressing thoughts come from looking at translations of one of my favourite German poems, Hoelderlin’s “Hyperions Schicksalslied” (“Hyperion’s Song of Fate”), first encountered in school. On the surface it has everything going for it in terms of translatability: German is a language close to English; German culture is interwoven with English so the sentiments of the poem won’t be as alien as if it were translated from, say, an Australian Aboriginal language; Hoelderlin himself is an almost exact coeval of Wordsworth and so his Romanticism, different though it is, does relate to something we are familiar with; the structure and thematic layout of the poem (unlike that of Rilke’s sonnet) are very straightforward and the verse form is free with a mimetic conclusion that should be easy to approximate. The poem describes the world of the gods (“You wander up there in light . . .”) and then contrasts it to the situation of mortals (“But to us is given to have no place of rest . . .”). It is the wonderful conclusion that worries me:

Es schwinden, es fallen
     Die leidenden Menschen
          Blindlings von einer
               Stunde zur andern,
                   Wie Wasser von Klippe
                         Zu Klippe geworfen,
                              Jahr lang ins Ungewisse hinab.

Very roughly and unidiomatically: “They dwindle, they fall / – the suffering humans – / blindly from one / hour to another, / like water from cliff / to cliff thrown, / year-long [forever] into uncertainty down.” The problem is small but insoluble and relates to two minor features of German syntax. Firstly past participles like “geworfen” are placed finally and secondly the adverb “hinab” (at least I think it’s an adverb rather than part of a verb, “hinabwerfen”) can appear finally. That means that, as anyone can see, there is a wonderful mimetic sense of falling in the last lines and the passion and intensity of the utterance is expressed by this. I won’t go into a comparison of the various verse versions of this in English (although I do want to say something about the value of multiple versions later) but instead, working a fortiori, I will quote what is usually thought of as the best available translation: that of Michael Hamburger from the Penguin edition of Hoelderlin’s Selected Poems and Fragments:

But we are fated
     To find no foothold, no rest
         And suffering mortals
              dwindle and fall
                    Headlong from one
                         Hour to the next,
                              Hurled like water
                                   From ledge to ledge
                                       Downward for years to the vague abyss.

It’s sophisticated and accurate enough but, ultimately, inert, unlike the original which is alive and intense, so intense that you are likely to find yourself repeating it at odd times as though it were a popular tune. If I first came across “Hyperions Schicksalslied” in this translation I would form the opinion that the poem is a kind of dispassionate (perhaps, if anything, wry) comparison of the lives of the gods and mankind rather than an intense embodiment of the fate of the latter. I would probably shrug my shoulders, feel that I could now say I knew something about Hoelderlin’s poetry and pass comfortably onto the next, having no idea that I’d missed such a firecracker.

If minor facts of German word order can be so damaging, they are nothing compared to the formal complexities that most lyric poetries enjoy using not as graces (of secondary – and hence sacrificeable – importance to “meaning”) but as essential components of the expression, what makes the verse “live”. Since it is almost impossible to convey these formal structures, verse translations are almost always unrhymed and come with a sort of unspoken apology: “It isn’t like this in the original. Please imagine it in tightly rhymed quatrains”. Or in sonnet form, or whatever. This situation is made even worse by the fact that for the last half-century the dominant form in English language poetry has been American free verse and, as a result, tightly organised and complex poems like the sonnets of the nineteenth century French poets (many of which are translated in The Jaguar’s Dream) come out sounding like slightly exotic versions of American poems rather than the interestingly alien things they are. W.S Merwin’s book of selected translations seems to me a perfect example of this whereby poems ranging from Ancient Egyptian to contemporary European finish up sounding pretty much the same.

It’s an unconscious act of appropriation but it is appropriation nevertheless. At the risk of boring readers with another anecdote, I’ll return to Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” – like the French poems, highly formal and highly formally accomplished. I was reading them in translation with a friend a few years ago and suddenly realised that I knew the original (from either schooldays or undergraduate days) of at least the first four lines of one of them. Suddenly “Only he whose bright lyre / has sounded in shadows / may, looking onward, restore / his infinite praise” became “Nur wer die Leier schon hob / auch unter Schatten / darf das unendliche Lob / ahnend erstatten.” The difference is miraculous, showing that the tight rhymes are not graces but are built into the entire experience of a poem. Stephen Mitchell’s translation – again, much admired – turns Rilke into American free verse, something that it definitely isn’t. This is not to be read as an argument for various old-fashioned formalisms – I’m an admirer of the subtle possibilities and great achievements of American free verse – but you can’t turn a hieratic, rhymed quatrain into a piece of free verse without killing it.

And then there are the ethical issues involved in translation. Kinsella is, pleasingly, sensitive to these, saying in his introduction:

There is a politics to any “translation”, and I am fully aware that issues of appropriation and respect surround any text. Whatever I have done with the source texts I have done with such respect in mind.

You feel here that he is mainly concerned with the more radical transformations such as his “distractions” and “takes”, arguing that though they may appear to be based on a contempt for the originals, they actually aren’t. But it seems to me that such extreme treatment doesn’t require too much in the way of apology: Dante’s text is hardly compromised by the poems of Kinsella’s Divine Comedy nor Virgil’s by Kinsella’s version of Aeneid VI. The ethical dangers really arise in conventional verse translation which, outrageously, suggests that in some ways it stands in for – represents in a foreign language – the original. This certainly worries me far more, at any rate. If I have read, for example, Elaine Feinstein’s translations of Tsvetaeva, I still haven’t read Tsvetaeva and should never live under the illusion that I have. There is a solution to this particular conundrum: we should always print the original alongside any verse translation. This, of course, doubles the bulk of a book and increases costs by adding what, to a publisher, must look like no more than a stack of left-hand pages that nobody will ever read. And it presents a lot of extra difficulties in the case of languages with non-Latin scripts, like Chinese, Sanskrit, Urdu and Arabic, though it is possible to gloss the original presentation with a phonetic or even Latin version. But, despite these difficulties, printing originals does have the advantage of protecting a verse translation from the charge of fraudulent representation.

The ideal “translation”, strongly argued for in Stanley Burnshaw’s The Poem Itself – still a valuable book despite being more than half a century old – is not “verse translation” at all. It prints the original with a sentence by sentence English rendition (preferably in prose, in small type at the bottom of the page!). Perhaps this is no more than a higher, more forbidding stage of translation, suitable for those who are already converts. And perhaps those converts were made by reading conventional verse translations (though, as I’ve said, the inadequacy of verse translations means that they rarely make good introductions).

It is also possible that both technical and ethical issues are alleviated by multiple translations. Some texts, usually classics, have attracted so many attempts at translation that the sum of these might be said to “point towards” the original – rather in the way differential calculus points towards its solutions. I certainly have this feeling with biographies. A single biography is a very dangerous thing since its inaccuracies, prejudices and unconscious reflections of the obsessions of the age in which it was written, can be mistaken for the “truth”, whereas a host of conflicting accounts and interpretations of the life of someone famous could be argued to smooth away many of these partialities. Perhaps multiple translations may work the same way. I’m not sure, though I can remember a comparison of seven or eight English versions of the end of Pericles’ funeral oration from Thucydides (difficult and ambitious enough prose to be loosely thought of as “poetic”) which certainly, in bringing out the difficulties, gave some sense of the original that lay behind them.

Those who want to argue for the possibility that, at least in the right poet’s hands, verse translations can be successful, often point to Pound who provided brilliant translations of Chinese, Provencal, Latin and Old English poems. His translations are always alive as poems. But it is worth pointing out that his proselytising personality meant that the originals he chose were usually obscure and this licensed him to make radical choices in idiom. For his Chinese translations he invented an entirely new poetic mode of phrasing by sense unit. The results are magnificent and went on (with the translations of Arthur Waley) to become the default language for rendering oriental poetry in English but the poems would not have been recognisable to their authors if they had been translated back into Chinese. They work as poems and they also work as introductions, since many students of oriental languages must have begun their studies because of the translations of Pound and Waley, but I’m sure these students were surprised at the differences between their starting points and what actually awaited them when their competence meant that they could read Li Bai or Du Fu, for example.

And finally, before I stop beating at the battered head of verse translation, appropriation is not only an ethical issue in that we wrong the translated original. You could argue that it also does us harm in that it domesticates the foreign – to our loss. Although students of translation theory can no doubt speak of the delicate pas de deux whereby the self reaches out to the responding Other, I can’t help but feel that to read verse translations is to sit at home and invite foreign cultures to drop in and speak to us for a while in our own language. Ideally we should get up and travel abroad and meet the foreign on its own terms, relishing its alienness and the way it interacts with and conflicts with our verities and our image of ourselves. Lyric poetry is defended with the argument that it broadens our sense of ourselves, widens our psychic possibilities and enables us better to map the “rich territory” of our inner lives. How can this be done if we content ourselves with reading practices which inevitably filter out most of what is distinctive, alien and challenging about a poem in a foreign language?