Simon Eales Reviews John Kinsella

By | 24 July 2015

Each of the collection’s forty-four penillions embarks on this graceful, centripetal dive. The constancy of sack’s elemental comingling necessitates our use of adjectives like Orphic or Miltonian. Something like William Blake’s marriage of godly form and human sensuality at the plane of secular reason is parodied, inasmuch as ethics comes before all philosophy, poetry and god. Every organic thing occurring symbolically at the human level is included in this ethics. (Take Stephen Kinsella’s cover image: a geological cross-section showing fossil fuels extracting below and factory smoke bellowing above, with the book’s title partially buried at surface level). Fittingly, the snake, as totem, slithers through sack as mediator, a negotiator between these worlds. The poem, ‘Sleeping with a Southern Python’ hints at the conjugal-best that earthbound beings can do in reaching for divine (ethical) union. Its Python attempts camouflage, ‘working / black and gentle yellow-olive into the orange of gravel, / willing the gap to close’.

In a world where Everything is dealt with, the structure/s of the book is/are propulsive constraints. In Part I, called ‘Pigs’, longer-lined free verses respond to animal, mineral and ecological life. Part II, ‘Penillions’ is a collection of that Welsh verse form which consists of four lines per verse, four stresses per line, and is traditionally improvised in public competition to a tune played on harp. (Kinsella’s compositional modification involves improvising to the rhythm of his own quotidian footsteps).1 Part III, ‘To the Letter,’ consists entirely of a poetic letter to WA poet J. P. Quinton, and is, in part, a play on the ‘letter to a young artist’ genre.

The title, sack, indicates this collection of poetic styles and subjects. But this very observation confirms a theme: the removal of elements from their ecosystems (i.e., they’re sacked, like a quarterback in American football is called sacked when he’s tackled); a traditional Welsh verse form that is made contemporary; a tadpole is put in a bath; AC/DC’s Bon Scott is studied in his role as ‘shit factory’ attendant (in ‘To the Letter’); and, in ‘Penillion of the Burning Shed and its Tenses’, the repetition of two lines – ‘And so we learnt / The shed is burnt’ – in each stanza removes the described event from its context and allows it to be the bedrock from which incendiary elements fly.

The collection’s eponymous poem suggests that this action of sacking involves violence, analogises violence, and that sacks contain evidence of violence. Sacks tear and ooze, ‘all trauma and extinction’. This mutilated imagery and these images of mutilation receive sanitised reiteration throughout, but they do not disappear. ‘How many times / have I told this story?’ Kinsella’s epistolarian asks:

                                            I mean, 
it was comparative religion, 
it was universal truth,
it was more than my Blake-brain
could process. Process. Degree.
Commodity. Production. Surplus. 
The growth of the poet. Food security.

The last line here, almost the last of the collection, juxtaposes two of sack’s persistent matrices: the environmental decimation and politics associated with the latter, and the ever-stranger connective vision of the former.

  1. See Kinsella’s ‘On Penillion: A Brief Extract from a Work on the Form’, in Spatial Relations: Volume 2, ed. Gordon Collier, Rodopi, 2013, p. 99; also, Cennard Davies, ‘Early Free-Metre Poetry’, in A Guide to Welsh Literature, c. 1530-1700, ed. R Geraint Gruffydd, U of Wales P, 1997, p. 85.
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