Geoff Page Reviews John Kinsella

1 May 2014

Fortunately, but not often enough, Kinsella finds a satisfying via media between these extremes, often in moments of acute social observation – such as a fragment from Part Three of ‘Hero’ where the poet ‘watched a church minister / out through the old window / trailing a soul on a leash, / indifferent as it bumped / into his flock, tangled / about their feet. Wifeless / they let him go.’ Paradoxically, perhaps, these acuities occur when the poetry is least ‘activist’ in the traditional sense. Yes, there is a moral point being made here about the unfriendliness of a congregation and its minister towards one who will not easily ‘fit’. It is hardly an ‘activist’ point though – and is probably all the more effective for not being so.

In the book’s final poem, ‘‘The Killing State’ / The Murdering State’, Kinsella for the most part abandons his West Australian wheat belt territory and addresses capital punishment in the U.S., surely an easy enough target for most Australians who haven’t officially hanged anyone since 1967. Throughout this rather shorter poem, Kinsella, among other strategies, raises some interesting points of fact. He notes, for instance, that the state of Michigan hasn’t executed anyone since 1830 and formally abolished the death penalty in 1847. Something of the uncomfortably mixed texture of The Vision of Error, however, can be felt in the lines which directly follow this revelation: ‘Not even the treasonous have burnt. / The killer murdering the murderer unkilled. Thorn in side. / Life filters through and birds fly easier. Dogs bark, cats prowl. / Language / does it tricks. Once, one was bludgeoned unravelling of pathetic fallacy. // Unwriteable, forgotten?’

In a talk on the publisher’s website, Kinsella calls the surface of such writing ‘disturbed’ but this is to put it mildly. The section starts with powerful, Whitmanian rhetoric but soon becomes, like much avant-garde and ecopoetic poetry, increasingly self-referential (‘Language / does its tricks’) and then opaque to most readers. ‘Most readers’ may know what the pathetic fallacy is but that won’t help them with ‘Once, one was bludgeoned unravelling of pathetic fallacy’. Nor will it help with establishing exactly what it is that remains ‘Unwriteable, forgotten’. Lines like these last two are not likely to discourage boorish behaviour on country roads or slow the triumphant world-wide advance of capitalism.

The role of the ‘activist’ poet is an important but difficult one, as Kinsella’s book illustrates. The twentieth century high point in this field was probably reached by Pablo Neruda and Bertolt Brecht – even they made a misjudgement or two along the way, particularly Neruda. Their poetry did, however, ‘make something happen’ – and, significantly, was never opaque or addressed only to a smallish circle of those ‘in the know’. Until contemporary ecopoetics re-thinks its approach to these matters it is unlikely to have the ‘activist’ results its producers and proponents are apparently seeking.

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About Geoff Page

Geoff Page is based in Canberra and has published twenty-two collections of poetry as well as two novels and five verse novels. His recent books include 1953 (UQP 2013), Improving the News (Pitt Street Poetry 2013), New Selected Poems (Puncher & Wattmann 2013), Aficionado: A Jazz Memoir (Picaro Press 2014), Gods and Uncles (Pitt Street Poetry 2015), and PLEVNA: A Verse Biography (UWA Publishing 2016). He also edited The Best Australian Poems 2014 and 2015 (Black Inc).

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