Introduction to John Kinsella

Stu Watson

Over the past three decades, John Kinsella, poet, activist, vegan, anarchist, has developed one of the most politically engaged and aesthetically diverse oeuvres in the world of Anglophone verse. An Australian by birth, Kinsella advocates what he calls “international regionalism” as a response to the hegemonic and imperial claims of “globalization”—his ethos centers on respect for the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples and demands a poetry that explores the empirical connection between writing and geography. International regionalism seeks universality not through any imposed dogmatism but through a recognition of our global dependence upon the earth from which we spring biologically and imaginatively.

     In recent years, Kinsella has taken to decentering and destabilizing the received literary canon via a process of Deconstructive intertextuality—thus in his de-vision Sidney’s New Arcadia, Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, even a work as geographically specific as Thoreau’s Walden, are resituated in the wheat fields of Western Australia, the geography that grounds Kinsella’s imaginative flights. These de-writings (he subtitles a recent reworking of Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ Death’s Jest Book a “A De-Dramatisation (Out of Beddoes)”) demonstrate at once the poetic qualities of the original works’ operations (be it through formal allusion, or more frequently and more subtly through an amalgamation of tone), while re-localizing their various mythologies, reanimating the old metaphors in a Shelleyan manner, “creating afresh associations which have been...disorganized” by the long impress of patriarchies—by conquests—by rapes.

     One of Kinsella’s latest endeavors is Paradise Lust, Book I of which, entitled Damage Report, came out in late 2012 from Canadian publisher Book Thug. On the jacket of that volume the work is described as “an unmaking for a time when epics become parody of destruction and rapacity.” What we have here, then, is not a “mock epic” a la the Rape of the Lock, but perhaps its post-modern equivalent—where Milton seeks to “Justify the ways of God to Men,” Kinsella’s poem ironizes that endeavor entirely, for in his ethos there can be no question of justifying the ways of man to nature, and furthermore, to his fellow man; such projects derive from a mistaken, in this language “rapacious,” desire for an unobtainable immortality, a “paradise lust.”

     Book I opens, echoing elements of its intertext:

Fruits are sparse and there is no One,
unless overturner of stones and rocks
reveals itself: I have been searching,
keeping an eye out. In the penumbra
of valley last evening a pair of spinebills
protracting hill-curves, tonight,
a golden whistler semi-singing
glory. Distantly, noises
unsettling, disturbance.
                     (Paradise Lust I.1.1-9)

Embracing, in place of “disobedience”, “disturbance,” Kinsella forges an anti-pastoral, one that sees nature as no “One” anthropomorphism (God), but rather as a sequence of geometrical potentials, “penumbra / of valley”, a pair of (regionally specific) “spinebills” as “protracting hill- curves”—but this “order” is only “semi-singing / glory”—to implicate the natural world in more intentionality would be to fall back into that old conception of truth, with its mobile army, etc. Even still this imaginative position is not so radically unfamiliar, recalling Wordsworth’s “mighty world / Of eye and ear” that “half create[s]” or that Stevensian figure who sings “beyond the Genius of the sea” and thereby “beyond” the mythologizing personifications that would leave nature an opponent, an “other” in a simplistically dialectical sense.

     The difference is the emphasis on disturbance—this is not a poem of rec- onciliation with nature—it is rather a linguistic scouring of the human territory, a poetical scything of dead verbal stalks:

Bigots have learnt the names

of animals they’ve helped make extinct:
now they utter them as talismans,
charms to ward off hijabs.
                                                   (PL I.1.27–30)

Kinsella does not shy from the underside of poesis, from the negative operations that associate, talismanically, the figures of the past with a malicious present. In this way, the workings of the poem delineate a broad ethical landscape from out of the specifics of geography—the linguistic misuse by “bigots” of the names of now eradicated species as a ward against further immigration from an undesirable group (“hijabs”) is precisely the kind of paternalizing logic poems must disrupt, if they are to treat on the dual subject of man and nature with any measure of respect.

     But Kinsella’s logic is also searching—it does not stop short of self- critique, of a rigorous consideration of its own “position” rhetorically and geographically:

What are atheists in the Godhouse?

Dead saplings resprouted: not dead

but appearing dead? Or dead and still
reconstituting from soil and rock into root

and stem. No dead leaves revivify, though new
ones appear, small and darkly concentrated.
                                                        (PL I.5.1-6)

Here the “Godhouse” is doubly purposed—it is at once a catch-all for the whole of existence, of man and nature and the rest, but it is also that totality as domesticated through human eyes, through human imagination. The internal echo of “resprouted” with “not dead” places us in the realm of biological processes, where objects appearing “dead and still” are also “still / reconstituting from soil and rock into root / and stem”—the logic moves from the specific to the species, harboring always a keen awareness that: “No dead leaves revivify, though new / ones appear, small and darkly concentrated.” The fiction of the leaves, a trope as old as Homer, returns, but here the shades of fallen lives head across no river Acheron, but fall only to fertilize the ground and make room for what new “darkly concentrated” sproutings follow.

     Prelude presents here the first four sections of Book II of Paradise Lust, subtitled Transferences. The poem continues in Kinsella’s distinctive, anti-pastoral mode, focusing on questions of energy and responsibility, on the waste that is generated in any process of human endeavor, on the hypocrisies inherent in a system of life dependent upon death and despoilment for its propagation. This new section is an antidote to the “familiarity” of Book II of Milton’s poem—here Satan, self-loving, self-abiding, is taken to task, but through no oxidizing movement—here disruption, that human turn of attention, is placed on the Satanic pedestal of rebellion, and consequences ensue.