By John KinsellaPoetry Picador Poetry
John Kinsella says that he tries to write his poems in ‘the location of the damage that’s being done’. He is a political poet; Armour is his most politically engaged work so far – and his most spiritual.
The world in which these poems unfold is strangely poised between the material and immaterial. Everything that enters it, from a fox to an almond, does so illuminated by its own presence; Kinsella inhabits his subjects rather than honour them.
In its poetry of lyric protest, Kinsella scrutinises the place of humans within the natural landscape, as both tenants and self-appointed stewards. Many of his poems beautifully evoke the natural world, but he is adamantly not a nature poet, but rather ‘an ethically and politically motivated writer who perceives each poem, each text I write, as part of a resistance against environmental damage’.
Armour is a beautifully various work, one of sharp ecological and social critique – but also one of meticulous invocation and quiet astonishment.
Armour, John Kinsella’s 32nd collection of poetry is a mix of charged, spiritual urgency and quiet reflection. It is also as diverse in its writing styles with each poem full of penetrating words and compressed imagery. Kinsella has always been political, ecological and linguistically lyrical and this collection is no exception. Armour is bright, hopeful, complicated and full of conversation. This is a stellar work from Kinsella.
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When I first picked up John Kinsella’s remarkable collection Armour, I misread the title as ‘Amour’, the French word for love. That this slippage is calculated becomes clear as you make your way through this intensely readable book, and not only because of its later quotation of Paul Valéry (‘Amour, peut-être, ou de moi-même haine?’ Love, perhaps, or hatred of myself?). Here is language at its most forensically exposed, vital and urgent, its ambiguities opened out for inspection. Armour traces the tensions of contradiction, finding in its emergent energies a possibility for hope. That this is a hope shadowed by caveats, rebuked both by history and the present, makes the possibility no less luminous.
Considering various kinds of armour – the skin of a rhinoceros as drawn by Dürer, the intricacies of mediaeval armour in a museum, exoskeletons, tree bark – Kinsella meditates on what armour implies: vulnerable interiorities, the jeopardy of softness, the risk of love. A sense of threat and vulnerability is palpable in these poems: especially the sense of our mammal hearts pulsing with fear in darkness, like the hearts of kangaroos hunted by spotlighters, ‘beating rapidly about us … louder and brighter than engines, than spotlights’. Anxious poems for an anxious time.
As always with Kinsella’s work, this is poetry deeply engaged with its environments: the Western Australia wheatbelt, the museum culture of Europe. The poems summon alertness in every line, in their almost anguished search for expression that resists the seduction of language, its impulse to colonise and erase its subjects. Their stylistic restlessness and acuity enacts a scepticism about the very process of poetry, the poet finding himself, again and again, at the threshold of what language can’t hope to encompass:
the yellow light
is not bright
enough, or stress
the yellow light
is too bright,
far too bright,
for our limited sight.
This border, the edge of our limits, is of course the sublime or the sacred, and through these poems Kinsella unites, painfully and joyously, a sense of the sacred with a pragmatic, sometimes brutal, vision of human destructiveness. There are poems that insist on the non-humanness of animals (as in the witty ‘Reverse Anthropomorphism’, which imagines birds seeing the observer, ‘making me within their own image’), rejecting, as Kinsella always has, the ways in which we are prone to imagine the natural world as a mirror and extension of our selves.
But the impulse to see the human in the animal, or perhaps more accurately the animal in the human, is irresistible: the splintered alienation of the atomised individual is placed against the collective, as seen in the emergent behaviour of bees or swarming sharks or caterpillars, and reaches towards an idea of community, a reformed sense of collective and relationship.
The vitality of Armour exists in its passionate, complex focus on relationship: between people, especially between father and son, husband and wife; of languages to reality; of human beings to the world we exploit and depend on for our survival; of animals and plants to their changing environments. Maybe, especially, between the living and the dead: this collection is littered with the traces of the dead, of cemeteries, artworks, artefacts, museums. We are made constantly aware of the pull and enclosure and – perhaps – the release of memory.
Armour strikes me as the darkest of Kinsella’s collections, and perhaps the most personal: some of its most moving poems are – like ‘Yellow’, a poem about his son – addressed to his intimates. Beneath its bright, inventive patternings is an urgency driven by a pervasive despair, prompting an argument about belief. ‘I’ve nothing / more to add to the litany, the testament,’ he says in the sequence ‘Idyllatry’. ‘I see the approach of the infantry’.
As a poet whose whole project has been to re-see the human relationship with the environment, to record the degradations and complex dependencies of living in a fragile and threatened eco-system, Kinsella finds himself battling a sense of futility, the conviction that he is only repeating what he has already said: ‘These observations are no longer startling, / fresh or even evocative. Familiarity can’t even / breed the contempt to drive you out of / the picture.’
I’ve whinged over and over about how
we’re poisoning country, sucking the land
dry for short-term gain. But what of it?
This is my swan-song.
‘Idyllatry’ ends with an image of blind worship, communities praying for rain that will ‘wash negligence out to sea’, while outside, ignored by the petitioners, kookaburras are ‘breaking through the glass-ceilinged egg of their world, / joyous as picking fights or giving birth, / or taking up your inheritance.’ The empty shell of belief is placed against the harder, more joyous task of engagement with a present world of vital energies. The poet reaches an acceptance, in short, that picks up again the burden and labour of perception. As Kinsella says sardonically in another poem about the nuclear tests at Maralinga, ‘Hell is hollow’: it’s this hollowness in all its manifestations that his poetry argues against with such passion.
Kinsella’s inheritance is not only the country he lives in, with all its cultural doubtfulness and harm, its compromised possibilities, its resistant life: it’s a poet’s inheritance of language. In Kinsella’s hands, it’s a rich legacy. Read, and read again.
Alison Croggon is a poet, critic, literary editor and author. Her second book of poems, Blue Gate (1997) was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. She blogs at Theatre Notes.
The Premier’s 21 Shortlist