Peripheral Light: Selected and New Poems
W.W. Norton & Co., $23.95 (cloth)
I first discovered the work of the Australian poet John Kinsella by chance in a bookshop in Sydney in June of 2000. With its cover art by Angus McKie featuring two colossal robot-yeomen, faces obscured by forbidding visors, planted in a surreally lit desertscape, Kinsella’s collection of poems Visitants (1999) seemed likely to offer a unique rural ride. The poems embodied an aesthetic of “radical pastoral” (Kinsella’s term), organized around images of apocalyptic ecology. The endangered status of native tongues, the legacy of Australia’s violent relocation of Aboriginal children (the “stolen generation”), the prospect of planetary wastage after the invasion of industrial polluters: these topologies were pegged to the psychic contours of nuclear fear, paranormal psychology, sci-fi techno-vision, paranoia, and conspiracy theory.
For all its rootedness in iconic images of the Australian landscape—wheatfields, cairns, silos, salt paddocks, sheoak needles, granite outcrops, phosphate hillocks, and the shrubbery of wandoo, redgum, and dryandra—Kinsella’s work defies regionalist pigeonholing. In the selected and new poems published by Norton under the title Peripheral Light one discovers a critical regionalism (to borrow the architectural critic Kenneth Frampton’s coinage) for export. This is poetry that travels well in multiple literary worlds, much like its cosmopolitan author, whose extensive peregrinations have led him through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and whose professional time is currently divided between his homeland, Kenyon College, and Cambridge University. Well-connected globally, Kinsella remains nonetheless a committed advocate of the literature of his countrymen, editing an important anthology of Australian poetry (Landbridge, 1999) as well as many special Australian editions of British and American journals, collaborating with the doyenne of Australian letters Dorothy Hewett (Wheatlands, 2000), and extolling the hybridized Aboriginal and Aboriginal-English poetry of Lionel Fogarty. Although up until now his literary corpus—more than 20 works and counting in a variety of genres—has been difficult to come by in the greater public sphere, it is known to cognoscenti, including such disparate arbiters of poetic greatness as Harold Bloom and Marjorie Perloff, both of whom hail Kinsella as a major English-language talent of the generation born in the 1960s.
In his introduction to Peripheral Light Bloom calls Kinsella an “Orphic fountain, a prodigy of the imagination” and places him on a continuum with such masters of pastoral as John Clare, Thomas Hardy, Walter Pater, John Ruskin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, and John Ashbery (with whom, according to Bloom, Kinsella shares an “improbable fecundity, eclecticisim, and a stand that fuses populism and elitism in poetic audience”). Affirming Kinsella’s Anglo-American literary genealogy and situating his lyrical voice under the ensign of the transcendental sublime, Bloom inevitably depoliticizes the poetry, neutralizing its postcolonial, Pacific Rim vantage point and raw-edged eco-activism. In “The Predominance of Red,” for example, aesthetics and politics form a loop in the progression from the elegantly spare imagism of cardinals and woodpeckers to the blunt apparition of a security-locked heating system that threatens these species with extinction:
Deployed against the snow,
A stark vocabulary,
Space between words and body,
As a perching bird
Might have it:
Deciduous narrative, tanagers
Busy at the feeders,
Or the crests of cardinals—
Caught picking at security—
A vegan and an ecological militant, Kinsella crosses environmentalist politics with a highly refined literary formalism. His diction seems cut with precision instruments: intellectual, astringent, compositionally true, it brings an accomplished craft to bear on hallucinatory visions of a desecrated outback. The combination of theoretically informed poetics (along the lines of the American Language poets Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, and Jed Rasula) and neo-vitalism yields a new kind of planetary protest verse that seems right for an era of anti-globalization, in which agrarian activists such as José Bové fight the good fight against “Frankenfood” while a starving Africa militates against the free-market hypocrisy of America’s corporate subsidies to agribusiness. Kinsella mobilizes a great literary tradition of utopian ruralism that includes the Arcadian primitivism of Virgil’sEclogues, the Rousseauist egalitarian paradise of “ten acres and a mule,” the bucolic homeopathy of George Sand, Honoré de Balzac, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Hardy, Marx’s dystopic vision of “the idiocy of rural life,” and Emile Zola’s rendering of the violence of peasant labor in his flawed masterpiece La Terre.
While Bloom’s recognition of Kinsella’s aesthetic gifts as a “writer’s writer” widens the gyre of his readership deservedly, it should not be allowed to obscure the topicality of his verse, which is in part what makes it accessible. A Thomas Hardy of the information age, a “red” Green, a Luddite modernist, Kinsella is prone to fits of technophobia in an idiom uniquely of the moment. In the poems that constitute Peripheral Light, satellite dishes, pesticide, pipelines, microwaves, Soviet space trash, and the effluvia of General Motors, Ford, and Nissan litter the territory. “The stealthy path of the predating plane / Cutting boundaries as you sow your grain” imparts spatial dismay to the aerial view. Simple things like fences become the cipher of capitalized nature when gridded upon land as demarcators of value. In the verbally impacted poem “On the Rejection of the Term ‘Property’ for This Place,” the denunciation of technological incursion is couched in double entendres that confound distinctions between nature and culture while recording the seepage of corporate-speak into the fiber of expressionism:
… Corrugations, Boolean,
iron and galvanising, bedevilled in sutures
as down cycle, or business in speech, as if the licences
or feathers, good eating a deployable, a summons
or magnetic. Corporate, modelled in the model of,
modality and detainees, to keep the envelope
pure; all waves confer against the next
though come in sets, and the king wave lifting
out of nowhere, by far the biggest. It links
coastals and whale soundings with fingers and combs
of John Deere platforms. No respect, they enslave
as collective—single mass of categories,
whipper snippers on Council edges, cutting down
to median strips, testing radars just outside
the station, the 40k in-town limit. This property,
permissions legal and moral, siphoning petrol
on pre-unleaded cars, stopcocks in sheep
watering troughs, the length of barbed wire
and odd echidna on the fringe of language.
Kinsella creates algorithms of urban sprawl—a set theory of how property grows and grows through the combined effects of expropriation, privatization, and the exploitation of resources for maximal profit. Dyslexic grammar and line breaks (as in the awkwardly parsing “modelled in the model of, / modality and detainees”) show how the idea of the corporate builds itself into a force field that imperially contours the planet.
Paradise is lost or in the process of vanishing in Kinsella’s landscapes. “Melanomas spread on field workers as they tarp a load” in his poem “The Machine of the Twentieth Century Rolls Through the High-Yielding Crop.” In “The Road to Brookton—on the nature of memory,” “Movement / plays like a home video. Crops / and road-killed animals compile as data—memory a webcrawler / hyperventilating references: / the yield looks okay from here, / that roo is still alive, gasping / for its last breath on the road’s / gravel shoulder.” The prospect of dead animals and a gasping roo interspersed in a landscape of live crops makes for a horrific premonition of transgenic indeterminacy—a time of history in which discrete life forms dissipate into fodder and animal byproduct, thus coming to occupy an ominous ontological space between vitalist materiality and semi-animate inertness.
Nature does occasionally strike back. Apples turn into “haphazard globes denting as they crash”; “melanomas spread on field workers / as they tarp a load.” In a poem dedicated to Harold Bloom, “Field Notes from Mount Bakewell,” a snake takes revenge on a truck driver searching for an oil leak, and mad-cow disease announces itself as the next millennial plague. And in “The Ascension of Sheep,” the possibility is raised of the sheep divesting the farmer of his profit:
The sun has dragged
the fog away
and now the sheep
in sodden clothes may
fleece the farmer—
who warm by the fire
tallies heads and prices
and thinks about slaughter—
These sheep exemplify linguistic relativism, recalling Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit and Ferdinand de Saussure’s famous differentiation of the linguistic values of sheep and mouton (“for if you speak of the animal on the hoof and not on the table, you say sheep”); they change character depending on how you look at them. The pun embedded in the phrase “the sheep . . . fleece the farmer” transforms the animal’s mute passivity into aggressive agency. “The Ascension of Sheep” trumps the deference of animal to human prevalent in an earlier Kinsella poem omitted from this collection, “The Epistemology of Sheep.” Destined to furnish product—“uggboots,” “cosy lambswool cardigan,” “comfortable carpet”—the “tame ones,” privileged in “the hierarchy of sheep,” are sadistically shorn, measured in wool take, and thus reduced to numbers, abstracted as units of the countdown to sleep. In “Ascension,” by contrast, the souls of sheep transcend the abusive conditions of animal existence, even if they seem dangerously close to lapsing into the cliché of the sacrificial lamb.
There is often the foreboding of impending disaster in Kinsella’s verse as an embattled nature seeks strategies of survival. Consider, for example, “Skeleton weed/generative grammar,” a poem whose three subheadings (“Finite-state,” “Phrase-structure,” “transformational”) acknowledge the inspiration of Chomskyan transformational grammar:
The ‘i’ takes in what is said—
yes, it is easily led
across the floors of discourse
only to find itself a force
easily reckoned with . . .
Exploring the curtailment of free will by biogenetic determinism, the poem draws an analogy between the subject’s submission to discursive laws and agriculture’s vulnerability to the rhizomatic whimsy of skeleton weed:
Take skeleton weed infesting
the crop—rosette of basal
leaves unleashing a fatal
stem with daisy-like flowers
that drop (into) parachute clusters
of seeds. One missed when
they scour the field (men
& women anonymously-clothed
seated on a spidery raft dragged
behind a plodding tractor,
monotony testing the free-will factor),
can lead to disaster.
Kinsella cuts the morbid oppressiveness of Doomsday eschatology with his delicate scrutiny of how a world makes meaning. Pattern recognition, cognitive process, and the overlapping semiosis of nature and language are unifying themes in Peripheral Light. Seven poems share the title “Essay on linguistic disobedience,” each one playing in its own way on the substitution of “linguistic” for “civil” disobedience; each one exposing how nominalism—the primitive naming of things in nature—is co-opted by use-value, thereby contributing to the earth’s demise. In “The Semiotics of a Truck Overturned in Fog” the moniker for an abstruse branch of linguistic theory becomes almost haiku-esque. Over and over, the lexicon of signification is thematized, confirming Lyn Hejinian’s observation in her foreword to Kinsella’s 1995 volume Erratum/Frame(d) that “among the themes that cross these works is the theme of theme itself.” Such textual and linguistic reflexivity is no mere additive of postmodern theory thrown in for intellectual seduction; it is part and parcel of the poetry’s ethical substance. The proper names of theorists and philosophers—“Deleuze,” “Derrida,” “Denise Riley,” “Steiner,” “Baudrillard”—perform a poetic function. Though they seem to enter and exit Peripheral Light without much ado, they serve as important reflexive markers of ideas that have been transmuted into poetics and given the run of their ambitions.
At his most masterly, Kinsella elides naturism and intellection in the structure of his phrases. Language “trees” are represented in a state of grammatical interactivity, never ossifying into cerebral verbal sculpture. Reminiscent of the way in which the Romantics employed fearful symmetries to illuminate the signs of a self-aware Nature, the poems offer an uncannily sentient pastoral. Multiple orders of aliveness (from the human to the mineral) are non-hierarchically and collectively summoned, creating a naturalist intimism that refuses the subjectivist fallacy yet remediates the impersonality of Kinsella’s narrative voice.
It is precisely the lack of impersonality, though, that makes a poem like “Approaching the Anniversary of my Last Meeting with my Son” stand out. The poem begins with an apology for the out-of-character confessional mode:
I never write ‘confessional’ poetry
but your voice—like forked lightning
etching a thunder-dark river—leaves me
no choice but to speak directly.
A moving account of a father’s estrangement from his son (“you don’t / know my voice on the phone / when you ring Nanna. / Told it’s Daddy, / you say, ‘I’d better go’ ”), this poem makes one wonder why Kinsella doesn’t “speak directly” more often. But on further reflection, I think I understand why he resists the temptation: he would run the risk of churning out standard-issue confessional, of losing intellectual edge (sacrificing the aesthetic rigor normally ascribed to a theorem), and of diluting his politics. That said, the fact that Kinsella shows himself capable of dropping his guard and communicating the simple pain of being a parent is at some level reassuring, reminding us that late-industrial apocalypse is not his only theme.