John Kinsella, Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography
UQP; $26.95; 409pp
To attempt to update or relocate a foundational work of world literature is a bold and highly perilous enterprise. Of course, there have been striking successes: Joyce’s Ulysses; Derek Walcott’s Omeros. But there have also been conspicuous failures. Ezra Pound was channelling Dante as he sweated and fretted over his Cantos. The result, as Clive James noted recently, was ‘a nut-job blog before the fact’.
John Kinsella’s latest poem, a ‘distraction’ on Dante’s Divine Comedy, could also be reasonably described as a blog, though as to its nuttiness I make no judgment. In fact, it’s a sort of diary of a year, largely but not exclusively centred on a five-and-a-half-acre block of land in the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia. This block of land is at the base of a mountain – conveniently for the Purgatorio canticle, which, in Kinsella’s version, comes first (with Paradiso second and Inferno last). Colonised by paragliders – dark angels in Kinsella’s schema – this landscape serves as a microcosm for the Heaven of prelapsarian nature and the Hell of human contamination. Thus, Kinsella is able to indulge his so-called anti-pastoralism, with its emphasis on salinity, pollution, pesticides, over-clearing and other atrocities, even as he goes ‘up close’ (his phrase) on the tawny frogmouths and blue-tongued goannas.
The closer the better, in my opinion. Kinsella is always at his best when he sets himself to describe the familiar in new and unfamiliar ways. (Only Kinsella, Harold Bloom once remarked, could transcendentalise a chilli pepper.) Specific instances that caught my ear were the life buoys described as ‘cored sunsets’ and the ‘bulb of carcass’ to which a roo has been reduced by a passing car. I also liked the following description of moths in a sandpit during a rain shower. Note how the vowel sounds in the second line manage to convey a sense of burden:
Their wings heavy with rain,
dust is running off like sludge.
The terrace of sand a desert
of the drowning and the drowned.
If Kinsella could write like that all the time he would be a very fine poet indeed. Unfortunately, a fidgety aestheticism always seems to get in the way. Not content with his star player status, Kinsella wants to be a commentator too, and the deaf poetics of the Language School inform his vision like so much mist. Essays about Kinsella’s poetry have titles like ‘National Geosophical Lexicon’ or ‘John Kinsella’s Poetics of Hybridity’ and some of the poems in this collection read like invitations to such nonsense. (‘I am seeking / out the epistemological ambiguity of owls …’) The structure remains loyal to the original, we are told, ‘at least on the subtextual level’. Even as we speak, battalions of academics are slowly moving into position …
Moreover, Kinsella’s Derridean poetics aren’t much help to his politics. When, in ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, Shelley let fly at Castlereagh, Castlereagh knew he’d taken a hit. ‘I met Murder on the way – / He had a mask like Castlereagh.’ Take that! By contrast, Kinsella, a black belt in obscurity, strikes a series of spectacular poses but forgets to land the killer blow. Two dramatic monologues aimed at Messrs Abbott and Costello, that double act from the previous administration, are exemplary in this regard:
Chin up, wading out of Piss Christ,
wading through mushy-culturalism,
I demanded tougher oaths,
more compact make-overs.
I buoyed the congregation,
I mined the vast emptiness,
I removed the clutter of forests
and deleted any over-particulars,
I annexed and annulled the twilight zone.
Somehow I doubt the former chancellor, counting the money from the sales of his memoir, will be laid low by that assault.
But Kinsella is no satirist. He is, in my view, a nature poet who believes he is a philosopher. That the philosophy has begun to take over from the poetry is a development much to be regretted. I think Kinsella should get back to the dugites, and leave Deconstruction to the academics.