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JOHN KINSELLA - MARCH 2000 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Stephen Dunn
Philip Dacey interviews his friend Stephen Dunn and discusses Rilke, T.S. Eliot, and New Jersey.

John Kinsella
Sleep's Zeitgeber: The next installment in John Kinsella's fast-paced and exclusive autobiography series.

David Kennedy
The Days of '49: Whether you remember the era or not, David Kennedy reviews the book by Alan Halsey and Gavin Selerie.

John Kinsella

John Kinsella is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, most recently, The Hunt and Poems 1980-1994. His work has appeared in Poetry and The Paris Review, among many others. As well, he is the editor of Salt. Currently, he teaches at Cambridge University in England.
John Kinsella - Sleep's Zeitgeber

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Sleep is supposed to be
By souls of sanity
The shutting of the eye

He read: "The youth awakened slowly. He came gradually back to a position from which he could regard himself. For moments he had been scrutinising his person in a dazed way as if he had never before seen himself." It was becoming light outside. The bedlamp was so hot, dust crackled when it drifted into range. The great silky oak tree swayed in the wind. He hadn't slept, and school was in a few hours. The room smelt of soldering flux, burnt dust, and electricity. He'd stopped reading a few hours back, got up, and soldered a diode into a crystal radio set. Closer to his work disk a residue of sulphur might be detected. Science books and novels rose in piles in the corners of the room. He looked up to see if he'd switched the soldering iron off. And looked again. He put the book down and crept out to the toilet — down the corridor, over the rough cord carpet, over the cool lino squares of the kitchen, out onto the cold cement of the closed-in verandah, into the toilet. He turned the light on. He lifted the seat. He pissed. He turned the light off. He walked back into the kitchen. He paused, turned and went back to check that the light in the toilet was off. He turned it back on again and off again. Yes, it had clicked off. Wouldn't fuse and spark and burn the house down so the others died without knowing why. He pushed at it again. Yes, it was firmly up and there was no light showing, just the light of dawn gradually filling the toilet cubicle. He counted to five and checked again and then turned and almost ran back to his bedroom, leaping into bed where the light still burned and his marked book was lying near the pillow. "Since he turned his back upon the fight his fears had been wondrously magnified." After school that day, they'd "get him" as he ran home — blocking him off, herding him into the park, surrounding him with their bikes.

Sleep hadn't come for four days. You're not making any sense, they'd say. Manic, absolutely manic. You've got to see someone about this or I'm leaving. Lithium is a tasty table salt and the swings will settle into a comfortable, manageable rhythm. We don't know what to do with him, the cops would say. He hasn't actually done anything wrong. We're not coming to pick him up — using his mother's credit card number to secure that penthouse in Observation City. In the White Sands the bikies park their motorcycles near the bar. Quoting poetries and philosophies. In the table-tennis room, the ping pong room, the games room, behind the glass. Ideation? Manifest content?

Dear J

Must relay the contents of a dream from two nights ago. I've allowed time to pass before recording it in the hope that its "meaning" might become clearer to me. I can't say, in truth, that it has. But here it is! I dreamt that I visited you in an apartment in Paris — well, a conceptual Paris at least for if you looked out through the large plate-glass feature windows you were confronted by huge cuboid structures with few windows and the occasional scimitar of concrete sweeping between the cubes, as if to facilitate communication between these very contained (social/cultural) spaces. These scimitars led me to remark in the dream that they were like subverted crosses. The presence of God in the "new" Paris seemed ambivalent at best, but the codes were there. As we chatted there came a knock at the door which you promptly answered. Your movements throughout the dream were crisp and precise. On opening the door you were greeted by dozens of children — poorly clothed, dirty, and obviously hungry. You welcomed them in and asked me to help serve them food which was ready prepared, steaming on a stove in the kitchen. We served the children, they ate with relish, thanked us, and walked back out through the door into Fritz Lang-like Metropolis. We said nothing to each other during this incident. We then began discussing the "echidna project". You told me how you'd rewritten the poems, that I'd failed to negotiate with the echidna. You said I'd failed to engage with the "mysterium tremendum", that poetry is about secrecy and my boldness prevented me from fearing it enough. And I saw that this was my weakness, that as an artist I had failed to let my subject take "control", develop its own life. My echidna was going where I wanted it to. To save myself from further doubt, I started talking about IKB — International Klein Blue — a deeply blue artificial colour invented by Yves Klein, to be found in some of his pieces in the Pompidou, and other galleries. We began to paint the rooms of your "apartment" with IKB. I don't recall what happened then — there was a gap, a hiatus — and then we were in another room looking at the manuscript of your "new book" which was about "The Language of God" and was written on vine leaves, or maybe cabbage leaves. I recall large chunks of it — it seemed brilliant. I want to write it down but something says I can't. The dream ended, two days have passed, and I am writing to you. I hope all is well. Tracy sends her kind regards. Best, JK

Bob Adamson picked you up on Pitt Street and Dorothy, in the back of the car, said rest your head here. Dylan's in town, said Bob. We're going to meet him in his room. Mark Knopfler is going to be there. After days awake coming over on the bus, you fell asleep and missed it all. If they ever got there themselves. Years later Forbes will be pissed off because you've not turned up with some dough to buy cough medicine and whisky with, but placated when he's heard you've crashed out in Martin Place. Finally slept. That's good, son. Bob Harris gives you a lecture and drinks a bottle of spirits. You're crouched on his floor.

Between Lake Toba and Medan you want to sleep but the bus is jolting and lurching and every time you nod off your head hits the metal bar of the seat in front of you, jerking you into wakefulness. Prisons and plantations and military columns conflate, and the bed you eventually find yourself in is too short, the wooden base forcing you into a foetal position. That night the police raid the place, and arrest prostitutes who don't have enough to pay the required bribe.

You are writing a novel: Morpheus: A Paradigm. You think, I am staying up all night most nights to write about somebody who is not me. I've called him Thomas and he has an old friend called Henry. Henry and Thomas are interchangeable and are not me. Rewritten and transcribed sixteen years later the I is proofread into the text. The biography is given a timeline. This was written then, it was thus. You say: between the writing of that and now, I saw an echidna in jamtree country on the border of Dryandra Forest and Happy Valley farm. A farmer showed it to me, curled up and bristling passively. He is sleeping, but he will recover from sleep. He is not dead. He does not fear death will come if he sleeps. He does not, therefore, lapse into sleep, but responds to the body's need for sleep. Sleep is triggered. David Willis translates Donner la mort as "The Gift of Death". You read, now, "In order to put oneself to death, to give oneself death in the sense that every relation to death is an interpretive apprehension and a representative approach to death, death must be taken upon oneself." But it might have been A who said this after her brother dug a grave in the backyard, lay in it and swallowed poison. You've said this before. You've said, I'm telling you, the reader. I've told you before. Or we read it together, or maybe you caught the small article tucked away on the bottom left of page 15 of the newspaper. Or it may have been Craig in his anger. Or it may have been Dave Trotsky as he drank the dregs from beer glasses in that hotel in Fremantle before the bouncer beat his head to a pulp. This made the headlines. And if you're from Fremantle you'll have your own memories, own version of events. We keep coming back to it. These are possibilities that will be deleted before the final draft — more relevant experiences and stories taking their place as time goes on and things accumulate. Vividly awake, you learn to prioritise. Rewriting the script of My Own Private Idaho. It performs the same in your head, the actors, however, are your friends.

Sleep comes with a loss of blood. You might doze after sex. You go into hospital asleep though wake to a consciousness that has never known sleep. In the car coming back from the farm you can feel the ripple of rubber on asphalt. It becomes a cliche. A signifier. It keeps you quiet, lulled, drifting but awake. You don't fall half asleep but stay half awake. You delete REM sleep. You tell another's tale. It's yours in the sense that you were blamed for the end result until recently when your brother's memory finally returned. The family joke: he closed a folder bed around him, walked out onto the driveway, tripped, and rolled down onto the road where he crashed to the rippled asphalt and fell into an amnesiac sleep. You must have done it, they said. I didn't, I didn't!

Dear G

I must tell you about an extraordinary dream I had last night. You and I were standing on a terraced hill looking across a river towards a range of heavily forested mountains. If not snow-capped, they gave the impression of being blanketed by cold air. They looked crisp. Contrary to this, the hill we were standing on had a sub-tropical atmosphere and the vegetation reminded me of the north of Australia. You were telling me that soon those mountains would be denuded of all vegetation. We walked down the hill to the banks of the river by which groups of holiday homes had been built in clusters. We were talking about Dante's Purgatorio one minute, then next about Cosi fan tutte. You asked me about my family. I started telling you about the gulf between my father and myself, how I had been struck out of his will, but how we still had an amicable if distant relationship. I told you there'd be things in him that you'd despise but also things you'd find fascinating. Suddenly we were in one of those holiday homes. I had my back to the window. I turned and my father was lying outside by the river which had now become the Indian Ocean, listening intently to what we were saying. I said, "He's listening." At that moment we looked up and the mountains were bare — not a tree in sight. The dream broke and I woke. Best, JK

You bypass circadian and diurnal rhythms. The cave is open to light, the Fremantle Doctor fills it with fresh sea air in the late afternoon. You stay in lit places at night. You close your room off to the light in the day. Jet lag kicks in and out. It's midnight and cold out on the hundred acre. The fuel is metal cold as it spills over your hands, the funnel slipping. The heavy soil is sticking to the plough discs and a fox is barking up towards the Needlings. You grow groggy. The tractor's lights glow silver and orange. Another two hours at least, the figures of eight that cut out the corners harder and harder to do — the light inadequate, the body hard to steer. Your lift back down to the city arriving at first light. A serepax to link the events. Night seeding & notions of property.

Dizzy with figure-eighting
the corners of his fields, the drills
filled with seed & super
and closed over under
the tattooed rash of night,
foxes' muffling barks
& fighting to cover tracks
with a starpicket the axis
of a compass whose North
is wire-guided & lethal: silver
tennis balls exploding in their spiralled
swing on totem-tennis poles
for here stillness shivers & moves
like frost moves the shattered
flesh of quartz
over the wasted plots. A clear
dawn is soluble anyway
& the tractor gnaws,
its queasy stomach
turning slowly & coldly
with winter:
dispossessed
the farmer moans — a sudden downpour
shaves his precious topsoil.
The ghosts clamour about the microwave
& television set, the stove broods
in this sauna of politeness.
City people are expecting billy tea
& damper & the sheep to bleat
in unison. Nous regrettons parler.
There wasn't a kangaroo to be seen.
Night-seeding, the tractor's floodlights
are blood-red & ovarian —
nurturing the cloddish soil, & always
the farmer working the wheel, hands
gnarled & frostbitten & large.

Katherine can't sleep. Think of something nice, you say. Think of Walsingham, of the Shrine of Our Lady. Of the Stations of the Cross. Of the Catholics and Anglicans taking tea together. Can't sleep. Go to sleep. John Kerrigan has invited us to lunch out at the cottage. A vegan feast. Daddy falls asleep after he's been awake all night. He falls asleep on the couch listening to the stereo and watching the television. He watches the television when he's asleep. Can't sleep. Go to sleep. I can't go to sleep because I'm worried I'll be tired in the morning. I don't want to think, thinking keeps me awake.

Dear S

Is it possible to have a series of dreams? Well, in keeping with a theme, I dreamt last night that you came to a meeting in a large colonial house (with necessary wrap-around verandahs) to discuss the compilation of a new international anthology. The publishers were trying to convince you to do some television appearances to give the anthology a nudge. Why the dream was set in Australia I'm not sure but our family property — "Wheatlands" — was the setting. It had a sad atmosphere of decay as the property has been broken up over the years and in many ways it is my writing it that keeps it conceptually "together", and retains the family ties. Fortunately, its proudest moments — the reclamation of land ruined by salinity ("the hot snow of salt" I wrote in "Finches") — has been safeguarded. It's like a wildlife reserve and a great achievement, if somewhat ironic given that the family originally cleared it, drove off the indigenous peoples, and destroyed it in the first place. But times have changed, and there is a distinct effort to make amends. Not an excuse, but something important all the same. Anyway, in this dream, when there was a break I managed to catch your eye and you came over for a chat. I asked if you'd read Simone Weil, a thinker I really admire. I had a copy of Gravity and Grace in my hand. You began to weave an incredible poem that tied the colonial situation in Ireland with the colonial situation in Australia, weaving the different landscapes in and out of each other. "Every separation is a link, every separation is a link..." repeated itself like a prayer or mantra. Suddenly my sight began to blur and I couldn't see you, only hear your voice... and I woke. Well, a strange dream, eh? Best, JK

My head is going fast inside. Go to sleep. Think of the walk to the Slipper Chapel, the fighter jets cutting in over the coast, the ear-tags of cows destined for slaughter as the mist lifts from the field and the thistles dry and the world begins to glow.

 

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2002 The Cortland Review