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JOHN KINSELLA - JUNE 2000 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Timothy Steele
Cynthia Haven interviews Timothy Steele and discusses metrical poetry, New Formalism and Walt Whitman.
David Kennedy
David Kennedy reviews a new translation of the timeless classic, Beowulf, by Seamus Heaney.

Paul Hamill
Read his epic poem, "Meeting the Giant," about the mythical Cardiff Giant in Cooperstown, New York.

John Kinsella
The Magic Circle: The next chapter in John Kinsella's exclusive autobiographical series.

John Kinsella

John Kinsella is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, most recently, 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 - The Magic Circle

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My name is John Kinsella. I make poems.

There's no getting away from The Magic Circle. Once you're part of it, it doesn't let go. I restore that piece of the narrative: you know, where my grandfather took me to the Perth Magic Circle meeting up near Parliament House. I was shown how to palm a coin—a twenty-cent piece, I can still do it though my fingers were and are still too thin to be really good. And I was shown the canister trick, how to pack the silks—I wouldn't use silk these days, but then the implications didn't cross my mind. Though the ramifications of betraying these secrets did. Light-hearted intimidation. It may have been about illusion, about prestidigitation, but the magicians of the Magic Circle not only encouraged an air of mysticism, but probably crossed over into—if not wiccan or occult practices—a ritualistic secrecy. Freemasonry and clubs, special codes of behaviour, seemed to lurk behind the courtesies. Most of their magic was performed in public for children—and a child's innocence was a special kind of magic, a particular point of contact with belief or ectoplasm, depending. So I was welcomed as a prospective novice, and a validation of all they believed, and as a naive medium. The language of the place was poetry. There's nothing small-r romantic about this—poetry has always been "dark" and "anti" for me—it's the danger of words as much as the beauty that has attracted me. I try to write a poetry that undoes the poetry I enjoy reading. To work an illusion is to tell alternative "truths". What the eye sees but the brain knows can't be so. What I remember most distinctly are the odours of the magicians in their coven. A clean smell—the only acrid taint being a light (general) aftershave. Whites were crisp, coat and tails perfect. These were people for whom entertaining anniversary crowds and children's birthday parties were a pleasure—they had money, middle-class incomes.

My grandfather told me that these were judges and politicians, car salesmen and sign-writers, like himself. He wasn't a member but knew them and was welcomed with open arms. He loved magic and had worked backstage when Houdini came to Perth. He painted stage props and collected programmes. He had a set of Chinese Rings, the secret of which was passed on through my mother to me. I also inherited the knife secret, the matchbox trick, and others. I added many new skills and ran weekly magic shows at home for years. In the back shed I manufactured equipment to help with my act and acquired a magic hat and a wand with numerous trick latches, sashes and strings. I collated books of tricks and made notes in the margins about the history of a particular illusion. Lacunae and diagrams, marginalia and annotations grew and made their own linguistic tricks. Poetry came out of the magic books. When I built my first laboratory in Mount Pleasant, the process became alchemical—the nomenclature hybridised. Eventually my laboratory in Geraldton would reach research efficiency and the language of science would edge out the Culpeper tone that would return in my drug years. The words collected, each invested with ostranenie. Bakhtin became bedside reading, and the four Aces appeared from a deck of cards at will.

Having got back together after my retreat to Cocos, where magic was not illusion but reality—where what you did see was true, and what your brain told you was true was an illusion—I bought some simple tricks and materials for devising my own and put on a magic show for Tracy and Katherine. The surprise and the lack of answers drove Katherine—four years old—into a frenzy. She simply couldn't cope with this way of challenging perception. The accepted order of things had been challenged and upset. She demanded answers which, given my sub-spiritual and unofficial connection with The Magic Circle, I was loath to give. It took weeks to restore household harmony, and it would be four years before I introduced magic into our discourse. She counters now with tricks of her own. To beat an illusion, make an illusion. It's all about production and consumerism—an empirical and material gesture. As such, she separates it from her spiritual beliefs and can cope. It's just a gimmick, like television, and worthy of no more than this. A set of physical skills worthy of admiration, but that's it. So we tell each other and laugh.

I once discussed conversion from Anglican to Catholic with Veronica Brady. She'd lined up the priest. I've said this before but will repeat it as it comes into my thoughts regularly. It's easy to see it's the ritual and magic and history that attract—the pagan aspect of it all—but this is a Protestant protest surfacing here. It's got nothing to do with it, really.

I hear my grandfather's transistor radio tuned to the Australia-England test-match twenty years ago. The minister comments. He mutters under his breath and wanders out. He's only there because the family have been at him. They are worried about his soul—maybe appearances, but more his soul. But his non-believing is not prevention—this is the gauge by which they consider the worth of a church. Their prayers will get him there.

I was tuned in to air traffic control. I'd swapped some chemicals a friend had bought from Selby's in Perth. He was a chemist and twelve years older. He did favours like that. We made rockets and explosives together. I suppose I should consider the Freudian symbolism of this, but I was pretty astute and didn't detect anything. If he got off on it, he did it behind closed doors. Anyway, I swapped some chemicals for an instrument that, with some work and additions, allowed me to hear air traffic control. It wasn't magic, but it was illicit. I was consumed by guilt and destroyed it. I heard things I felt I shouldn't have. I can't even remember what. Maybe it was just crackling I remember as words as a plane flew overhead, but the memory was of intrusion. The same thing as magic, an intrusion into one's perceptions. That's when the author died for me—my poetry had nothing to do with tricking the reader—the tricks were made by the reader him/herself. They did all the believing or non-believing. They'd see what they wanted to see.

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2002 The Cortland Review