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JOHN KINSELLA - DECEMBER 2000 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Kaydi Johnson
Kaydi Johnson discusses Greta Garbo’s legs, dirty rooms, and carpal tunnel syndrome with Renee Bandazian.

Robert Danberg
Robert Danberg reviews the words of experience and wisdom in Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver.

John Kinsella
A Brief Tour of the Cocos Atoll: The next installment in John Kinsella’s fast paced and exclusive autobiography series.

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. He is also the editor of The Stand. Currently, he teaches at Cambridge University in England.
John Kinsella

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"The tale of restless dread and suspense which held the whole community, when some mutineer, with the desperate spirit of amok in him, was at large, and the exciting efforts to effect and to elude capture, was a chapter, which demanded little from the narrator's art, to engage my sympathies and my profound interest in this community, living its chequered life so far from the sympathies of the world."

A Bright Cigar-Shaped Object Hovers Over Mount Pleasant

It starts in the park near Brentwood Primary School
and moves rapidly towards Mount Pleasant
a bright cigar-shaped object that darts
and jolts across the demarcation lines
of class that aren't supposed to exist in Australia
but do because even Labor voters prefer
to be on the Mount Pleasant side of the divide
if for no other reason than it pushes property
prices up. It follows the line of my escape-
route from school, the same route a man
without a face in a dark car crawls along,
calling to me as I break into a run,
the car door opening and a clawed hand
reaching out to drag me in, the cigar-
shaped object stopped stock still
and hovering like the sun, hovering
as if it's always been in that spot, always
been overhead, as hot as hell despite
the cold setting in, the sweat emanating
from my forehead, the light bright in my eyes.

There was no escaping the supernatural, whether it was a Ouija board in my cousin's room on the farm late at night, a black frost on the ground and the floorboards alive, or my mother and I being "tracked" by an unidentified or unidentifiable object as we walked home from the local park. I was a kid, and it followed us and hovered over our house for ages. Mum rang Pearce Airbase and reported it and described it as it hovered above the front yard. The driveway was warm and the roses closed for the night. The next day the papers reported sightings across the city, in the hills. The hills held great mystery for me—they are where the Perth Observatory is located and are one step closer to the stars. I built mock space capsules as a pre-school child, made chemical rockets as a teenager. I was going to be an astronomer. I believed simultaneously that if you could predict someone's stars you'd possess them. I might have wanted this as a kid, but as I got older I became dubious. I didn't believe anything but data. Or said I didn't. Superstition got me angry. I'd walk under ladders, pursue the number thirteen.

For a child who'd struggled with his masculinity, I suppose this was just another expression of male angst. This has been said elsewhere, but the context is different and its meaning different. I cut out pictures from the newspaper about the Apollo missions and pasted them into a scrapbook. I read science fiction: Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, Dune, Ursula LeGuin, Arthur C Clarke, Doc Smith...a staple diet. I devoured the stuff. I wrote a science fiction novel for my English teacher when I was fifteen. (Lost.) A couple of years later I wrote a fantasy novel called The Staffs of Kwarn with some prompting from my university Tudor England History Teacher, Ernie Jones. Ernie didn't trust poetry and thought fantasy a much safer... realm. There was ectoplasm in Geraldton and bright lights near York and Williams. There were rumours of farmers faking landing sites. Respected citizens spoke of lights hovering over their cars on the back roads. We camped out with our heads full of these, sensing the presence. There was often an orange glow just over the rise of the Needlings Hills—and not only at seeding or harvest time. No mere tractor lights. Out there ploughing late at night I'd watched satellites and stars, meteorites burning up on entry, always listening and waiting. You wait out there. On your own, there is no room for scepticism—that's for company. For conversation.

You find the relevant bits in the Bible. You go to church and get confirmed. Children in the family are baptised. Your son isn't—it not being the anarchist thing to do from your point of view, and part of a victim mentality from his mother's. She's from a fundamentalist background. The devil has been beaten out of her and into the fire. She was a teenager. She can't forget it. An aunt-in-law was invaded by aliens. I have been surrounded and yet am in full denial. My mother had her tarot read before I was born and mapped my future in the back of her mind. Music and poetry were ways of contacting the other side—not that one literally believed, or would want to be in contact if something did exist. "Don't tamper with it," she'd add as a disclaimer.

My mother

knew a woman
who could make fruit
fly around a room.
If she stared
at a fruit bowl
long enough
it would explode.
She told my mother
about her family
and her life.
Things
my mother
already knew.
And she told her
how things
would be.

When I retreated to the Cocos-Keeling atoll to try and get straight, only to discover they sold duty-free alcohol on West Island, I found myself substituting the beliefs of the Cocos Malays from Home Island with the loss of faith I'd almost suffered in my addictions. Superstition and faith had become inextricably linked for me. I needed to reconcile them.

The day I arrived it was overcast and the first sight I beheld was the tarmac. Drizzle ran steadily over the windows. I was soaked by the time I reached the small cyclone-proof terminal. Always an occasion, the bi-weekly arrival of the flight from Australia was greeted by many of West Island's residents and also a few Home Islanders. After retrieving my baggage from the trolleys, I went through customs. Customs consisted of one large man with an eastern European accent and a snarl. He asked if I had anything to declare, and when I replied, "No," he closely scrutinised my face, waited long enough for me to develop an unfounded sense of guilt, and then said, "Move on." Something in the Customs man's gaze, and the fact that he was also a resident of the islands, made me feel safer that I'd given up the idea before leaving Australia. From the airport I was taken to the Cocos Lodge where I was given a key and shown to my room, my home for the next three months. The Lodge was more than a motel for those infrequent tourists that arrived and left with the twice-weekly flights. It was one of the centres of social activity on West Island along with The Club. In describing the functions of these two Cocos institutions, one can paint a fairly accurate picture of West Island society, at least in its social manifestation. Sitting opposite the airport runway, The Lodge consisted of three single-storied buildings containing holiday units similar to auto motels found anywhere on mainland Australia, a single-storied building that contained the offices and duty free shop, and a larger bungalow that constituted the Mess or "restaurant" to visitors. The Mess was, along with the Cocos Malay Restaurant which was attached to the airport, the place to dine out. There were no others. Packaged food could be had at The Club for those too drunk to stagger the short distance across the road to the Lodge. And this was often the case, as alcohol was the mainstay of West Island life, in total contrast to Home Island where the Muslim Cocos Malays lived an abstemious life of sobriety. On this far-flung outpost, the remnant of colonialism and privateerism could barely be kept below the surface. Between 12 and 2, and between 6 and 9, the Mess would serve an assortment of fresh food: fish and imported food and everything else. The ship came up to Cocos every couple of months, but there were often problems here. Most canned, dried, and packaged foods were brought in by container, while "fresh" vegetables came in on the plane in polystyrene cases. No matter how it had arrived on the island, there was always a taste of the artificial about the produce. West Island did, in fact, have a small market garden. The coral sand was in itself problematic for growing anything but the most stunted vegetables, and as fresh water, drawn from a fresh-water lens locked beneath the topsoil and sitting over the coral rock formations, was in limited supply, most things were grown in glass houses. The produce was small and often unusual in taste. And expensive. But many a day was brightened for me by taking a journey down the single main road, down the spine of the island, to buy a few dollars' worth of Island-grown produce. The bananas were always sweet and good, being grown outdoors, and the chilis were positively evil. It was often joked that their pungency was chemical-driven, and I wouldn't have been surprised. Run by the Cocos Co-operative, the gardens were designed to create employment opportunities and training as much as anything else. Not that they employed many, but everything counted on these tiny islands. The population may have numbered in the hundreds, but the available jobs were few.

As I retreated into myself on the Cocos, I ended up in detox where the resident doctor and I struck up a dialogue about isolation and independence that would see me back onto the plane and him to another posting on Norfolk Island, forever an island man who'd walk the beaches with his underpants on his head. I told him a tale that a kid from the West Island School had told me. It was from outside The Magic Circle; it helped repair my contact with my own past and, at the same time, released me just a little from the grip of addiction—a materialism of emptiness.

And so the kid began: "One night I was wandering back down to our place from The Club when I decided I might pinch one of the motorbikes from the front of The Lodge and take a run down to Trannies. People go down there to swim in the nick at night, and there were a couple of big-boobed tourists staying there that I thought I might see. It was a bright night, and I'd heard them say they might go for a swim. So I went and grabbed a bike and took off towards the beach. On the way there I crunched heaps of land crabs and rode past the Q station where I could hear Andy's stereo up hell-loud playing Soundgarden. It was so loud I tell you those ostriches would've been shitting themselves. Then I went down past Rumah Baru, but something made me turn the bike down the road to the boat ramp. I don't know why. I sort of shuddered and suddenly felt bad about running over all those crabs. I stopped the bike and put it on the stand because my legs aren't quite long enough to hold it up for long and crouched down. And then the bike cut out and the headlight went off. There I was among the coconut palms, which were all silvery green and rustling up high. I was petrified and couldn't move. The rustling was really loud. And then I saw this head without a body, with guts and shit trailing from its neck, and it was just hovering there, just near the boat ramp, and it looked straight at me and it was the ugliest bastard I've ever seen. I would have shat myself, but I couldn't even fart I was so stiff. And it moved towards me and then all I remember is it getting real dark. When I woke up, it had gone and I could move again. I'd forgotten about the boobies and just tried to start the bike and it started first time and the headlight came on and I flogged it all the way back to the Lodge where I ditched it and ran home. When I got in, my old man started yelling at me, and I fell over and started shaking and kicking and frothing at the mouth. Mum tells me they couldn't hold me down, that it was like I had electricity in me. The doctor came, but the convulsions had stopped and I was asleep. He said I'd had a fit and he'd have to do tests on me, that I might have to go to the city, but nothing much happened and I'm still here. Rosali said I saw a spirit and it was of the man who once lived in Rumah Baru after he'd escaped John George Clunies Ross who'd got him from Batavia to work on the island."

Fine January mornings on Cocos were immensely beautiful. Usually I thundered along the road to the wharf, but that morning I was so overwhelmed by the taste of the air and the sparkle of the skies that I cruised along at a leisurely pace. A council truck approached from the opposite direction, and we both pulled over onto the grassed areas that ran alongside the road, edging past each other. The driver and the two Cocos Malay workers behind him waved to me and I waved back. Shortly, they would be driving around the settlement collecting the massive dead palm fronds that had fallen during the night. As I approached the Quarantine station, I noted the black smoke billowing out to sea from the incineration pile. It was sickening. J, whom I'd not spoken to since the night of the dinner at R's place, had told me that sometimes when he was surfing, the smoke would drift over them and cover their skin in an oily grime. And, he added, if you knew what sort of shit we burn there, you'd be really worried about it. Having known a few surfers in my time, I didn't bother asking why he took the risk. And the land crabs cannibalised each other. I avoided them religiously. I noted a cat on the side of the road—there were plenty of them. The rats were in plague proportions. A few scrawny bantams crossed the road and plunged into the tangled undergrowth of pandanus palms and octopus bush, pisona and grasses. Overhead, the majestic coconut palm trunks arched towards their glowing green crowns. For a moment one could easily forget that these very same palms had meant the end of the natural vegetation, the lush rainforest that was now only found on the distant North Keeling Island. Most of the birdlife on Cocos had been hunted out. Now, only the occasional sooty tern, frigate or booby was to be seen. On my right I passed the market farm, and then Rumah Baru, and finally went on by Trannies beach on the left. I passed this turn-off but, on a second thought, turned back and rode down the bumpy coral track to the beach. I parked the bike, walked down past the shelters and picnic areas and stood on the beach, staring out beyond to the breakers rolling in over the reef.

The Cocos stay was a watershed in my life. I was going to live there permanently. The blur of text and self and place exploded. I felt I shouldn't be there, that it was all for the wrong reasons. This was a special place. The "segregation" between the western society of West Island and the Cocos Malay culture of Home was unique. You couldn't overlay patterns of post-colonialism here. The picture doesn't fit external frames. I became interested in the colonial history of the place, in the Clunies-Ross family, the sins and exploitations of the islands, the destruction of the original environment in the pursuit of power and wealth, care of the coconut. The doctor told me of the ill health resulting from a diet saturated in fats, of a history saturated in what amounted to slavery. The Cocos Islanders—brought in from Malaya and Java—were paid by their Euro-bosses with ivory tokens that could only be spent in the island store. This put a new perspective on the idea of monopoly. I attempted to read the place through Conradian eyes and began constructing a parodic narrative in such a vein. It hybridised and has become the seven-hundred-page novel Post-colonial which I have been expanding and revising for almost five years. Though originally "discovered" as a deserted atoll by Captain William Keeling in 1609, the place wasn't settled until 1826. There had been other visitors and encampments, but only briefly. The politics of the period and region were to play a dramatic part in the history of Cocos. One of those who accompanied Hare to establish the new colony was the Scotsman, John Clunies Ross. Scottish reels and Malay pantoums are interwoven through the Cocos Malay culture. Linguistically it is a unique place. Spiritually it is unique. Islam and semangat are part of each individual. The spirit world is still strong despite everything. It cannot be erased. It was an awareness of this magic that made me realise that I had no place there. I mapped it and explored the places I was allowed to. It is a map burnt into my mind. I long for it but can't bring myself to return.

A Short Tour of the Cocos Atoll

From Rumah Baru the runabout
skips over the rippling tidal sweep,
the lift & drop of the hull's skin
like the crack of a sail full blown,
dead, full blown again. We traverse
sinkholes cool with depth,
almost black, like inverted islands
set in intertidal reef,
a sub-surface map
where intensity of colour
makes do for sonar.
Ashore on Pulu Labu—the sheet anchor claws the sand,
a few chickens idle nearby.
On the island's ocean-side
I lacerate my feet on splintered coral,
collect a composite rubber sheet
from which a dozen pairs of children's
thongs have been pressed somewhere
in Indonesia, brought by the tides
& currents to Cocos. A brown booby
glides high overhead,
the humid atmosphere
muffling its call—these birds
nest on North Keeling
which is out of reach, but are treasured
by the Cocos Malays as a delicacy,
a food for which the Federal police
will often travel to Home Island
to investigate a rumoured feast.
Jeff is busy casting a net
for bait fish, he hauls
in a small school & collects
the anchor. I squirm with the fish:
they flick at my feet as I grip
the gunwale. Jeff
steers towards Pulu Kambang
& I can tell he's
checking me out—test
the weird vegetarian
who lets fish go & loves
the orange & black concertinaed
bodies of sea slugs, who
jumps onto the reef & tows
the runabout with unnaturally long legs.
The tide's retreat is in full swing.
We anchor a couple of ks from the beach.
Mud crabs bubble just below the flat.
Stands of driftwood lurk like booby traps.
Jeff chases reef sharks in knee-deep hollows
& tries to beach them. Their black tips race
towards dry land & dart suddenly
back to the depths. They are quicker than Jeff.
We walk to the island & walk back again.
The sun devastates our skin.
We suffer mutually.
Jeff heads for deep water
& says he wants to spear the treasured green fish.
He dives like a wounded frigate
& returns with nothing.
He is popular on Home Island
& speaks with thirty years
behind him. He is not the West Islander now.
And this is how I like him.
Returning to Rumah Baru
I wonder if he's the man the Cocos Malays
have been seeing—or almost seeing—shadowing
the coconut groves. Appearing at special moments,
bringing good luck.


I was invited to move onto Home Island—to get away from the drink, from The West. Some of the elders wanted me to record their history. Rosali, young chief to be, living in semi-western style on West Island, was great help. He could see my spirit was damaged. He tried to help me make the step which my body and mind refused. He took me to see an old man who was busy preparing copra in forty-four-gallon barrels. The old man told me the story of the coconut, and the complex and often violent history of the Cocos Islands were distilled.

The Coconut Story

when the old man found the coconut
the coconut with no eyes found in the cemetery
he kept it & soon found a cousin's stolen stuff
& said the coconut will sort it out

the coconut with no eyes found in the cemetery
told Mancep—the magic man—the thief will return it
& said the coconut will sort it out
but tell no one or the magic will be undone

told Mancep—the magic man—the thief will return it
the coconut without eyes sees everything & speaks truth
but tell no one or the magic will be undone
the coconut expects those helped to give something back

the coconut without eyes sees everything & speaks truth
so the owner of the islands hears this & wants the coconut
the coconut expects those helped to give something back
but the owner wants to take the power away for himself

so the owner of the islands hears this & wants the coconut
Mancep says this is not the will of the coconut
but the owner wants to take the power away for himself
Mancep says a great disaster will come his way

Mancep says this is not the will of the coconut
though the owner takes it over the seas with him
Mancep says great disaster will come his way
though for six years they hear nothing

though the owner takes it over the seas with him
he cannot control the power for the power is great
though for six years they hear nothing
and the people think the power has gone with him

he cannot control the power for the power is great
and he dies and his family brings the body back
and the people think the power has gone with him
because there is trouble and discontent everywhere

and he dies and his family brings the body back
though a great storm wrecks the ship
because there is trouble and discontent everywhere
because in the coffin was the coconut which the sea frees

though a great storm wrecks the ship
Mancep sees the coconut washed up on the beach
because in the coffin was the coconut which the sea frees
for Mancep to take back and set things right.

 

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