THE CORTLAND REVIEW  

 HOME

JOHN KINSELLA - WINTER 2001 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Stanley Kunitz
The Poet and The Poem: Stanley Kunitz: An interview and reading with poetry legend, Stanley Kunitz. Grace Cavalieri hosts this one-hour audio program.

Rochelle Ratner
Two New Yorks: Rochelle Ratner reflects on the aftermath of the New York City terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001

Gibbons Ruark
The Day a Poem Comes Home: A day in the life of Gibbons Ruark

Michael Brooks Cryer
A book review of James Tate's latest: Memoir of the Hawk

John Kinsella
Further Evidence: the latest chapter of John Kinsella's exclusive autobiographical 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. As well, he is the editor of Salt. Currently, he teaches at Cambridge University in England.
John Kinsella Autobiography Series

top



Further Evidence
 

Busselton Jetty

Busselton jetty
stretched to
infinity —
surely
icepacks guarded
its end?
we clutched our fishing rods
and thought of sharks
a mile out the gaps
between the planks
grew larger

This is part of a sequence of poems entitled "Early Recollections of The South-West" that I wrote when I was nineteen and twenty. I probably wrote earlier versions of these too. It was a teenager's take on childhood, on the nature of memory, of loss and reconnection. The south-west was the opposite of the wheat belt—less connected to the seasonal wheel, the extremes of the seasons, it was a cooler place with massive coastlines and great forests. The sequence began:

Point Peron
became my gateway
to the South
there, channels
opened themselves
and crabs were found
in dozens under rocks
the reefs littered with opportunity
helmet shells
gripped to this wonder
with every ounce
of strength.

Point Peron is just south of Fremantle. It's a cordon sanitaire—a brief slice of semi-intact coastline and coastal habitat. Metro kids and religious youth groups still go there on weekend camps to get in touch with nature. It represents loss and points of contact. It becomes an historical exercise. For me as a child, it represented a resistance to the city, for me as a young poet it symbolized the transient power of words. The organicism of language. Language meant freedom. But the time-sequencing of the piece was intentionally confused, as if I couldn't trust my own memory or reading of the feeling the natural word invoked. How much innocence could I afford to instill. When did I start being the person that I was.

of Augusta
there remains
slippery rocks and periwinkles,
from there on
mum and dad
were always apart
and then there was the confusion of good and bad, the religious strife of escape:
the stink of dead whales
reminded me of my grandfather's
smelling salts

I was fond of my grandfather. I hated whaling. My grandfather's best friend owned Carnarvon whaling station. Whether or not I was conscious of the connection as a child, it was the connection I drew as a young man. The construction seemed reasonable, the language and form, simple. The manipulation of the naive voice.

Uncomfortable with this, I'll reconstruct a visit to Busselton, to the jetty. I am twelve or thirteen. I have been to Busselton before. The overwhelming linking memory is the mile-long jetty; the fear and thrill of being all the way out there, connected to the land by a thin thread that might be swept away. There were and are planks missing in the jetty. When I was a very small child, my father lifted me across them. I travel out to the end—walking or riding, lifting the bike over the gaps—armed with my fishing gear and squid jigs. The green sea darkens with weed patches and gets deeper and fills with black ink from a squid jagged in the spotlight. We stay out all night, getting close to the immensity of the ocean by climbing onto the platforms under the jetty, at the end. Shark and benito are out there. Shoals of herring and taylor. Garfish and pick harry baits near the surface. Sea life is different out here, no longer obeying shore rules. Total disconnection. What I will try to connect with in my poetry is what I'm trying to escape here. Words are eaten by the immensity of open space. A strike or a loss are met with monosyllabic yelps. The cold drives you into your jacket. The nights are long and dawn is electric. The rules of communication are different.

The Magic Circle. Christmas. K's sea chest. She came over with L by ship. Her sea chest has been used to carry presents and clothes for the Christmas holiday. We re-establish the tree, stake our claim to the territory of a friend's house. He'll be down some time after Boxing Day. A magic show on Christmas Eve. Mum sits in the lounge room telling us the story of Grace Bussell's rescuing people from the ship wreck. Wild coastline. I ask her to leave so I can prepare my tricks. I've worked out a way of opening the sea chest from inside; I hide tied handkerchiefs in the lining. I lock my brother inside without letting him know the secret and disappear into another part of the house. When I let him out he is crazy-eyed. He can't cope with closed spaces to this day. The joke got out of hand. Later when I perform my trick he sits quietly. When I close the lid I hear him tell my mother in a worried voice that I'll suffocate and die in there. I open the chest and all are amazed. Stephen rocks on his chair and grows agitated. The next morning I open my present from him and it's a copy of War and Peace. I know he gave me that, because my Mother and he recall it. The story changes with each telling. I keep needing to rewrite the same thing. To fix the co-ordinates. I know there was a chest. And the town council was working on a fly eradication campaign. It would be easy enough to check council records, the archives of the town newspaper. Anecdotal evidence. The prevalence of flies in the town at this precise moment, seasonal variations taken into consideration. The bluebottle jelly fish, the stingers marking, mapping, encrypting your skin.

When the owner of the house returned he brought a friend and another kid. The other kid was older than us. I preferred messing around with older kids, so I thought it appropriate we explore the shed and back garden together. I suggested walking out to the end of the jetty. But the kid stuck to the bloke who'd brought him along—a young Catholic priest. I orbited him, participated in the adults' conversations, drank tea. I milled around, annoyed. The priest farted and said "froggies in the room with bad breath". I didn't laugh. Cheap trick. I was wearing a Chinese army cap one of my mother's uni friends had given her. I had put it on because the boy was wearing a hat the priest had been wearing when they'd come in. He'd placed it on his head when they all sat down. The boy grabbed it from my head as I walked past and I yelled out "Give it back you hat nicker." The priest wheeled around and said, "You don't speak to Aboriginal kids like that!" Dumbstruck, I just stared at them. My mother intervened "Why is that offensive?" Silence. The priest turned to the owner of the house and said "Black nigger is a bit much coming from a child of his age." I started to yell, "I didn't say that, I didn't... I said "hat nicker" coz he nicked my hat... he took my hat off me, I'd never say those other words..." My mother was furious. The priest became righteous and wouldn't listen to protests. I apologized out of embarrassment, despite it being untruthful. The kid—the Aboriginal kid—said it was okay, and gave my hat back. I told him to keep it and he said thanks. I wandered off into the garden and he followed me and said "don't worry, all adults are bad".

Wheatlands

Salt Paddocks
Down below the dam
there is nothing but salt,
a slow encroachment.
Fighting back, my cousins
have surrounded it
with a ring of trees.
At its centre
lives a colony of finches,
buried in tamarisks.

Written around the same time as the Recollections poems was a small sequence entitled "Finches". On the farm—Wheatlands—there were quite a few hundred acres of salt ground. It stretched from the "bottom dam" down to the crossroads. On the other side of the crossroads it continued into Uncle Jack's property. We saw it as something alive that ate away at the earth. Of course it was caused by extensive clearing; by removing the trees and scrub the water table would rise and leach the salt out of the soil. I found the salt pans addictive. The crystalline formations of the salt were otherworldly, and I'd often retreat down into this other-world as a child. It held the same attractions as the end of Busselton jetty. Quite often unusual old bottles would surface through the mud, encrusted with salt and algae. The salt wasn't entirely dead—various salt-resistant weeds grew abundantly, filled with Christmas spiders and insects; wading birds stalked the channels and gullies, the pools in and flats. If you stepped into the frosted surfaces of clay it would stick like platforms to your shoes. Thongs were a violent experience. My cousins had been working for years to surround the salt with trees, to reclaim the land. I planted trees with them, and my uncle invented a special watering tank to quench them during the hot months when the temperatures would climb well into the 40s. In the middle of the salt there was an island of thorn bushes and tamarisks. The tamarisk is hardy and was introduced into this territory. A colony of zebra finches had set up here. There was ample food on the salt flats and surrounding paddocks. And cats tended to keep off the salt. Foxes, not much risk to the finches, were quick to work out the neutrality of the salt and would often make dens in gullies where it was comparatively safe. The colony of finches mocked us and we were glad of it. We never took rifles down there. Sometimes we kept records of their comings and goings. We'd often find them dead on the salt, for no apparent reason. My uncle reckons a disease got into the colony and "thinned it out". Back there recently from the Cambridge fens, I walked out into the salt and found a few deserted nests and nothing but crowcall. The colony had been abandoned. I recall their being there vividly. I still have the poems. But are they a record?

Finch Death
The dead finch lies on salt,
tight winged and stretched.
The others shimmer
loosely in heat
the salt's white mystery
coveting tin cans, skull of sheep.
Slowly, death rides this hot glacier
further and further away.

Uncle Jack. Couldn't stand hobby farmers and "their fly-blown sheep". "No idea," he'd say. Uncle Jack would shoot cockatoos from the top of his television aerial which towered above his house. He hated cockatoos and liked good reception. If you ever left a gate open, you'd have to watch out for Uncle Jack. He was gnarled and gritty and worked well into his seventies. He then sold up and moved into town. He was considered a good farmer and much trusted. He didn't mind lending a hand, though he expected a hand back. I learnt about shearing sheds and dogs at Uncle Jack's place. And the smell of phenol and what to do with a cut or flyblown sheep. Uncle Jack hated people going near his rubbish tip. People from the city would come up and scour them for relics—old bottles, pieces of farm machinery. My brother and I went up one afternoon and systematically plundered his tip for old bottles—blue bottles, marble torpedoes, pill and wine bottles, old sauce and lemonade bottles. We were obsessed. We didn't tell him and he notified the cops, thinking city scroungers had been at work. Someone told him the truth, though his reaction has been lost under a general impression of his being part of the place—like the storms, or lightning fires, or drought, locusts, or a sheep down during lambing, or crows shot and strung from fences as warnings. When years later Goths would stay with my partner, our son, and me for a weekend, bringing anatomical pictures of animals, they'd collect sheep skulls and bones in the halflight—marginalia to the process of ownership and disinterment, eviction and laying claim. Annotations to survey. An alternative mapping. My aunt says, I know how the Aboriginals must have felt, as she digs the boxes of ashes of three generations from their plot to move them to town. And do the dead and their residue count as evidence? If my ashes are spread there will they stain memory? The story? Is this a myth of the grave? Another white trick, another claim to ownership?

A pair of painted quails
scurries across the quills of stubble
a flurry of rapid
eye movement
they shadow my walk
ostentatiously
lifting and dropping
into invisible alleyways
reaching the grave
I turn to catch them
curving back, stopped
by the windrows
the grave is a magnet
that switches polarity
when you reach it.

top  

© 2002 The Cortland Review