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JOHN KINSELLA - SPRING 2002 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Billy Collins
An interview and reading with U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Grace Cavalieri hosts this special one-hour program.

Molly Peacock
Diary of Our Day in Painting Titles:  A day in the life of Molly Peacock.

David Kennedy
Voiceprints (Part 1) - Poetry on CD and Cassette: David Kennedy explores the magical relationship of poetry and voice.

John Kinsella
A Travel Snap of the Stirling Ranges - pure memory:  Flora, fauna, mountain peaks, guns, Brecht and Jimi Hendrix, all in the latest chapter of John Kinsella's autobiographical series.

John Kinsella

John Kinsella is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, most recently, The Hunt and Poems 1980-1994 (Dufour, 1998). 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

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A Travel Snap of the Stirling Ranges—pure memory


I'm looking at a photo of the Stirling Ranges. A travel snap. I check the Net out to see what would have been flowering at that time of year. I read: Greenhood orchids, hare orchids, yellow dryandra, andersonia, wattles and purple hovea are starting to bloom on the whitegum flat and mallee heath country. In my snap I can see native grass and dryandra bushes. A gravel road zigzags through the scrub that becomes an indeterminate texture like algae at the bottom of a fish tank. The Stirlings rise into the haze of over-exposure, the white light capped by the reclamation blue. I am standing there. My mother and brother are nearby. Mum is taking her own photos and Stephen's saying, "It's incredible, isn't it. The View". I am thinking about Tracy and Katherine back in England and how I can tell them about it, taking the photograph back as proof. I won't recall this moment until watching a video of the film Proof. Tracy is teaching Australian film at UEA. We are glutting ourselves. Our favourite is The Cars That Ate Paris. When talking of the Stirlings people talk pre-history. I wonder what history has to do with any of it. The snap, the reconstructing of an epic in which we fit somewhere towards the end. Susan Stewart in Crimes of Writing footnotes Julia Kleiner from "The Role of Time in Literary Genres": "...However gradually as the emotional approach toward the past is intensified and expands, even the memory of past occurrences is penetrated by dreams. Slowly memory cedes to imagination and a fiction about the past grows up. This fiction contrasts with and complements the truth about the past, giving rise to an epos". There are photographs in Mum's albums of our camping trip to the Stirlings. We hired tents of canvas that sagged with heavy overnight rain. We climbed Bluff Knoll though that could have been on a school camp—I can't recall. I went to a camp at Pemberton towards the end of primary school and broke the ice jumping from the high board, and almost drowned, hitting the water back first. A friend pulled me out. What goes around comes around. My back turned red and blistered. I got toothpasted in my sleeping bag. I peeled potatoes and visited Fonty's Pool. Mrs Ferguson called me her Little Flower and I got toothpasted again. We visited the Gloucester Tree—the highest karri tree lookout in the south-west. It was closed. We climbed the Diamond Tree instead. The Stirlings are a long way from Pemberton, but we might have travelled there via them, or gone that way back. A long detour. I can't recall.

chrome and anatones high over saltpans discoid
like twilight zones of cultural sovereignty,
orbital carpet of wheedled scrub and thin-soiled grazing lands
where they might come, or might track
the ute like radar—you grow used to it, the vista
bluffing yellows and greens like camouflage
as water moves subversively,
and it's not a joke; a mere touch of the soil
rendering it potentially valuable to medicine,
as if we might map stars in the pavement
or create a false moonlanding, the breadth of land
shining under the passing satellite,
gloating beneath the shuttle
and its blinking focus; plethora
of banksias as old as the innards
of a mountain range where the gaps between peaks
are so broad nothing approaching a valley
lays demographic claim, and out there
the plains; concentration of visceral light
as granite outcrops heighten surrounding decay
and gravel roads are cut up, termites working the veins
within their mounds, as active as tense and always
in the second person, with a "colourful" local
telling another people's story as if it's his own
sans dislocation, because he's still there
and sees the lights when the tourists
are air-conditioned or wrapped up warm
after cups of mulled wine; that he's been much
further away than they have come,
and that was no weather balloon
or experimental plane

Though I do remember singing ten green bottles in the back of the bus and "great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts". Thinking again, it might have been a cub scout trip, with me hating to be with other kids, hating the camp thing. Making a go of it under siege. Getting socialised. The Stirling Ranges as agency. I as I was. Episodically. Unpacking chunks from what could have been yesterday's thoughts. Getting undressed behind a towel or in a sleeping bag. Avoiding the showers but getting dragged through them anyway. Why do I keep revisiting points in my life that are so painful? Why do I rewrite them and consider alternative scenarios? The plains stretched out from the foot of the range. Plains of thin harvest and salt, sheep and low-lying scrub. I climbed to the top and it was a seem-clear day. It had rained the night before. The next time I climbed Bluff Knoll was with Tracy and it was raining heavily. I ran to the top and nearly slipped into the mist and rain. I knew I shouldn't be there, knew none of us should be there. The myths around Bluff Knoll are foreboding. You can get lost forever in bad weather up there. The bad weather takes you away. It is a place of visitants. Those who do not respect the place are not part of it. You know when and when not to go. There's a peak higher in the North I believe—Mount Bruce?—but Bluff Knoll is often sold as Western Australia's highest peak. Eclogues don't form properly there and language is lost to the weather. Climbing is all about safety and the weather. Loss of memory is common when search parties come in to make the rescue. That we've seen what we shouldn't have seen. That we've overcome our motivated forgetting. Chthonic and archaic. The language of intrusion. Bluff Knoll Sublimity (for Tracy):

1.
The dash to the peak anaesthetises
you to the danger of slipping as the clouds
in their myriad guises wallow about
the summit. The rocks & ground-cover
footnotes to the sublime. The moods
of the mountain are not human
though pathetic fallacy is the surest
climber, always willing
to conquer the snake-breath
of the wind cutting over
the polished rockface,
needling its way through taut
vocal cords of scrub.

2.
It's the who you've left behind
that becomes the concern as distance
is vertical and therefore less inclined
to impress itself as separation; it's as if you're
just hovering in the patriarchy
of a mountain, surveying
the tourists—specks on the path
below. Weather shifts are part of this
and the cut of sun at lower altitudes
is as forgiving as the stripped
plains, refreshingly green at this time
of year. You have to climb it because it's
the highest peak in this flat state,
and the you have to is all you
can take with you as statement
against comfort and complacency:
it's the vulnerability that counts up here.

3.
You realise that going there to write a poem
is not going there at all, that it's simply
a matter of embellishment, adding
decorations like altitude,
validating a so so idea
with the nitty gritty of conquest.
Within the mountain another
body evolves—an alternate
centre of gravity holding
you close to its face.
From the peak you discover
that power is a thick, disorientating
cloud impaled by obsession, that
on seeing Mont Blanc—THE POEM—
and not Mont Blanc—THE MOUNTAIN—
the surrounding plains
with their finely etched topography
can be brought into focus.

The Stirlings are about the same height as the mountains of Snowdonia. Last January we walked mountain paths and went up to our knees in snow. The last retreat of the Welsh mountain kings and their followers, from the armies of Edward the 1st, ringing them in with the great castles of Caenarfon, Conway, Harlech, and so on. And capturing the smaller Welsh castles and rebuilding them. I trace connections of occupation. D & G write in A Thousand Plateaus: "The difference between them is not simply quantitative: short-term memory is of the rhizome or diagram type, and long term memory is arborescent and centralised (imprint, engram, tracing, or photograph)." I have no photos of that time in Wales though on a subsequent trip my mother, visiting from Australia, took a photographic record of our journey through the same area sans snow. I impose the hot snow of salt from Wheatlands, the hot-cold of the snow of the year before. Our memories are conflated. The wood of the forests that helped make the castles has rotted away or been replaced. Betws-y-Coed—little church in the forest—shelters the tourist dollar though remains beautiful. There's something obvious about this. The view from the top of Harlech Castle out over the coast is spectacular. And, of course, the already-mentioned Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station that we'd heard had been shut down, though read recently is still active. Which all makes me think that it should be brought to people's attention that Aboriginal skulls are stored for research at Kings College, Cambridge. Phrenologically speaking, after Table, at Governing Body. I have flown by Mount Everest. I have had a gun held at my head in Calcutta with an ounce of C4 sitting at my feet. I 'm asked to "do the deal ". The gun is at my head now. The Top Man is in his late twenties. He slices the plastic wrapping open and powder spills onto the rug. I fall to the ground and jam my nose into it, inhaling frantically. I look up, spinning. It's the highest quality. Warm and blurred I fall back and they all laugh and nod. "Good, good... junkie." Old men are sitting in the corners, nodding approval. He can deliver it on my doorstep at a rock-bottom rate. Protection, the whole bit. I want out. My mind and body are working in different spaces. I play along with it. The Top Man says he's sold the best stuff to English cricketers. He names them and gives details. I know he's telling the truth. I forget what he tells me as he's telling me, as I retreat deeper and deeper into the tunnel. I will scratch furiously later. Only if you can imagine a bee sting being pleasurable. I'm escorted back to the hotel, our "Taj Mahal", in a rickshaw. The guy's feet pad across the dirt. The Top Man is sure of me so he has instructed his guy to wait out the front. I'm finding it hard to keep my head up and keep nodding off. I take Dexedrine tablets. I manage to tell C. We pack and climb the back wall and make for the station. Then I'm on the train to Varanasi, wondering where and when in my life the Top Man will catch up with me. This is fear and I don't know how to describe. I am dead. BlŽriot's Flight Over the English Channel:

Calcutta—during a respite—I read
of Bleriot's flight over the
English Channel. I'm not sure
if there is much in this—I could
draw comparison, or make moral
allusion, to the "Telegraph—Mode
Survey" on whether or not "Calcutta
Is Dying", or to its beggars who
only live on "by the grace of God".
But I think not. Instead, I should
laugh at our absurdity—two youths
nibbling at chunks of tepid melon,
trying to maintain their strength,
not vomit over the room's tiled
floor, which the manager says
looks like the marble
of the Taj Mahal
if polished.

I went to Helsinki some years before being in Varanasi and sat in the cafŽ where Brecht wrote during the war. I drank whiskey and listened to Jimi Hendrix and added my friend's name to that of my son. I stood beneath the Lion's Gate at Mycenae and wandered amongst the ablutions at Epidavros. On Samos I climbed to the highest point and wondered why height is measured from the ocean's surface, so often out of view. I considered the rumours of inland seas and thought of Lake Eyre flooding and making the salt live. On the train between Calcutta and the holy city of Varanasi, I ripped off the hash and powder strapped to my leg as the police worked their way through the carriages. I hid it under the chair in full view of the business men travelling in the second class coach. They looked away, out onto the fields as we passed the subterranean kilns of a brick factory, the chimneys wobbling into the blue haze. In Varanasi we locked ourselves in our hotel room, the street wild with shooting, as rival families killed each other and the hotel manager bolted the front door. The atmosphere thick with the resinous smoke of bidis. There is nothing exotic in this and I have no opinions. I am just there, sick with dysentery and confusion. Come and watch the burning of the dead at the ghats, someone intones. The Balcony:

In the city of ghats and great pilgrimages
I sit on my corner balcony listening to the chants
of the fruit vendor as he pushes his cart
through crooked streets, watching pigeons
fly down from a large pepper-tree
into the open window ledge that sits
at the foot of my bed.

A holy man eats shit. Lenin's works are sold in hardcover volumes. I impose a external reading on the scene. Perth, Western Australia. The codes aren't there for me to translate. Only irony and sarcasm—cheap tricks of youth. I understand nothing. When they exhumed the body of the great Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti—shot by the Nazis—they found the blood-stained manuscripts of his last poems in his pocket. The Stirling Ranges are rough-edged with erosion. Their rocks are manuscripts where the print appears to have vanished but just needs the right light to be read by. The light is not the same though two people look at the same scene at the same time. The peaks are spread out over a vast surface. We travel slowly south. This photograph looks different—it was not this way when I began. Depth-of-field is wrecked by the wind. You can hear it in this College room, in a fenplace where owls are regarded as ill omens. In 1993 I got straight and retreated to London, thinking that someone whom I'd met at the CDU would eventually meet me there. Alone, I wrote poems about loss and rapture, of pastoral retreat and the destruction of the landscape. The poems would become two books—The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony and Erratum/Frame(d). I wrote letters—to the woman who spoke to me daily on the phone saying she'd come soon, then maybe, then not. I wrote to my aunt and uncle on the farm, at Wheatlands. The pastoral was falling into the eco-destruction that it always was. To reconstruct the rural from London, of all cities, seemed appropriate. But I could see the colours of the farm, hear the parrots. They would die and then sing again. I could hear the dead speak and was more out of it than I'd ever been when I'd been using drugs. Every photograph in my head was full of them—the dead, all the dead in it together. Poem For Those At Wheatlands:

You only realise
that the stars
over the low
fluorescent crops
are particular
to the frame
of Wheatlands,
that the canvas
stretched
against the salt
is a photo-
sensitive plate
that might take
generations
to expose
(below, another waits!).
And that family
ashes
are the size
that will hold
souls, stars, and soil
in place.

I've found another couple of snaps of the Stirlings. I think they were taken on the same camera—a small Nikon bought at Changi airport—on the same day. The paper stock is the same and the colouring is consistent. It must be something to do with mountains—a different view and the sun sitting elsewhere. And still the bright light on the broadest faces. That overexposure. The deflecting surface that the light meter can't quite cope with. On a grander camera you could adjust for this or use a filter. A shot taken earlier on the same journey: the Ranges in the distance. A clear day. A few clouds. None of the weather that threatens to take the climber to the other side. Nothing ectoplasmic in the atmosphere. They fit the archetypal euro-explorer prognosis. Landmark. Survey points. A cluster in the distance, only spreading out as we get closer. The gravel run-offs, small termite mounds, wild grasses and low scrub. The surrounding plains are perfectly flat. As flat as the travel snaps.

 

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2002 The Cortland Review