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JOHN KINSELLA - SPRING 2003 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Lucille Clifton
An interview and reading with the Leading Lady of American Poetry, Lucille Clifton. Grace Cavalieri hosts this special audio program.

Gibbons Ruark

With James Wright At The Grave Of Edward Thomas: Gibbons Ruark recounts his version of James Wright's last interview.


A.E. Stallings
Athens, August: A new poem to celebrate National Poetry Month.

John Kinsella
Abandoned Vehicle: Chapter 1 of "The Damning." Change instensified, the undoing exponential. The dazzling opening shot of John Kinsella's new eight part novel.

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 - "The Damming"

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Editor's Note

Welcome to "The Damming," a novel in eight parts written by John Kinsella and published exclusively in The Cortland Review

We present you here with "Chapter 1: Abandoned Vehicle."  Chapter 2 will be published in our Summer 2003 Feature.  Each subsequent chapter will appear in our Features consecutively until the conclusion of the novel with Chapter 8.  We hope you enjoy this special treat from John Kinsella and The Cortland Review.
 


The Damming
Chapter 1: Abandoned Vehicle


A scene set for us: worked up over a hundred years, the intrusive foliage peeled back, the underlayers of salt risen up like moods breaking the seals of suppression. It's a psychological stage, with the materiality a hindrance, the desolation just a stimulant or downer, depending on ignorance or malice in the observer, the real deal happening off stage, just hinted at. A place of sun or low cloud and fierce electrical storms; the light is always tinged with red or a violent blue or is stark white, a burning, glare—anti-light. Closing your eyes, you see a blackness darker than light. It makes you paranoid. In the height of summer a red filter is imposed over the place, the deadwood rising out of the lakes and scaldings like atrophied veinwork escaping from a corpse. There is no nice way of describing it. Which isn't to say you can't construct beauty, at least simulate it. At sunrise and sunset you feel compelled to do so, but any number of pasts, presents, and futures run together, collide. Tenses change. You speak from outside the place, buried in the black mud that's just below the white of the salt crust, or beneath the tinfoil surface of the water. There is never, however, any doubt that some or many have worked hard to make this place as it is. It's not random, not simply a product of natural occurrences. And if change and a gradual movement toward degradation have been encoded from the beginning, the code has been read and over-interpreted in more recent times—it is clear change has intensified, the undoing has been exponential.

They crop to the edge of the reserve, to the furthest reaches of the salt. A white salty foam kicks off the rim of the lake and flicks up the gradient to burn the already dead and dried wheat stalks. There are levels of death, it seems to say. The strong easterlies are unrelenting at this time of year—December. Rubbish pits gouged into the sand by the Inland Ski Club regurgitate tinnies and stubbies, old DDT drums. There is no room for pathetic fallacy here, unless the dead are really living and this is a place already of the other side. But it gets into the intruder's body so directly that it's impossible to think of it as anything but a malevolent living entity itself—a complex virus on a massive scale. Members of the Ski Club—farmers, shire workers, drinkers at the town pub, the publican (ringleader)—possibly shells of the virus hollowed out and working in a relatively immune environment by subterfuge. It's a risky business, though—technologies like this have a way of coming unstuck when you least expect it. The consequences for future generations can be catastrophic.

In the nature reserve surrounding the lake, spent shotgun shells litter the sandy patches between salt bush. Duck hunters, rabbiters, fox cullers. Illegal of course, unless it's the ranger, and he doesn't use a 12-gauge. Flies gather around the barbecues, though no one's used them for ages—it's a gesture, and a focal point for us to imagine out of. The wandoo and York gums incline to the West with a political intensity.

Civic-mindedness and public pride are evident to some degree. Corrugated iron demi-sheds, barbecues, toilets crammed with plastic and encrustings of long-ago-upset stomachs. Signs placed by a government department about appropriate behaviour, and the right and wrong way to navigate a speedboat about the lake. The ranger and police rarely come by, and the burnt-out car in the middle of the car park is testament to their lack of interest. It's only recently been fired, so it's a minor miracle that the sketchy patches of bush, the vast swathes of deadwood, and bordering crops didn't spark and go up. It's as if no amount of burning can damage things further, a black hole whose gravitational force is so overwhelming no incandescence can escape; rather, all is sucked into it. God seems not to register here on any scale we might all understand, but to speak in private ways to specific individuals. Or maybe this is just optimism, and there's no talk at all. A spiritual void. What the surviving and persisting species of birds and animals that live here manifest as transcendence, is brought in with them from the outside, and maintained as air in a bathysphere, requiring constant fresh feeding from elsewhere.

There are bad stories about the place, but people have forgotten them. An ambush of the local people, late in the nineteenth century, by "settlers", a rape about forty years ago, and the disappearance of a couple almost six years ago. Surprisingly, this final catastrophe is the least discussed or even remembered; it's as if amnesia has fallen over the district. The missing couple were locals, two women living together as married, who despite harassment had kept pretty well to themselves, making paper by hand and running a small hobby farm. The usual stuff that you get around these parts, outside the vortex of the lake, about unnatural behaviour and punishment, surfaced in the local news at the time; came up, but that was it. Sure, it was splashed over the state news for a week or two, and the place attracted sightseers and police for a while, but it passed quickly, the smell of the lake in high summer and the driving easterly curbing curiosity. Anyway, the details are lost to the salt now...

The glare. Ultra violets. Sunburn. Skin cancer.

Ted Wagoner drives slowly along the Kenning Road, his mid-range tractor dragging a massive silver field-bin toward the top paddock. He can see the header working the canna wheat in the distance, and he eyes the sky through cabin's tinted glass—storms are expected. The moisture levels are okay, but the air pressure is dodgy. Last year, storms meant an insurance job, hail flattening three quarters of their crops. He is thinking about his missus watering trees with the small tractor trailing a tank. What the hell, it's going to piss down anyway. It's part of her tree-planting project, part of that "healing the land" idea she's got going with one or two of her girlfriends in the district. Of course, there are plenty who think she's a meddling bitch. He inclines that way himself, though he defends her in public. What else can a bloke do? You can't give other blokes an inch. The Project. He hasn't yet told her that he bulldozed that bit of scrub down near the lake, the bit edging the reserve. She's not healing that bit, so she doesn't go there often. She won't find out for months. He'll deal with it when it comes up. And the neighbour bordering that side has a scorched-earth policy—clear-felled his place to the lake. His father was the one responsible for the damming in the first place, founder of the Inland Ski Club. Ted doesn't own a boat, though he enjoys getting out there with his neighbour Jim Prosper.

Ted pulls over, aching for a piss. He steps down, turns his back to the wind, unzips, and throws his head back as he relieves himself. The piss swirls in the breeze and somehow sprays back over his boots. He swears, shaking them and making the situation worse. The urine is dark yellow—he's dehydrated. He often forgets to drink, and the toxins build up. The tractor ticks over in neutral, and his large frame seems an extension of it. The pissing and the revolutions of the motor interconnected. This is what he's thinking. He likes being a big bloke. He recalls pissing against the tin wall of the shelter down at the lake—full of beer, it was clear and voluminous, solarising as it sprayed through perforations from shotgun pellets, made by him and his son when they were pissed and shooting duck a few years ago. They shot a bagful that time. His wife refused to cook the things because they'd come from the reserve, so they stuffed them full of strychnine and placed them near the chook pen for the foxes to collect.

Ted shakes his head as he zips up. Memory is strange, he thinks. Comes rushing in when you don't expect it. Not so bad with a good memory, but the bad ones are also unpredictable. Can mess up a perfectly good day. He feels dizzy. Something is trying to edge its way in. He starts to whistle. He pulls himself up into the cabin. Lets out the kind of yell he'd never allow anyone else to hear. God! God! It makes him think, briefly, about his promise to do the church firebreaks. Time has passed, someone else must have done it or they would be in contravention of the firebreak laws. And the minister wouldn't let that happen.

On a bottleneck of land between the large lake and one of the smaller lakes, wattlebird nests clump in she-oaks. Seed-eating mulga parrots pick among the carrion of tiny snails left exposed by the evaporating waters. The polish of dead wandoos feels like skin. Pleasant and comforting to touch. That's a memory that comes after the damming—a few Ks on, the sluice gate, then the dogleg into the river system.

The header red on the crest as dust kicks up from the corrugations in the gravel road. Jam trees and York gums in symbiotic clusters read like purple prose in patches along the roadside. This is the long paddock, where stray sheep feed after a long dry winter.

Gemma slows down and pulls the Range Rover toward the edge of the road.

Gemma, Bill says, you'd better drive up onto the bank, this bloody thing is too wide. He braces the windscreen as Ted crawls towards them.

Don't stress out, it can get past easy. Gemma gives Ted a wave, but his return wave comes as he's past them, and both strangers feel his apparent neglect is a sign of hostility. Ted is battling with memory and saying God! God! God! over and over to block out the sound of his own thinking.

He was yelling, says Bill. He was yelling at you for not giving him enough room.

He doesn't own the fucking road, Bill, just calm down.

Ted wonders, just before waving, who they are and what they are up to, but the occasional outsider does visit the lake, so it passes quickly. He is wondering now what his wife has asked him to do before returning to the house that evening. The first link in a chain reaction that takes him back to the city and his marriage a quarter of a century ago, She'd insisted on arum lilies for her bouquets, which upset his mother and aunties. Even in this unholy dry place they live in, she maintains damp shaded bowers around the home where she cultivates lilies, or they cultivate themselves. During the drought they seemed to impel him to make special journeys in the truck, out to the stand pipe to collect water to keep them comfortable.

A twenty-eight parrot flashes past him and takes his eyes across to his parents' old place, derelict in a paddock. The house isn't really so old, certainly no more than fifty years but, in its decay, gives the impression of an ancient history it has no right to claim. Eaten by the salt, it looks like a folly in a snowdome that is permanently being shaken. Maybe this isn't so far from the truth, the Meckering Quake having finished it off in 'sixty-eight. The river, the clotted artery fuelled by Slow K and sodium chloride, a hundred metres from the front verandah, winding out and shadowing the road.

Decoration. That's what those lilies were at the wedding, just decoration. Why does he bother reading something into it? Maybe she put that lily in the abandoned vehicle for the same reason. Just to make something look better than it was. That car had really bothered her—she rang the police continuously, but by the time they got to it, it had been stripped and burnt out. Just a few books and papers strewn about the saltbushes, driven against the deadwood by the wind. It wasn't a bad car, either. A late-model Toyota—if you like that kind of thing. Police reckoned it wasn't stolen, but they didn't know or wouldn't say, any more. Elle tried every trick to wring them for info. No use.

Ted feels a flush of pride at the stubble lines of the crop's harvested sections. The neat figure-eighting of the corners, the fine curves following the contour banks all shine through. It's his good work. His secret code.

Up on the high ground, along the granite outcrop over to the right, he notes that the Wagyl track seems brighter than usual, as if the sun has been caught in the rock. Even where the track descends to the soil, nothing will grow. His wife has told him that he shouldn't crop it anyway; that hasn't stopped him trying. He isn't disappointed at the failure—he just had to try. His brothers expect it of him. Prosper admires his efforts but reckons he should quarry the granite if nothing else. Prosper is go-getter.

Turning into the paddock over the cattle grid, he scrutinises his son's movements on the header. From outside the tractor cabin, we see Ted suddenly gesticulating, his face a grotesque contorted mess. It looks like a case of possession from an exorcism film. Generic in its presentation, no film in particular. Dehydration? Can it cause such an effect? His face moves in and out of focus. His son has seen him and is watching from the header cabin, bemused. Ted is pumping the tractor's accelerator and the field-bin is hopping about, almost jumping the hitching pin. Close observation of the mouth-muscles and lips, and a good translator, might produce: Where's the fire truck, you fucking little moron! I employed that little prick Dom because he was your mate, but I knew he couldn't be trusted to do a decent day's work. There might be other words there as well, but they're coming out so fast it's hard to be sure.

Ted drove the tractor straight at the header, cutting his son off as he was about to turn for another run.

What's got your balls, you silly old bastard?

Where's Dom and the fucking fire truck?

He's gone into town to get a few beers, so what's the problem?

No fire truck, no harvesting! If either of you had any brains you'd be fucking dangerous. And even fucking worse given there are storms around.

Okay, okay, don't stress out, man. I'll stop until he gets back.

More time lost. What's the fucking use!

*

Curlew sandpipers around the lake's edge grow uneasy and disperse. They vanish nowhere. Everything is suddenly still. The storm breaks as Gemma and Bill are finishing their sandwiches. The lake explodes with lightning. The flies disperse. Rain starts to belt down. Wiping the crumbs from her jeans, Gemma pulls her legs into the car and slams the door. Wow! This is amazing.

Bill, who has been feeling peevish, comes back sarcastically, Yes, amazing. We might even get fried by lightning. That'd be amazing.

You're such a stick-in-the-mud, Bill. Boring.

Yeah, fine.

Though the storm is intense, it passes quickly. The sandy ground drinks the water and feels almost dry again when they step out.

I'm going to take a closer look at this old car, Bill says. Dragging his heavy body out of the passenger's seat, he pauses. The air is still close and, slightly asthmatic, he begins to wheeze. He thinks he can sense Gemma inwardly laughing at him. He wonders why she hangs out with him—she's got it so together, as her young friends always point out to him. He bends his head towards the window and looks at her. She's gazing out into the lake, probably not even conscious of him. He's not sure what's worse. The light on her copper hair annoys as much as it entices him. He turns away and studies the car. Walking off, he picks up a soggy book jammed in saltbush. He studies the cover, turns a few pages, and then erupts, as if the energy of the lightning storm has finally connected with him and jolted him into the present. Hey, check this out, can you believe it! he yells.

Gemma almost breaks into a run. She's there. Geez!

*

 

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2002 The Cortland Review