Sunday, January 27, 2008

Wheatbelt Isohalines

[A full (and extensive) article encompassing this entry is in the new issue of Poetry Review.]

It gets saltier around here season by season. The water-places have dried out entirely and the white of salt has become whiter. It gleams. It is haunting.

If an isohaline is a line that carries us between points of comparable salinity in an ocean, then the pipes that carry freshwater through the wheatbelt, crossing salt wastes on small trestles and pylons, are interior or land-bound isohalines. I am often distracted by the nature of the “line”. What two points it connects might be in the first place, and the necessary curvature as we plot from one point on the earth to another, no matter how short.

Connected at various points to these pipelines are standpipes: the lifelines of the wheatbelt (and elsewhere). I remember when I was a kid going out with my uncle in the truck, with large square metal tanks on the back, to the nearest standpipe (maybe ten miles or so away) to collect water for carting back to the farm to refill the rainwater tanks in dry times. It was for drinking, washing, showering. The toilet was watered from a farm dam, but a month or two into summer would see the house-water supplies run dry. For my cousins, these labours were no doubt of minor interest, having to see to them summer after summer, but I always enjoyed accompanying my uncle. I didn’t do much. I held the rubber pipe in place as my uncle turned the tap/wheel, and the water gushed out. I placed the cover on tentatively before my uncle sealed it shut. Back at the farmhouse, the water would then have to be pumped into elevated tanks, high up on their stands; the largest stand was fenced in by one of my cousins to house his canaries.

Later, as a young bloke doing itinerant work in the country, I didn’t find carting water such an interesting thing. Just hard, necessary work.

Last week I was driving a back road along the Avon River with Tracy and Tim, and as I sometimes do, I stopped the car beneath a standpipe. Tim loves it. He is obsessed with standpipes, these rural life-sustainers... he fills pages with drawings of them. Ironically, they look something like images of oil-wells filling Texas: well after well after well. These don’t quite carry that horror, though. Not in intent, anyway. But the images are terrifying. The cumulative impact of the “mundane”: the total occupation of space. A lexicography. A perspective. A flattening or ironing out of depth of field. Even the “white” between the standpipe images is traumatised by their exponential presence. Colonisation is sequencing. They become close points which are joined by intense, variegated lines. They challenge perspective and functionality: seeing is belonging and belonging is rarely if ever linear.

Anyway, as we sat in the car, Tracy remarked on the letterbox next to the standpipe. Strangely, even after years, we’d never discussed how a standpipe functions. She rightly adduced that it was for recording the water taken: the accounts are kept by shires and it’s an honesty system. You note how much you’ve taken (by reading the meter), and pay for it later. Tim loved the idea. These signifiers on the roadside have letterboxes where the narrative, the story of their watering is told — and by different voices.

Wherever we drive, Tim counts standpipes — we look out for them. We can map large areas of the wheatbelt by standpipes, and where the pipelines go, where the freshwater flows over the salty wastes. Yesterday, as we drove home from Northam, he asked if we could pull over at the Spencer’s Brook standpipe. We did, and I took a few photos. The position of the sun dictated the angle/s. I took one face-on with the line of the pipe aligning with the verticals on the crosshairs of the view. Lines hiding lines. And note the background — all rotates around the fulcrum, the axis of the pipe. Lines of road, fence, instructions, letterbox, trees, are taken into its simple, spatially minute starting point. Trigger of a lexicography.

Mind you, you could just as easily drive past and not notice it at all, but gain an impression of the road, the fence, the trees... But once you know it is there, and once its “offerings” become life-sustaining, essential, or at least necessary or desirable, it is the centrepiece. It becomes bigger than a big place. Out in salt places, a standpipe ironises and overwhelms the salt, the vista of dead trees or the absence of trees. It is encapsulated, contained... channelled fresh water. And it is flow. Controlled flow. I will take a photo of standpipe out in a salt waste when I get the chance. Ghost/phantom limb... not. Haunting... likely. It’s startling once you appreciate its import. It’s such a contradiction that it makes reference to symbolism redundant. It transcends symbolism.

Oh, as an aside, a standpipe is called a “colonne d’alimentation” in French. Here, among the salt angst of the wheatbelt, there are no sonnets of correspondences. When one tries to write them, the correspondences come unstuck. One attempts to write between the languages of imperialism, or one stays trapped in them. The glints out of the salt are fox eyes and/or broken glass. The standpipes are “pitiless”. We can’t begin with Baudelaire:

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles:”

[The living pillars of Nature’s temple
Occasionally unleash muddled remarks.]

(from "Correspondances"

I have gone for “remarks” rather than “words” or “speech” as the land is re–marked by each standpipe, and yet they remain so hidden in their openness. People drive by time and time again and don’t notice them, if they are not part of their lives. At least this is what I have found with so many of those who have travelled with me.

Tim never misses one. He is sensitised to their presence. He relies on them. The benevolence of availability, the “posting” of what is owing (recording what taken, signing off on the deal in the absence of an official), ultimately the “rights of property” held by the state that the landowner might partake to build his/her own profit, that it might feed back to the state and increase its strength.

Last winter I watched a shire truck with a huge spray-tank on the back, using the standpipe going out of town towards Quairading to embody the poisonous swill — to mix the herbicide with the necessary quantity of water. The standpipe’s rubber hose was deep inside the spray tank. The next user unwittingly dips the same hose into their tank for fresh household drinking water. Not that many would see it as a problem. It’s a spray-crazy shire. Standpipes are also flagpoles. From the taps flowing with scheme water made potable for us all... no matter how isolated, we are “assimilated”. That’s terror.

Yesterday was Invasion Day in Australia. I lamented. How many flags can people stick on their cars and why do their drives look so aggressive? And why is it not uncommon to find “If you don’t love Australia, leave it” stickers on their back windows? Last night I watched Ten Canoes. (On Ten Canoes: . I hope some of the Australian flag wavers did as well. Likely, they were watching the fireworks down in the city — polluting the Swan River with fallout, and putting the bushland of King’s Park at risk of incineration. The price of leisure. “Leisure” will consume the planet to its last drop. Computers, light bulbs, television. Unacceptable. Complicit. It torments me. And poets will play their fiddles as the world burns, convincing us necessary music is being made.

Now, as it’s approaching midnight, I will return to reading James King’s William Cowper: A Biography (Duke University Press, 1986, Durham). On Cowper:

John Kinsella

Thursday, January 24, 2008


By Tracy

I'm one of those people in whose minds particular dates seem to brand themselves, so that I can't help but note them passing each year -- yesterday ten years since the death of John Forbes, today two years since that of someone else I once knew, a strange pairing of two anniversaries that is peculiar to me, since the two people were unconnected in life. It sounds morbid, but it's not entirely -- birthdays and other dates engrave themselves into my psyche in a similar fashion. I cannot-not-notice them.

So today I am thinking of W. S. Merwin's poem "For the anniversary of my death" ("Every year without knowing it I have passed the day...") which is from The Second Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon, 1993), and can also be read at

and just in general of the strangely private nature of calendars, that exists alongside their public function...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Remembering John Forbes

By Tracy

[The dates are coming up slightly wrong on this blog, for where I am. It's actually the 23rd I mean... I will have to figure out how to fix it...]

It's ten years today since the poet John Forbes passed away & this blog entry will be short, just a little way of marking that date; I find it hard to believe so many years have already gone by. What a decade separates us now from him...

Therefore almost ten years too since the special John Forbes issue of John Tranter's Jacket:

Damaged Glamour, the book he had just completed when he died, came out not long after.

Since then, Forbes's Collected Poems 1970-1998 has appeared (Brandl & Schlesinger), as well as homage to john forbes (ed. Ken Bolton, also Brandl & Schlesinger, 2002).

I don't know if there are any commemorative readings, gatherings or whatever going on today, but I'm sure I'm not the only one thinking of him. There's a lot that could be said, but I don't really feel up to saying it.

My favourite Forbes poem, for what that's worth: Ode to Doubt.

Veganic Gardening Poetics

Time to get the garden going again. It’s hard to believe that it was a high-yielding vegan wonderland only two months ago. It’d been producing for nigh-on ten months and I felt it was time to let the land lie fallow for a while. Over the next couple of weeks I will dig/hoe the weeds in, turn in dry compost, water it to let the weeds emerge then turn them back into the soil after a week or two as green compost. I’ll leave it sit for another week, water, turn it again then plant with “original” organic/veganic seed.

It is an entirely veganic/organic garden, with no animal manures or products, no pesticides or herbicides or artificial fertilisers. The soil is quite acidic, so I do use plenty of wood ash. The wood ash itself comes from our bush stove which we run during winter, burning only storm-felled wood. We do not “harvest” wood that has obviously settled as habitat for insects and animals.

Last summer’s tomato crop (planted late) was still yielding in June! Even the Chinese cabbages were going into late autumn. The frost finishes things off when winter really sets in, but the dramatic seasonal shift brought on by climate change means long late summers and autumns. We also had a sizeable harvest of butternut pumpkins, masses of snow peas through winter, a winter and autumn continual harvest of sugar-snap peas and broad beans, excellent winter broccoli, silverbeet throughout the year, even in the middle of winter, late carrots and beetroot, autumn chillies and capsicum, plus various herbs (exquisite oregano and basil).

I went out to survey the garden beds today — it’s not so hot, reaching only the low 30s. A couple of weeks back it was in the mid-to-high 40s! That’s around and above 120 Fahrenheit. Sears gardens. Anyway, I checked out the ground... dry and dusty with a jungle of wild oats that came up late and were left, obscuring all. Amazing after months of no water that some things that weren’t harvested, because they didn’t finish in time, or weren’t quite up to scratch, still struggle on. Especially cabbages. Lots of dried and split broad-bean pods, spilling beans on to the ground. Will collect those. A bean so sun-affected that it caught my eye, had gone from its regular brown opacity to a transparent redness, like a fierce eye glowing at night.

I took a couple of photos (below) of part of the garden:

When it’s thriving, it attracts a large numbers of birds — all are welcome. They work out insect issues (insects are also welcome), and also naturally fertilise the ground. If it falls there without human intervention, I’m okay with it!

When I am working out there on warm evenings, willie wagtails hang around, and often a pair of red-capped robins. The 28 parrots have eaten most of the seed from the vegetables I left to go to seed. I harvest enough and they get the rest.

The garden area is quite large and spreads along the flat. It will take a lot of work to prepare but it yields enough to feed two or three families daily, once it’s up and running. If I had my way, I would spend my life growing organic vegetables for a community. Maybe down the track! Oh, that garden is the source of many poems. I have a garlic poem from six months ago I haven’t published yet. I include it below. A veganic garden is a poetics.

Planting Garlic During a Dry Winter to Ward Off

Break the corms —
separate cling-wrapped
inner growth, free succulent
cloves, organs that open to dry
winter air. Make happen.

Cloves, curved as half-moons
out from the turntable of roots,
rotating out of the stalk core,
unsteady walking stick,
nervous maypole.

Give of tension, therapy,
cure-all for colds and plague,
torn from the dry cradle,
broken-skinned, into
the earth’s crumbling

encapsulation. Purple-
veined, as if all paper written on
still pulses with life. Ink blood
we read against, white intrusion
of page, of gleam.

An action less
than snapped apart, no more
set adrift, upright from parameter
to tip, mimic-thrust from boldness
to discrete finger up,

pointing. Thrust down, cold
to curve away from straight and narrow,
rupture surface, displace
fate. Attract rain.
Make warmth.

The sun, low, insists
its sweep across the winter dry,
stenographer’s growth,
politicising nurture,

John Kinsella

Between libido and language

Tracy here...

The Guardian (UK) yesterday published a review by Blake Morrison of George Steiner’s new book, My Unwritten Books (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), in which the reviewer remarks that Steiner “has always been interested in the relationship between the libido and language”, and proceeds to give entertaining examples from the work that illustrate this “startling” statement of Steiner’s (pardon alliteration!):

“I believe that an individual man or woman fluent in several tongues seduces, possesses, remembers differently according to his or her use of the relevant language. That the love and lechery of the polyglot differs from that of the monoglot, faithful to one language.”

It’s clear from what follows in the review that Morrison, while intrigued, finds the illustrations de trop – you can read them here and decide for yourself:,,2242984,00.html

but it certainly had me thinking about the quality of difference in experience between languages – and George Steiner is in a position more than most to know about this.

I haven’t read the Steiner book yet but will be looking out for it. There are parts of my other-language vocabulary... much smaller and weaker than his, of course!... that I almost can’t bear to use (or dwell on) because of their too-close association with particular memories, people, physical sensations of the far past – certainly of love if probably not of “lechery”...

Of course it’s also true that particular words, vocabularies within just one language can come to be linked to past experiences in a personal, idiosyncratic way, but I suspect Steiner is meaning something far more differentiated than this. An Australian friend with whom I travelled in France when I was very young said to me, “You become another person when you are only speaking French, your entire personality is different, and you seem much happier.”

I don’t know that I was necessarily happier, but the general distinction was accurate, and I am sure that this is true for many non-monolinguals.

After reading the review, I was driving down to Perth (actually to the south-eastern suburbs, a couple of hours from here) with T (aged 5), listening to Jacques Brel on the way – between us, we always choose two to three CDs to cover the journey, sometimes replaying favourite songs many times over – sometimes – yes, naff/daggy I know, singing along.

T is growing up bilingual – passive French at this stage, because he won’t speak it but can understand it perfectly – used to speak it, but refuses now that he’s immersed in a social environment that only speaks English. So these car-journey listenings – like the watching of French kids’ movies together – are our “other-self” space, a strange bracketing of our normal lives and entering a shared alternative existence.

I know it’s hard for non-native speakers like me really to judge the quality of poetry in a foreign language, but Brel seems to me a true poet – and one hard to share with those who speak only English, because the translations I have heard (e.g. the English If You Go Away, compared to the French Ne me quitte pas) seem to take all the poetry out.

It seems to me too that Brel writes about love and passion – and sometimes even lechery? – in a very French-language way (okay, he was Belgian, but it’s still the French language). Despite having done a fair amount of translation, including of poems, I wouldn’t know how to begin to translate Brel – the lack is already in the words available. Which is not to say the Anglophone can’t love (or lech) just as well as the Francophone, only that there is disparity, a shape that can’t quite be mapped onto the other shape.

There’s a big website on Brel at

in four languages (including English) and I’m almost afraid to read it, in case I discover something off-putting, as I did recently about another favourite, Cole Porter, when I heard for the first time an older version of his Let’s Do It which included offensive (racist) lyrics that were missing from my Ella Fitzgerald version... Somehow that makes it harder to enjoy any of his songwriting. Some sources say Porter was racist in actual life too.

Not that I’ve any reason to suspect Brel of similar attitudes, only that it’s often disappointing when you learn about the person behind an artwork (why do we expect artists to be good people anyway?). Reading any poet’s biography (for instance) should disabuse us of that... But that’s another story, and this blog entry is already too long.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Nightlight pleasures of the State

Been a strange day for me. Have been concerned over war-profiteering of language. Of good intent on the surface that really operates as self-confirmation or emotional profit. Have also been thinking about how I can’t write my “old life”, the decade or so I can barely remember. I don’t want to, but maybe I should. When I do recall, I seem to recall amiss, according to those who claim to have seen and known it better. Last year a friend died with whom I’d spent a lot of time during these “phases”. See, I am only left with euphemisms. I have wanted to write an elegy — a memory of her — but haven’t been able to. I think Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle takes the typically easy path when he writes: “With writing there appears a consciousness which is no longer carried and transmitted directly among the living: an impersonal memory, the memory of the administration of society” (Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, Detroit, 1983, 131). There are not a few poets who would agree with this, but it is a typically “Western” text-entrapped conclusion come out of a struggle with State, that ultimately has given in before it has begun a resistance. The pat quoting of Novalis after this statement, “Writings are the thoughts of the State; archives are its memory”, plays the stock-epithet game. As a “saying”, it works, but as fact, it is unsupportable. The poem below — an elegy for K who died in very bizarre circumstances, made generic by the culturally-deleting “somewhere in South America” — is a processing of this. The record of K’s death is debatable in ways that aren’t mine to discuss, but nonetheless have become part of the conversation about her living life as well as her living death (many of those close to her celebrate her life rather than lament its loss). It’s also a poem about “place”. She liked to visit “the bush”, though I never saw her here. The poem is about contradictions, I guess. I once played war-games as a teenager. I also designed a war-game (or two). I then became an anarchist. Some years later (some would say many years later), a dedicated pacifist. I fought addictions and am proud to have overcome them, over a decade ago. And today I wrote this poem:

Graphology 788: Nightlight pleasures of the State

Dead-ringer, eidetic rough that sloughs
my slump, an ethics trap, sure, buster,
as K was cut up “somewhere
in South America”, culture dares

its weight, night when iron shakes,
rumples hoods to notch up fearfulness:
numb as paradox I was, and she said
hit the adrenalin, oxymoron for this

body type, beautiful in narcotics,
slam-dunked before the gates, left open,
struggling to close before sheep
stampeded, forced their way

announcing — alone — poor dittums.
I trowel those traumas, sweat that
serves my nakedness with hesitation,
embarrassment, as might have taken

root among the parrots, speaking their chat,
as I can, honestly, short-skinned,
downing long-necks in early morning,
traipsing out of sins and deals,

dead-loss conniving to empty
all accounts, cherishing sea-urge
of gulls who’d rather fossick
slightly in, in from the coast,

knowing the coast is contraire, less viable;
what if I sign up on the Sea Shepherd,
nibble before an action, come out
rough to trot, latch distant cheek by jowl,

stare long and hard, maladroit,
stretch those gibbets of gravity,
educe a tipple, violate tilt
of methylated spirits, cleaning toilets —

needle-stick around the bend?
That’s me — if known, truly known,
I’d be out on my ear, searching
for the residue of K. She

liked me and I her. I thought to be liked...
is decent. Thanks. Country night
fills country air, mercury lamps
the screen. I look out, nightlight,

barely structuring war-profiteers,
selling peace at margins, visoring lipid
sunsets in graphic programmes: she
would have temporarily

liked it out here — sequestered —
wiping aside the drool of electricity,
quaint alpacas wondering why
“sexy” is barely mountainous,

a gene-scene, remote
carpet-bagging sensibility,
the way the powders
came in from “overseas”,

cut to the chase, the drowsy
pin-cushion, vein-chase, cook-ups
when there was plenty. I barely
came out alive. Had to go, sorry.

A dog is barking. A small dog
barking high-pitched into the night.
Yapping — it is irritating,
more so because so distant.

Alone here. A country separation
like a planned pregnancy. The dog’s
pain would have irritated you
more than its barking. Music

stops and you start to worry.
Anything to keep it going. Rambunctious
crowds. Loopholes in the rapid.
Glasses that shut down 3D.

That’s eye to eye. Spectacle.
Warding off a deal with Novalis:
these archives, that memory.
I am cleaning up my act...

Half-weight annihilation.

John Kinsella

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Welcome, all. This is a dual blog by poets John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan. We intend to talk here about many diverse issues from poetry through to politics and anything else that takes our interest from day to day.

We are both committed, long-term vegans and pacifists, and John has called himself an anarchist since his teenage years. He is a strong believer in community living, decentralisation and living without the intrusion of the State. He has developed a term or a theory he calls "umbrella anarchism", which he uses to denote coexistence with the State while not condoning the activities of the State, with a view that eventually the State will dissolve through its own inadequacies, injustices and oppressions. He feels that consensus is the basis of any just community.

Further to this, he considers himself an international regionalist (his term), which in essence means he proposes international conversations between places, while respecting regional integrity. He is a deeply committed environmentalist and activist who aims to decrease human intrusion into the "natural world".

He believes strongly in indigenous land rights around the world.

Tracy writes fiction as well as poetry, and shares John's environmental and political concerns. She has a background in language studies and is keenly interested in all things related to language-learning, translation and linguistics in general. Consciously feminist since reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in her twenties, she continues to be interested (though often with disillusionment and frustration) in feminist writings and ideas. As a mother of two, she is also preoccupied with how we might equip children to survive in an increasingly damaged and disordered world. She has a passion for vegan cooking, especially baking, and for understanding vegan nutrition.