Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Poetics of Gradients

By John

We were up in Geraldton last weekend for me to launch a Fremantle Press poetry book (more of this shortly, including the launch speech for those interested), where we saw my brother, visited Flat Rocks, and also the Greenough River mouth, where signs indicate that they are going to clear the entire dunes and surrounding dune ecology between the river mouth and Geraldton itself. The sign even refers to replacing dune ecology with ‘development’. It is brazen and ecologically horrendous. People feel powerless to stop it, as they do so much in this place of bulldozing and laying waste. I have taken notes for poems, and notes for an activist poetics piece, but these mean nothing without direct action. I will write to the Geraldton newspapers and ask if they’d publish an ‘activist poetry article’ about the issue. They might — the year before last, one of the papers ran a series of eight activist articles I wrote about returning to the town of my secondary schooling, a town I am still connected to because my brother lives there.

Poetry for me must work. All the good ideas in the world, all the most finely wrought lines and images, mean nothing if they don’t achieve action. In fact, they become another link in the capitalist chain of production. Value-adding the whole way. Recently I have been reading through essays for an issue of Angelaki I am co-editing, and felt compelled to point out: ‘from an anarchist point of view, collective and individual responsibility are in so many ways one and the same thing, and the obsession with individual action as defining itself against collective responsibility is a contradiction that seems contrived to maintain the status quo.’ I mention this because the personal subjectivity of poetry-making (even within the collaborative) should be read against the communal consciousness of poetics and poetry per se. Whatever form it might take. Poetry is not read in a vacuum.

Lately I have been developing a ‘poetics of gradients’. Now, variations on poetics become absurd after a time, but really the urge to create systems explaining the reasons for writing poetry, and the processes and practices behind this, is a matter of both validating what can seem an impassive activity (outside aesthetics), giving it an activist context, and ultimately purpose. It’s probably unnecessary, but poetry methodologies (or a ‘lack’ of them, according to some — especially when they get risky) are constantly under surveillance (criticism?), and the poetics pro forma becomes an illustration of due process — to show that thought and effort have been applied to a choice.

To cut a long story short, this poetics of gradients concerns writing poetry on a hillside. The physical effort it takes to walk up and down the Jam Tree Gully ‘block’ engenders a different breath, a different instress in the poem. When you sit down to draft a poem on, say, a wild beehive in a split York gum you’ve just seen, you carry the work effort, the work of the gradient into your poem.

Tracy did a wonderful translation of Jacques Brel’s ‘Le plat pays’ — ‘The Flat Country’ — the other day, that really puts the power of surfaces and their angles (or flatness) into a dynamic perspective. There’s this wonderful line (which I give in Tracy’s translation): ‘With a sky so low that a canal lost its way.’ This is describing Belgium. Brilliant. The refrain in the song (poem!) goes ‘The flat country that is mine.’ I have lived a long time on lightly hilly ground at the bottom of a small mountain (or very large hill), with paddocks of stubble stretching out. And now at Jam Tree Gully I am starting to replant a rocky hillside, and to write poems in that space. The differentials, the segment of the line, discovering the nature of the slope, are part of the prosody of the poem’s ‘rise over the run’: m = Δy / Δx (see Wiki on slopes). I have always been interested in maths, and it’s always part of my poetry — sometimes hidden away, sometimes overtly. It’s certainly part of the poetics of gradients, of slope, that I am formulating now. By way of illustration I might copy in a handwritten journal page and include a poem...

from journal: 30/1/2009, Jam Tree Gully, 9.45pm:

Our first night staying over... Kids are asleep and Tracy is in the lounge-room reading (Stendhal). Looking forward to it all being ready for full-time habitation. Lot of work!

Went for an evening walk with Tim and a pair of eagles flew up through the valley and over as perched on large granite boulders — maybe twenty feet over our heads! Incredible. Walking up the steep slope the work on my heart and lungs created the waste, the chemicals, the energy of the poem. A usage of the excess my body produced in providing the work needed to get to the top, to the house. A poetics of gradients, of the hill. You see differently as you walk a slope, you sense differently. The angles of seeing change and you compensate, as does the poem. Even descent brings a work and a caution, the brain creates shorter lines to prevent slipping.

And here’s some poetic work done a few weeks prior:

First Lines Typed at Jam Tree Gully

To hold the walls of valley
downthrust limbs of York gum
liminality, flakes of granite
and lichen scored as sun inland,
glitterati, this Toodyay stone
broken where the building
has opened precipice,
erodability, that movement
where we walk, dislocating
weight of conversation, even
meditation, to contravene
our visibility, perched
up on high, sidereal.

A drawing out, the day
lessens, rampage
of dead and living trees,
entire collapsed structures,
signs of fire as jam-tree bark
blackened crumbles with touch,
all working shadows thin up
the hill, the hill. Kangaroos
stir from their shady places —
the heat so intense at midday
they don’t do more than lift
their head as you approach.

In the dirt, laterite smudgings,
hard-baked patches of sand, coarse-
grained breakdown of quartzite
in its granoblastic glory, a sheen
of mica and feldspar configuring
a sandstone past, a declaration
of origins; what grows in what
was here before? It demands
reconnection or the hill
will despoil to its granite
core and nothing more,
nothing more. Dazzling
anomaly of pyrites, breeze
sharpened with ‘fool’, ‘fool’...
welcome here... don’t cling
together, give us roots
to nest among, cling to.

Common bronzewings heavy across the blank
of an arena we will fill with trees: sandy
spectacle, where horses rounded
on their tails: I see them twitch.

Internal fences down and out. Fewer
divisions. To predict a fate, changes
sweeping over an old old place; ring-
neck parrot feathers no divination.
What has chiacked in place
of undergrowth?

Weebills are here! And mistletoe birds
have been where mistletoe fruits have prospered,
have seeded the jam trees, where nectar-hungry
birds of many varieties test the hardy flowers
drooping in swatches from thin, straining necks;
the parasitic engenders its own chains of being.
I am not asking to be part of it. With time,
something will click, I have no idea what. No
second-guessing, despite the weight
of hexagrams, I-Ching. What else
I might read. Weebills are here!

Horseshoes and sheep skulls strewn across the block.
rare new growth, so late and odd. Fire wardens
watching afraid of vegetation? They have their own
version of prehistory, their own version of growth.

The making of place as a dynamic of couplings,
as if love and trust are omens, odds in your favour.
The sun burns but also fringes the leaves.

John Kinsella

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


By John and Tracy

Like everyone else, we are overwhelmed with sadness at the disaster that has taken place in Victoria over this last week, and want only to express our condolences and support for everyone affected.

There are practical ways of helping: you can donate money through various means, including the following (courtesy Sydney Morning Herald):

Red Cross Call 1800 811 700 or go to

Salvation Army Call 137 258 or go to

NAB relief fund call 136 622

and the Bendigo Bank and Australia Post Office here where we live are also accepting donations, so we assume that would be the case elsewhere too. Myer stores are apparently accepting donations, and some charities will take goods (clothing etc).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Robert Drewe's "The Rip"

By Tracy

I've just finished reading Robert Drewe's latest collection of short stories, The Rip, and know that I won't be able to get it out of my system for a long time. It's a hardback of thirteen stories, one or two of which I'd already read in journals or elsewhere, though they take on an even stronger resonance in this context.

The stories hang together beautifully, though the only recurring "character" is the setting, mostly on the Pacific side of Australia, but there's a bit of the West in there too, in the devastating "Stones Like Hearts", which takes place at Shelly Beach, covered in stones "after those savage winter storms off Cape Leeuwin, where the Indian and Southern Oceans collide in a maelstrom of tides, spindrift and stinging winds..." (p. 77). It's a story that demonstrates excruciatingly the kind of thing life is too short for, that places the petty but cruel interactions that can happen between human beings in the context of a larger, more anonymous darkness -- but I'm misrepresenting here, because the story's also imbued with Drewe's typical satirical humour -- aimed frequently but not unkindly in these stories at the "New Age" element -- deftly offsetting the pain.

Drewe doesn't focus only on the quasi-hippy/New Age/finding-oneself brigade; he's equally sharp-eyed yet still fair toward the conservative farming type alongside whom they often live in these stories -- in fact, in some instances, these divergent social sectors have to pull together despite themselves, or end up doing so out of self-interest of one kind or another.

It's impossible to pick out favourites in this collection, because though there's great variety within the thematic cohesion, they're all, to my mind, of an equally high standard. Drewe accomplishes in prose fiction what I often (perhaps my limitation and not the genre's!) think is only possible in poetry: the suggestion of so much more than is actually told. That's not to say the writing is "poetic" in the sense that people often intend when they complain of "poetic fiction" -- the diction is clean and muscular, to the point, carefully chosen and "clear" enough to please any reader.

But over and above (or even underneath) this beautiful clarity, there's a metonymic expertise that makes each story greater than itself, that points up for us aspects of our society, our psyche even, that are in need of facing. On the most minute level, a tree or a plant or an animal in this work is at once specifically itself and of its region -- Drewe's an artist of precision, there's no bald, generic, lazy backgrounding here -- and also symbolic or suggestive of the human folly pressing in upon it from all sides (the camphor laurels of "The Lap Pool" are one example). The folly, however, is observed with enough neutrality that it invites compassion (the satire never strikes me as mean).

At the same time, there's genuine narrative drive and suspense, but I won't go into too much detail on that, because I don't want to spoil surprises. Drewe makes it look so easy. The Rip is perfect reading, if at the same time daunting for the would-be fiction-writer who reads it, and feels in awe ("why bother trying when he does it so well?").

Many of these stories explore a more or less middle-class milieu, but they are completely subversive of the kind of fiction I associate with the narrower version of middle-class taste, the fictions in which women are supposed to admire the "Sargassos" of this world ("Sargasso" is a character -- or a quintessence! -- in Drewe's final story, "The Life Alignment of the Coffee Grower", a caricature designed perhaps to put paid to any lingering fantasy of romance about the so-called S.N.A.G. who still pops up in women's fiction and movies. And even in life?)

I could say so much more about this book, but now I'm going to pass it on to a family member I know will love it...