Tuesday, November 19, 2019

In Memory of Barry Parsons Lost to the New South Wales Fires, November 2019

for Bazra - poet, activist and editor of TWOT - who was burnt to death near his shed in NSW, far away from here

Today hottest record November since weather began
today the burn inversion of head in the sand
the land quota of here-burn to make history of ends

this historical day, this array of false apples and Sky News suns,
this star chamber of aesthetics to claim a poet's line when it suits
and damn other poets and thinkers to the pit of 'alarmism'

on a day when feature is absolving though a list of 'historic fire events'
and a snarl at those who say ash will pile on ash and point to increase of ash
in the land of 'fire and drought' they'd repossess via dispossession

their love of capital vents fuels updraft only to lose pace
through lack of oxygen today hottest record since weather began
the stooge of capital demonstrates a predictable blame

of conflagration on those who see tree script against colonial
fire usurping Aboriginal fire culture to claim pattern to claim 'to be expected'
furious at climate activists as a poet dies near a shed died alone death unknown —

died alone without laurels and plaudits given out
by the machine of grace and favour wink and a nod
shadow-makers — alone with poems in the head,

liked by the community, unyielding to capitalism.
We knew him and his wild ideology his distrust of power.
Today hottest record November since weather began

today the burn inversion of head in the sand
and we think in mirage and melt and siccative art
kept in tins in chemical factory warehouses. Ash

of denial ash of trees and body and yes even air
burnt ash wavering as the wind turns about comes
about and the don't-speak-during-the-crisis brigade
     push eulogies to ends controlled by the living.

John Kinsella [from a poem-dialogue with Kwame Dawes]

Saturday, September 21, 2019

The American President Hosts a State Dinner for the Australian Prime Minister in the Rose Garden, 2019

White-tailed Cockatoo Adjustment Villanelle

The prime minister of Australia crawls on hands and knees
to the president of the United States of America,
and the white-tailed black cockatoos weep for lost nesting trees.

A ‘pure titanium’ lump-of-coal-in-the-hand-lackey,
the prime minister is serenaded along with mining billionaire fossickers,
the prime minister of Australia crawls on hands and knees.

With a Gulf war looming into coalitional collateral territory
the prime minister extends his oily tongue — his own red carpet botanica —
and the white-tailed black cockatoos weep for lost nesting trees.

It’s the shop of Australia open for business bankrupting futurity
signed with the tail feather of a cockatoo searching for a hollow,
the prime minister of Australia crawls on hands and knees.

Here in the far away but scramjet-satellite-closeness of another ‘land of the free’,
the black cockatoos circle the valley and try to adjust to the slaughter,
and the white-tailed black cockatoos weep for lost nesting trees.

Balance of trade is balance of flight is the feeding frenzy
where food is wing and a prayer and the faith of an arms trader;
the prime minister of Australia crawls on hands and knees
and the white-tailed black cockatoos weep for lost nesting trees.

            John Kinsella

Friday, September 13, 2019

Extinction Rebellion is Too Much About Image and Not Enough About Its Own Impacts

I was deeply disturbed to see this in the press. The 'greening' of the Limmat River in Zurich as an 'event', as an act of protest, is obscene. No more dangerous than table salt, they claim? Let's look at some of the background to uranine, the substance used to colour the river in 'protest'.

Uranine has a complex chemistry and a complex history. Sodium fluorescein has made appearances as part of St Patrick Day Celebrations in Chicago, and had coloured the Danube in the 1870s. It is used to trace leaks in water tanks and pipes, but with a strong warning that it is not suitable as a 'food dye'. The materials used to make the dye are from inevitably dangerous extractive industries.

Its apparent 'non-toxicity' means it is used in some surgery, but in undiluted large doses it can prove fatal. It turns up in a report for Project Shad — a series of tests conducted to see what vulnerabilities US warships presented to biological and chemical agents. The report is telling in its implications of industry and application, in the journey a chemical product makes to its eventual usages.

Unless Extinction Rebellion collectively start to comprehend cause and effect, the sources of the materials they use, the extended metaphors (their conceits) and symbolism in the world as a whole they enact, then they are performing and enacting their own (collective and individual) need to be doing something, rather than changing anything.

Phones are their devices, and phones are at the core of much mass extinction. These devices are manufactured. The irony of table salt — no more dangerous than... — is figurative and literal. The salt industry in itself is worth scrutiny, and salt on the human body... well, hardening of the arteries is more than a symbol. Collapsing symbols. This photo op of people floating on the greenness of wish-fulfilment contributes to planetary dissolution; it does not help prevent it. Let the phones you use now (and, indeed, this computer), be the last you purchase. If they are 'de-teched' out of existence, so be it.

Stop buying the crap with horrific environmental consequences and the city will become far more aware than it would from you impressing your friends on social media. Sorry, you disappoint me and many others. Now is the time to act — you/we have the will, but also need to think about how.

Not super strong glues (horrific chemistry and horrific side effects to people and the environment); not dyes (synthetic at that! seeing is also perceiving), no phones... people stopping the consumerist new-tech new colonialism. That way we might make a difference.

I once worked with these dyes in a lab as a teenager. As 'harmless' (!?) as the mineral sands industry the lab was ultimately serving. Not all the leaks were caught, either.

Extinction Rebellion needs to stop being a showpiece and start being a rejection of all tech consumerism. They need to understand that the 'non-toxic' dye down its chain of being encounters origins in naphthalene (hydrocarbon), sulphuric acid etc etc. (consider how we get phthalic acid anhydride, how we get resorcinol... how the reaction takes places etc etc!). Need to dig deeper, think deeper, and act less for performance's sake.

Protest is being there, and we are all here, in the moment. We don't need to see you, we need to see the changes brought by your (and our) non-consuming and non-self-privileging of access to goods. Altering the 'mere' look of a river is nonetheless altering the river. Leave it alone and stop pouring shit — any shit — into it.

Villanelle of a Green Limmat River: with great sadness

The disconnect between cause and effect
as Uranine is poured into sharp contrast like snow melt,
the damaged river through the city is made bereft.

Temporary... as chemical warfare?... temporary as the best
laid plans floating in the bright emulsification of death — a test —
the disconnect between cause and effect.

Social media traces through screen memory through distinct
moments of play in the horror of on and on it goes left right left,
the damaged river through the city flows bereft.

Rebellion that feeds the extinction that synthesises and treats
‘world’ as playground to announce the leaks — halt!
the disconnect between cause and effect.

This landlocked calenture this old city called to order this cost
of confronting like a green algal bloom swallowing each breath,
the damaged river through the city is made bereft.

‘As toxic as table salt’ — sum of the parts — investigate the collect
& refining of salt, the world’s hardening arteries, the logo the crest —
via this disconnect between cause and effect
the damaged river through the city flows bereft.

            John Kinsella

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Alfonsina Storni, The Rosebush's Restlessness

This Spanish-language poet is a new discovery for me, though she's very famous in Argentina and among Spanish readers. This little poem was also the title poem of her first book, which she later seems to have put down or disowned —

At 19... I write my first book of verses, an awful book of verses. May God spare you, my friend, from La inquietud del rosal (The Restlessness of the Rose Bush)! ... I wrote it to survive. (Alfonsina Storni, in a letter from 1938)

Anyway, here it is in English. I don't doubt there will be more to follow as her work is quite gripping.

Spanish is richer in rhyme than English so the echo in my lines is minimal.

Alfonsina Storni 
The Rosebush’s Restlessness 
The rosebush with its restless way of blooming
is burning up the sap that stokes its being.
Just look at the roses dropping from the bush:
So many it will drive the plant to death!
The rosebush is no grown-up and in its haste
to give out flowers its impatient life is spent. 
                                                        [trans. Tracy Ryan]

Storni, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2982483

Rilke and Unicorns (3rd instalment)

Tim this morning reminded me of Paul Muldoon's brilliant translation (in his book Hay) of the Rilke unicorn sonnet I posted about last time.

To round off my investigations among Rilke's unicorn poems, here is a version of Rilke's poem that actually bears the title, "The Unicorn".

Rainer Maria Rilke 
The Unicorn 
The holy man raised his head, and prayer
fell backward like a helmet off his head:
noiselessly, the never-believed drew near,
the white creature, that like a ravished
and helpless hind used its eyes to implore. 
The legs’ ivory framework moved about
with easy poise and equilibrium,
a white sheen floated ecstatic through the coat,
and on the creature’s brow, so clear and calm,
stood, like some moon-tower, the horn so bright,
raised more upright as each step came. 
The muzzle with its grey-pink fuzz
was drawn back slightly, so a little white
(whiter than all else) shone from its jaws;
the nostrils flared and softly panted.
Yet not bounded by any thing, its gaze
tossed images into the space around it
and ended a blue cycle of legends.

                                                           [trans. Tracy Ryan]

Here is part of Naomi Segal's comment on the original German version of this poem:

"This first unicorn text is the least typical in a number of ways. Actually titled ‘Das Einhorn’, unlike any of the others, it features no maiden; femininity is not focused, as conventionally, on the unicorn’s other, but on itself. The unicorn is compared to a female animal: a hind – this is something we almost never find in the literature, at least since the Lascaux painting 160,000 years earlier, though of course it is often a feminised male. The counterpart to the creature, to its distinctively unreal reality, is instead a saint. He is the focaliser, the whole three-sentence text being his vision; in this it connects to the sonnet, where again the being of the creature is dependent on a creative state of contemplativity on the part of others: this thing walks into one’s field of vision only when one is in a kind of dream. In such a state –prayer giving way to legend, the vocative to the collective imaginary – ‘das Niegeglaubte’ is made manifest."

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Rilke & Unicorns (2nd instalment)

Here is another Rilke unicorn poem, following on from yesterday's. Traditional sonnet rhyme scheme has been dropped (much as I used a completely different rhyme scheme for yesterday's translation) in the interest of minimising distortion.

Rainer Maria Rilke 
The Sonnets to Orpheus, Book Two (IV)

This is the creature that does not exist.
Unaware of that, in any case, they loved
its every trait – its posture, how it moved,
its neck, the light of each mute glance it cast.
No such thing. That through their love became
a pure creature. Always allowed space.
And in the space left blank, clear and precise,
it gently raised its head, needed hardly
to exist. It was nourished on no grain,
only upon the chance that it should be.
And this gave such substance to the creature
it put forth a horn that was a unique-horn
from inside. To a maiden whitely came
and was in the silvered mirror and in her.

                                                       [trans. Tracy Ryan]

Don Paterson has a fabulous version (pun semi-intended) in his Orpheus: a version of Rilke's Die Sonette an Orpheus (Faber & Faber, 2006), better than any other version I've read. The notes he's provided on his version in the appendix are also worth a read.

Josias Murer II (Swiss, 1564 - 1630), Orpheus Charming the Animals

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Rilke, Ladies and Unicorns: La Dame à la licorne

I've said it before: Rilke in translation is often misrepresented. And with the advent of the so-called "inescapable unicorn trend", he might become as misunderstood for his unicorns as for his angels.

However, that is no reason not to go on translating him (as Gass suggests, "Great poems are like granaries: they are always ready to enlarge their store.").

Despite Clive James's assertion that

"[p]oets in English continue to line up for the inevitable failure of translating his short lyrics" and "everyone falls short", 

I don't find Rilke as precious as people sometimes say -- though perhaps that's because I'm reading German not as a native speaker, so for me it has a toughness to it. The English translations sometimes do veer into being precious.

His unicorns are nothing like a high-sugar "frappuccino", or like the bizarre cake (non-vegan, not recommended!) I saw as I walked past a Miss Maud's yesterday...

He revisits unicorns in more than one poetic context: the most interesting to me is his response to the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. (They also appear in his one novel.)

As a young woman I had a print of one panel from the tapestries on the wall of my flat; later in the '90s I first got to see the real thing on a visit to Paris with John and our then-small daughter.


There are six of these tapestries. The one shown here is for me the most mysterious: the tent bears the words, "À mon seul désir", which can mean more than one thing ("by my desire alone"; "to my only desire", etc).

Here is a very simple English-language, deliberately colloquial, approximation of Rilke's poem. He keeps the French name for the tapestries.

More unicorns will follow.


Rainer Maria Rilke

La Dame à la licorne
(Tapestries in the Hôtel de Cluny)

for Stina Frisell

Woman and Worthiest: we’re always sure
to wound women’s destiny we just don’t get.
We are for you the still-not-matured-yet
for your life, that if we even graze against it
turns to unicorn, a shy white creature,

who flees... and has enormous fear that you
yourself / how slight it passes out of view /
after much unhappy living only
just find it again, warm, breathless, easily

startled. Then you stay with it, far from us
and softly your hands move over the keys
of the day’s work; things are meek in your service,
yet this is the sole desire you wish to fulfil:
that the unicorn find this once a forceful
mirror for its lulled image in your soul.

                                             [trans. Tracy Ryan]

Gass, W. H. (1999) Reading Rilke: reflections on the problems of translation. NY, Basic Books, p. 49