Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Counterintuitive Ghazal, 26th January, 2022

If I’ve learnt things askew, it feel it’s not because of bad intentions —

rather, I laud the form and am sad if spirit shifts when I make use of it.


On a day of trauma for many, a day of mourning a day of anger

at ill-gotten gains, when there are no platitudes, only pain, I call on it.


I call on a form of desire with all ‘erotics’ stripped away because

of the greed of one body over others, because of the chasmic longing in it.


Third person singular, I locate those items of ongoing occupation,

and they are all around me and I make use of them as I make recourse to it.


I don’t for a moment believe that life can be renewed for the oppressed

from the ‘rotting corpse of the settler’ as violent Frantz Fanon would have it.


In fact, I see the artists and poets and singers redressing the wrongs

and bringing repair, knowing the gun was the end of justice and not start of it.


But Fanon was right about loss of dignity and hope and ongoing mental illness

wrought by the settlers who played their part and excluded or validated it.


I laud this form because of its moments linking to moments, its building

out of longing and despair — in the interconnectedness, each couplet unique in it.


I feel the trauma of Karla Dickens’s artwork that antiflags and is forever

more than object — January 26, Day of Mourning — and acknowledge it.


I am a flagless person but that doesn’t exonerate me. I feel my bare feet burn

on the ground and know it’s more than a reminder. In my weakness I call on it.



            John Kinsella

Note: for more on Karla Dickens see this article.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Un-mapping and De-exploration

I have been thinking about Kenneth Slessor's 'Five Visions of Captain Cook' and Philip Mead's 1997 call for a postcolonial reading ('as yet unwritten') of the poem (especially in the context of 'voyager narratives'), and my irregular but committed long-term anti-colonial reading-writing process of trying to un-map and de-explore... to refute colonial narratives in all their forms. This personal undertaking really began with my 'Zimmermann poems' (collected in Poems 1980-1994 — a selection of which are included in the first volume of my Collected Poems due out shortly with UWAP) written in the late 1980s, but which really found its fullest expression in the final version of The Benefaction (1997... and also in the first volume of my Collected Poems), a long poem attempting to undo the deeply disturbing and almost blithe colonial-explorer conquest journals of George Grey. 

In collating some texts in preparation for the next stage of this ongoing task of 'undoing' and 'rereading', I came across this 2017 'poem-text' of mine on William Dampier — an attempt at 'un-mapping' and 'de-exploring'. I will just let it speak for itself (or not... maybe other than noting that the 'a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse' saying is taken from Joseph Ritson, 1793, in primetime English colonialism), but it is another point of reference in a lifelong attempt to challenge and abandon the 'statue' myths of colonialism that still dominate official Australian narratives of 'national identity'... that still inform the 'literary canon', and that are the 'textual' basis for trade, pastoralism, mining, international relations, and the other underpinnings of the business of being 'Australia'....

Un-map De-explore

'Five Visions of Captain Cook' is not an elegy but a monument in poetry to acts of history that are tapped and re-tapped to validate nation, even where the 'explorations' are tangential or geographically distant (all are focussed through the poet's 'settler' entrenchment), whereas Slessor's great poem of time, 'Five Bells', is an elegy in cascading ways — as 'Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells' is caught in the harbour that serves nation (though the ferries ply back and forth and do not join the trade-routing, they are part of the matrix of colonial presence), he is eternally becoming life-death-memory in the flows of the harbour, and, as such, is incorporated into symbol and functionality of colonial argosy... So do we measure between events as the definition of our being 'part' of history even when we are invisible (or erased). The sense of loss is personal, but also a distress in the act of articulation, of making aesthetic the irony of presence (without ever saying so). So, colonial time (and White Australia Policy time... unsaid but never unwritten in any Australian text of the time) vs. modernist shifts in perceptions of time (alienation of auto-biography etc) —there's an incipience in Slessor, but he's still caught in the voyage and its memorialising. His 'absence' is never as clinical as it might seem, as 'Five Bells' always reminds us. 

Though often interpreted otherwise, I think that the 'chronometer' section of 'Five Visions of Captain Cook' is in fact Slessor's most viable challenge to voyager heroism (which is certainly caught up in), if there is any ‘challenge’ being made at all (ultimately, there probably isn’t). The conflation of irony with 'time' interrupts the inevitability of spatialisation of the poem and of the 'enlightenment' narrative itself (which is, ironically, a conservative affirmation of imperial science consuming/conquest motifs), and consequently the visions collapse. Cook’s demeanour and behaviour (‘snored loudest’) reassures his crew/followers/apologists, but his ‘skill’ and bravado also show the limits of irony (Slessor’s... which is mostly affectionate, if wry) — none of those who suffer from Cook’s legacy will ever feel reassured. Of course, Cook is seen through exteriors in an almost comic way at times, but it's more affection than mockery in its ironising of the 'romantic' pseudo-swashbuckling pop-lit escapades of 'seafaring captains' of 'the period'. The emphasis on the superstitious and magical as opposed to Enlightenment science (exemplified by Joseph Banks) is given Eliot-esque play, but nonetheless reinforces the colonial play (almost hi-jinks). Nature (the sea, the 'kraken', the weather) is the force to be reckoned with and maybe ultimately wins out, but this strains against the modernist urges (and urban organisation) of the poem itself as it shifts modes of telling/imparting 'views' of Cook. This seems to me to be at the core of the modernist crisis of cause and effect, of never being able to escape the politics that informs it, however much misdirected or denied.

Apropos of all the above, I doubt there's a more terrifying piece of glib imperial 'disposability' than Slessor's self-reflective (and reflexive):

'So Cook made choice, so Cook sailed westabout,
So men write poems in Australia.'

80 000 plus years' worth?

    John Kinsella

Sunday, January 9, 2022

On 'Nature Reserves'

The fact that we need 'nature reserves' is an indictment of colonial-capital in itself, but without them there'd be very little 'original' native vegetation remaining and consequently an even greater loss of species diversity, and animal-life in its own rights. I am troubled by the idea of 'reserves' as a statement of ceding what has not been ceded, and of corralling land into parcels that are only allowed to persist because so much of the land around them has been occupied. Further, such reserves are also a form of 'occupation' (if a 'better' version), and exclusion of full rights of traditional ownership. To my mind, these 'nature reserves' should be under local Aboriginal management.

We have just spent a few days in Geraldton (where I went to high school and where my brother and his partner live), and spent time skirting nature reserves to asses their 'condition' and how they are or aren't being respected. Most nature reserves in Western Australia that I have encountered suffer from degradation along their boundaries (especially when they abut rural holdings, mines, commercial, industrial and 'real estate' developments), but also from the dumping of rubbish and incursions by hunters and recreationalists. 

The edges of reserves are as important as the interior, and yet because of their proximity to other modes of 'land usage', they are inevitably negatively impacted. On the periphery of one nature reserve we visited was an array of dumping/rubbish, ranging from building scrap to heaps of grass clippings, from a massive variety of plastic waste to assorted house objects. As one ventures further in, the rubbish becomes 'historic' in the sense that prior (to being a gazetted nature reserve) usage by 'settler' presencing leaves many damaging traces that are only partially absorbed into the restoring/recuperating ecology — rusting tin drums (oil, poison etc), bricks and mortar, garden residues, bottles and so on. 

The rubbish situation wasn't severe by comparison to some instances I've come across, but it was still a marker of frustration (and ecological disdain, even abuse) over space 'set aside' that's not part of the acquisitive accrual of property — of 'ownership' that erases traditional cultural custodianship of country. Rubbishing is an act of resentment against the uncolonial.

Here are a few images of Howatharra, one of the Chapman Valley/Moresby Ranges reserves. Most of the ranges with their incredible flat-topped hills (reaching a height of 183m and around 50 million years old), has been cleared and occupied by farms, but a few nature reserves are scattered across their length and breadth. 

Nature Reserve, Chapman Valley

Following a Kangaroo Trail

Not Vanishing but Appearing!

A clearly sacred place, these reserves would be better maintained and sustained in Yamaji custodianship, and would have a greater chance of 'reconnecting' into a larger, more diverse and complex habitat. For that, we will have to wait for the return of country, but I hope and believe it will happen in time. 

The first image above is of the location/designation sign, the second two are of me 'vanishing' into the 'scrub'. It is an intense and diverse habitat, and I only walked along a kangaroo trail, sidestepping numerous echidna diggings around termite mounds. Honeyeaters could be heard constantly working the myriad plants. I am interested in the visual aspect of 'vanishing' because how we see ourselves in relation to bush is part of a colonial residue that compromises ways of seeing. Of course, I am not 'vanishing' but actually appearing... I am carefully following a trail with a light imprint and will follow it back to the periphery. In the bush, one is constantly appearing and never vanishing. [On the other hand, I am happy to be 'consumed' or 'swallowed' by the scrub  — that is, to become as much one with it as I can... but again, I do not see this as vanishing, as 'loss', but as gain/increase/growth...]

This has led to my rethinking the dynamics of 'prospect' and 'refuge' in that through refuting 'landscape' as a measure of country, I now see open spaces as a 'refuge' of conquest and eco-destruction, and vegetated/rocky/ravined/hilled places as 'prospect '— that is, their apparent closedness is actually an opening out into knowledge if we should choose to look, listen, sense... to understand Aboriginal knowledges of place, to be more sensitised to country itself. For the non-Indigenous person, this can only be done with the intent of respect and a willingness to learn.

Edging the Howatharra Nature Reserve, Moresby Ranges, Western Australia [Argonautica}

The levelled range

Says those canyons of the sea

Aren't like this now, but will be.


No ‘K√∂ppen climate type’

Can address the fragrance

And textures of leaves and bark


Afloat in heat. Further into the valley,

River redgums might suggest

An elsewhere but are more here


Than anywhere, though

Settler surveys diffuse

To serve their own purposes.


In the clefts where water runs

At downpour, there are other names

For erosion. A mistletoe bird's


Red is a different red

And the mistletoe differs

As well. From denomination


To denomination the stone

Is drawn from roughly

A similar source. The wind


Rips the high temps

But not all the way to the core

Of piles of grass clippings (dumped


Whether it be a wet year or drought year)

Which heat in and of themselves, interiorly

And dangerously, like more bad news


From the fourth estate, while, in addition,

Museum-loads of colonial rubbish

Trouble the roadside ecotones. Not-


withstanding, a view to the green-reefed ocean

Is a reflection (if at impossible angles)

Of all that might come again on land.



            John Kinsella