Reviews: John Kinsella’s ‘Hollow Earth’ and ‘Open Door’

I’ve had a long affinity with these words of the Russian-American poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky: ‘Every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language.’ In my early 20s, I developed a particular regard for a number of contemporary Australian poets whose work was synonymous with specific regions, among them were Robert Adamson (The Hawkesbury), Robert Gray (Mid-North Coast, NSW), John Kinsella (Western Australia’s Wheatbelt), and Les Murray (Mid-North Coast, NSW).

Through Kinsella’s work, in particular, I found permission – at a time I needed it – to write about the farming area in the Mount Lofty Ranges in which I’d grown up, and was then living. I made a compact that Kinsella would be a poet I read – more or less – cover to cover, in the way that Brodsky suggested. It’s a compact I’ve kept, though – as Kinsella is a notoriously prolific poet, novelist, and essayist – I’m often a book or two behind his latest publication. In this way, it’s Kinsella’s work, and perhaps also that of the late American poet AR Ammons, that I’ve returned to most consistently over the past 20 years.

It was very welcome, therefore, to have the chance to review two of Kinsella’s recent books for Australian journal Plumwood Mountain. Previously, Plumwood Mountain has published my reviews of Kinsella’s Graphology Poems: 1995-2015 (Five Islands Press, 2016), and Renga: 100 Poems (GloriaSMH, 2017), his collaboration with Paul Kane. Of the two recent reviews, Hollow Earth (Transit Lounge, 2019) is Kinsella’s first foray into the other world of the science fiction novel; and Open Door (UWAP, 2018) is the final book of poems in the Jam Tree Gully trilogy, an essential exploration of a central theme of his work. Special thanks to Anne Elvey, Managing Editor of Plumwood Mountain, for the opportunity to review the books.

Click here for the FULL REVIEW of Hollow Earth.

Click here for the FULL REVIEW of Open Door.

‘The cusp of Spring. Pear trees blossom…’

The cusp of Spring. Pear trees blossom (white) along the arterial. Callistemons (red) flower across the suburb. Soursobs (yellow) come up through the lawn. Earlier today, two Noisy Miners chased off an Australian Raven (black), till all three were out of sight over the rooftops. Out of sight. Out of earshot. Out of mind.

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In a culture so disposed to rational thought, we’re often confounded by poetry, which haunts the domain of the non-rational, as opposed to the rational or the irrational.

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There’s a well-inked association between poets and black birds – think crows and ravens, blackbirds and jackdaws. Think Edgar Allan Poe and George Trackl, Ted Hughes and Margaret Atwood, Gianni Siccardi and Max Porter, or Justin Vernon and Paul McCartney.

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From Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’: ‘I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.’

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Crowbar, crowberry, crowcall, crowcry, croweater, crowflower, crowfoot, crowkeeper, crowstep, etcetera.

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The murder of crows. There is the archetypal poem about the poet-as-adult elegising a bird he (invariably, it’s a ‘he’) shot during his childhood. Over the years, I’ve read enough versions of this archetypal poem that it could be a discrete genre in itself (I wish I’d kept a list): there’d be enough for a small anthology. They’re inevitably poems about innocence, lost innocence, masculinity, initiation, memory, guilt, violence, and/or mortality.

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From Franz Wright’s poem ‘Solitary Play: Minnesota, 1961’: ‘… it was suggested / that I fire / on that muttering family of crows. / I complied / and watched as those big ruffled shadows / rose from the ground, scattered and vanished / in the direction of barren / border trees, commencing / to speak all at once / in hysterical tongues. / All except for one, / deceased.’

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Crowbar, barbell, bellboy, boyfriend, friendship, shipyard, yardbird, birdbrain, brainstorm, stormwater, etcetera.

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From JM Coetzee’s essay Roads to Translation: ‘… in the Italian version of Dusklands, a man opens a wooden crate with the help of a bird (what I wrote was that he used a crow, that is, a crowbar.’ (Coetzee, JM. Roads to Translation [online]. Meanjin, Vol. 64, No. 4, 2005: 141.)

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The murder-mind. Chapel Street, Strathalbyn, early 2000s. I remember waiting in a car, on a warm afternoon, with the windows wound down. A nearby house had its doors and windows open onto its verandah. From inside the house, there was the sound of a baby crying. At the front of the house, two ravens were calling back and forth to one another, and to a third raven visible at the rear of the house. As I watched, it became apparent that the ravens were trying to triangulate the source of the crying, which must have sounded to them like an animal in distress.

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From Raymond Carver’s poem ‘My Crow’: ‘A crow flew into the tree outside my window. / It was not Ted Hughes’s crow, or Galway’s crow. / Or Frost’s, Pasternak’s, or Lorca’s crow. / Or one of Homer’s crows, stuffed with gore, / after the battle. This was just a crow. / That never fit in anywhere in its life, / or did anything worth mentioning.’

Geoff Page reviews ‘Carte Blanche’ for ‘The Canberra Times’

In the 22 August 2020 edition of The Canberra Times, Geoff Page reviews my book of poems Carte Blanche. He writes: ‘It’s satisfying to observe that the sophistication and idiosyncratic uniqueness of Thom Sullivan’s Carte Blanche have recently been recognised by the judges of the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award for the best first book of poetry in Australia last year.’ A very big thank you to Geoff for his kind words about the book. Carte Blanche is available from Vagabond Press as a paperback, and a limited edition hardcover. Click here for the FULL REVIEW.

‘There’s a special obligation on poets, I think…’

There’s a special obligation on poets, I think, to know the names of things, and with specificity. Just as there’s a value in any or all of us knowing the names of those birds and plants that we find in our home environment, for example, our garden or our street. It’s part of a greater work of attention: we start to notice the comings and goings of birds at different times of the day, or across the seasons, and we begin to mark the progress of time by a plant coming into blossom, or a tree that begins to shed its bark. It’s a particularly worthwhile idea now, when many of us are spending more time at home.

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With a recent move, I’ve had to acclimate to a new home, and to a working/writing space that looks out onto a garden. I readily identified the birds that were coming and going, and the magnolias, but there is a shrub that’s been cultivated into a hedge that was unknown to me. I took a photo of it with the PlantSnap app: it’s a cherry laurel or type of viburnum, the app suggested. I researched a little further. It is a cherry laurel.

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Poetry has some role in mediating the world – for poets themselves, and sometimes for others – through words. In the Western Judeo-Christian account, the task of naming – of relating words to the things of the world – is so ancient and integral that it precedes the creation of woman: ‘And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.’ (Genesis 2:19) Earlier still, there’s the account of God speaking the world into existence (‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.’ Genesis 1:3), as if the world itself is the magna poema.

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At the front of the house, a New Holland Honeyeater flits from the eaves to the crossarm of the Stobie pole at the streetside. (Of course, ‘Stobie pole’ is part of a distinctly South Australian dialect and design vernacular.) In the garden, two Common Blackbirds fossick in the leaflitter beneath the cherry laurels and magnolias: the male blackbird, which is glossy black with a bright orange beak, and the female blackbird, which is in fact dull brown.

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As the southern winter persists, many of us find ourselves working from home still. And there’s a natural progression to the final hour or so of daylight that wasn’t evident while I worked in a city office. After 5:00 p.m. the light falls quickly, and the garden darkens. The blackbirds become indistinct beneath the shrubbery and, for a time, cars come and go more frequently in the lane. I usually work on for a while longer, till there’s a natural pause in whatever I’m working on, then I push back my chair, and close the laptop over. By that time, the room itself is dark, and the street lights have come on, casting a soft glow into the garden.

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Recommended: Matthew Hooton’s story ‘Welcome to Fordlandia’ (Sweet Tree Review); Aidan Coleman’s article on the 25th anniversary of the death of Australian poet Philip Hodgins (The Conversation); Philip Hodgins’ poems ‘Making Hay’ and ‘Shooting the Dogs’; Rae Armantrout’s Partly: New and Selected Poems 2001-2015 (Wesleyan UP); and (song-wise) Donovan Woods’ ‘Portland, Maine’ and Field Guide’s ‘You Were’.

Poetry that stays news

‘Literature is news that STAYS news’, as Ezra Pound wrote in ABC of Reading (1934).

In many Australian states and territories, there’s an annual award for ‘enduring architecture’, meaning buildings of at least 25 years of age that are considered high quality works of architecture. At a time when contemporary architecture is often derided as faddish and elitist, these awards celebrate – and perhaps encourage – architecture that proves its importance and influence over time.

As in the field of architecture, awards for literature and poetry proliferate. They’re an important means for celebrating newly published works – a benefit to the writer, their publisher and the reading public. But an award that recognises enduring books of poetry is also an attractive idea. It could be, for example, an award for a book of poems published at least 25 years ago – prioritising individual books of poems, rather than anthologies, or a particular poet’s book of collected, selected or complete poems.

Such an award could be a means to renew interest in books that have unduly lapsed from public consciousness or from a wide readership, particularly if the book is out of print, or the publisher has since closed. It could also be a means to acknowledge books that have remained vital, beyond the immediate circumstances in which they were published. It would be a way to celebrate poetry that has stayed news in some sense.

It’s imaginable, in many cases, that a book that didn’t garner much attention at the time it was published has nonetheless accrued importance over time, either through its influence on other poets, or in light of the poet’s subsequent work.

At any rate, such an award is an attractive idea and a modest proposal.

Recommended: Writing the long poem

There seem to be those who regard the craft of poetry as an engaging and useful topic for discussion, and those who regard it as a somewhat contemptible and self-indulgent one. I’m among those who often find something insightful or useful in discussions about the practicalities of writing poetry, whether it’s via a writers’ festival, a radio interview, or a podcast. And the more practical the discussion is the better.

I recently watched a number of videos by poets.org, including a video in which American poet Ron Padgett talks about writing long poems. In particular, he suggests the following writing strategy:

‘I just made a dumb rule. I said, I’m going to write every day. I’m going to sit down at my desk every day and I’m going to write ten pages. And I don’t care if it’s good or bad, or indifferent, or if it’s notational or whatever. I’m going to write ten pages every day. And I did that for five or six days … I came up with about fifty or sixty pages of material and I put it away for a while. And I went and looked at it again later and a lot of it was dreck … But some of it was pretty good. I was surprised. So I did the obvious thing: I took out all the dreck and I stuck the other pieces together … It all fit together and made this long poem.’

The full video is available here:

Those familiar with Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson may be aware that Padgett is the author of several of the poems supposedly written by the eponymous main character, played by Adam Driver:

Four things: a reflection

Thom Sullivan  Poet Poetry NaPoWriMo 19

Personally, it was a week for celebrating the birthdays of friends and colleagues, an enjoyable poetry reading at Holy Rollers Studios, as part of the South Australian Living Artists (SALA) Festival, and the ascendancy of spring in Adelaide. In the wider world, this week marked the 18th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, which is the starting point for 4 things that were on my mind this week: 3 poems, and 1 folk rock song.

1.
In a contributor’s note in The Best American Poetry 2005, American poet Kay Ryan (b. 1945) writes about the provenance of her poem ‘Home to Roost’. She explains that what she regarded as an essentially personal poem was written several months before September 11, and was under consideration by a poetry editor when the attacks occurred. It’s a short, simple poem full of foreboding: ‘The chickens / are circling and / blotting out the / day…’, she writes, ‘Yes, / the sky is dark / with chickens’. After the attacks, Ryan hastily withdrew the poem, which had taken on new, irresistible significance as a commentary on the United States’ involvement in global affairs: ‘Now they have / come home / to roost – all / the same kind / at the same speed.’ Ryan went on to publish the poem some years later, after the sting had gone out of it, but it’s impossible still to read it as a purely personal poem. As Ryan writes in the note, the poem was ‘warped’ by the events of that day. Ref. Muldoon, P. and Lehman, D. (2005). ‘The Best American Poetry, 2005.’ New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 185.

2.
At the time of the September 11 attacks I was 19, and in my second year of university. It was a troubling time to be a young male, newly of military age, with little sense of proportion about the events that may transpire in the following months and years. A sense of trepidation wasn’t entirely unwarranted. After all, my father, my grandfathers and my great-grandfathers either served in the military (my maternal grandfather served in World War II), or were at some risk of conscription while they were of military age. My mind turned to a series of poems written by American poet Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1941) about his experiences as a war correspondent in Vietnam. The poems were published in 1988’s Dien Cai Dau. Komunyakaa’s poem ‘Thanks’ is a litany of thankfulness to an unknown and unnamed force that kept him alive in the jungles of Vietnam: ‘Thanks for the tree / between me & a sniper’s bullet. / I don’t know what made the grass / sway seconds before the Viet Cong / raised his soundless rifle. / Some voice always followed, / telling me which foot / to put down first.’ His poem, like Ryan’s, ends with a sense of the unknowable or unnamable, though in Komunyakaa’s poem it’s a benign power rather than a sense of foreboding: ‘I know that something / stood among those lost trees / & moved only when I moved.’

3.
Komunyakaa’s poem brings to mind ‘The One I Love’, a single from Life in Slow Motion, a 2005 album by English singer-songwriter David Gray (b. 1968). Supposedly, the song has been a popular choice as a wedding waltz, due to its buoyant vocal hook and ostensibly quixotic lyrics: ‘Gonna close my eyes, girl / And watch you go / Running through this life, darling / Like a field of snow’. Yet a closer listen reveals that it, too, is a song about war. Where Komunyakaa’s poem refers to the ‘sniper’s bullet’, the speaker of Gray’s song watches ‘As the tracer glides / In its graceful arc’. Where the speaker of Komunyakaa’s poem recalls being distracted by the thought of a woman in San Francisco (her ‘wild colors’), Gray’s speaker is a wounded soldier recalling the memory of his beloved as he bleeds out: ‘There’s things I might’ve said / Only wish I could / Now I’m leaking life faster / Than I’m leaking blood’. As to the date of the war Gray’s speaker describes, the soldier mentions dancing the ‘twist and shout’, which likely dates it to the Vietnam War era, with the release of The Top Notes’ ‘Twist and Shout’ in 1961, and The Beatles’ cover of 1963.

4.
At the time of the September 11 attacks, Australian poet Thomas Shapcott (b. 1935) was teaching creative writing in the English Department in which I was studying. The events of that day prompted him to write his poem ‘New Year’s Eve’, which was published in 2006’s The City of Empty Rooms. In his poem, he writes: ‘If Modernism died in the ovens of Auschwitz / Or at the Nuremberg Trials / Then Post Modernism met its death / On 11 September 2001 in New York.’ No doubt, it’s a contention that’s been hashed and rehashed in countless bar and barbecue conversations since then: the idea that September 11 ended Post Modernism and shocked us into a new age of ‘passionate intensity’, to borrow a phrase from ‘The Second Coming’ by WB Yeats (1865–1939), which was heavily quoted at the time. We find a similar sense of foreboding or unease in ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), possibly written while Arnold was on his honeymoon. Arnold’s poem might only have come down to us as an example of romantic melancholy, if at all, were it not so prophetic about the devastations of the century that would follow: ‘we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.’ What Shapcott reflects on in hindsight is perhaps anticipated in Yeats’ word ‘conviction’, and Arnold’s ‘certitude’.

Local history: Jubilee Chapel

In 2009, I uploaded this photo of the Jubilee Chapel, Wistow, to a Flickr page I was using at the time. Many of the images I uploaded were of ruined buildings and farmhouses from Wistow, Bugle Ranges, Red Creek, Highland Valley, Hartley, Salem and Callington  parts of the southern Mount Lofty Ranges, also known as the Adelaide Hills, where I grew up. It’s an area I’ve often written about in my poetry.

Jubilee Chapel l Wistow

35°08’18.3″S 138°56’11.7″E

I uploaded the photo with this note:

‘This photo was taken through the rain on a grey autumn morning in 2009. The chapel is located on a back road in farming country 7 or 8 kilometres from the Hartley Methodist Church [the subject of the previous Flickr upload, which I’ve included below].

‘The chapel was built in 1865 by a Methodist community that settled in South Australia from Cornwall, UK. It was built following a diphtheria outbreak and was named the ‘Jubilee Chapel’ because it was built in the jubilee (fiftieth) year of Methodism in Australia. By 1886 services ceased due to poor attendances, with many members of the community moving on in search of better prospects. My understanding is that many moved on to marginal areas of the wheat country in the state’s Mid North and fell on difficult times there too (as later arrivals many re-settled north of Goyder’s Line, where rainfall is low).

‘The chapel subsequently fell into a state of ruin. It was rebuilt in the 1980s and was used at one time as a bed-and-breakfast.’

IMGP0845b (2)

35°11’01.3″S 139°00’11.6″E

A few years ago, an Adelaide historian tracked me down via Flickr to ask if the image could be published in a forthcoming local history book. Last year, the image – along with one of my poems – was published in Wistow and Bugle Ranges: A Community History, by Beryl Belford, Christeen Schoepf, Skye Krichauff, and the Wistow History Group. It’s a timely account of the area’s history.

Trove offers this précis of the book, which I was so pleased to have some small part in:

‘Changes in lifestyle due to the rapid loss of farming land through the government’s rezoning of land inspired members of the Wistow History Group to research the history of European settlement in their district. Drawing on oral histories and archival material including privately held photographs and documents, newspaper articles, maps and government records, this book provides a social and cultural history of the Wistow and Bugles Ranges districts of South Australia from 1830 to the present.

‘Topics covered include: Explorers’ records and early settlers’ reports of Aboriginal occupation; the early settlement process with the Davenport and Mt Barker Special Survey system and the allocation of land to new immigrants; short biographies of early settler families, the descendants of whom remain connected to the Wistow/ Bugle Ranges district; changes in land use and the shift away from subsistence farms due to developments in technology, market trends and climatic concerns; transport and postal services, beginning with the surveying of Chauncey’s Line in response to the gold rush; education and the formation of schools, childhood memories of growing up in the district; social events, fundraising and the building of the Wistow Community Hall; public houses and the social and political activities held in them; sport including ploughing matches, pigeon shooting, hunting, cricket and tennis; churches, in particular those established by the Primitive Methodists; burial grounds and cemeteries.’

Recommended: ‘Poetry Says’ podcasts

By and large, our experience of poetry is an active affair. Reading a poem well generally demands diligence and attention, which partially explains poetry’s neglect when compared to other artforms that are often experienced somewhat passively – from film to the visual arts, to music, to audiobooks, and even the novel, which generally relies less on an actively constructed meaning.

Of course, recordings of poems abound, and a recording of a poem can be experienced just as passively as an audiobook or piece of music. But there’s something to be said for Philip Larkin’s argument that ‘[h]earing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much – the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end.’

As someone who prefers to experience poems from the page, it’s a delight to have access to Alice Allan’s regular Poetry Says podcasts, a series of lively and engaging conversations about poetry. The podcasts are perfect for those moments in which reading poems from a book is impractical.

Over 100 episodes of Poetry Says are available, including episodes on Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Jack Gilbert, Ted Berrigan, Judith Wright, Jorie Graham, and contemporary Australian poets, such as Michael Farrell and Jill Jones. The episode on Plath’s bee poems is highly recommended. Invariably, an episode sends me back to a poet and their work with fresh insight and new regard.

Poetry Says website : Poetry Says on Twitter : Poetry Says on Facebook