Reviewed by Stephen Cushman
As any equestrian statue has in its family tree the statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Campidoglio in Rome, any author photo in a book of poems published in the United States has somewhere in its bibliographic genealogy the engraving of Whitman at the front of the 1855 Leaves of Grass. Although Whitman hardly invented the convention of introducing readers to books by means of visual images of their authors, he did introduce a new visual vocabulary of body language and clothing: the cocked hat, the open collar and visible undershirt, the fisted right hand on a hip, and the left hand casually pocketed. Like Whitman’s, John Kinsella’s first American book of poems has had what Emerson called “a long foreground,” but unlike Whitman’s, Kinsella’s presents its long foreground in the form of an “Also by John Kinsella” list, placed before its title page, as a kind of poetic passport through U.S. literary immigration: twenty published books, sixteen of them verse, two fiction, one a collection of plays, and one an autobiography. Meanwhile, a visual image of this prolific writer, born in western Australia in 1963 and so only forty when Norton published Peripheral Light, awaits his reader in color on the inside flap of the back cover: longish hair prematurely gray; a youthful, friendly face with a wide, white smile; glasses with large lenses that suggest bookishness and intellect; black open-necked, long-sleeved shirt, black pants, black shoes; a straight look at the camera; and a comfortable pose on a bench in a green-grassed park or on a college campus (he teaches at Kenyon), legs crossed, left arm bent at the elbow and resting on the back of the bench.
Elegant, even dapper, intelligent, balanced between age and youth, balanced between formality and informality, something conventional, something unconventional, openness, reserve: what can be said of the visual vocabulary in the photograph also goes for the nearly two hundred pages of poetry in the book itself. Anyone needing more of an introduction to Kinsella and his work than that provided by the list of other publications and the photograph can plunge into Harold Bloom’s twenty-page prefatory testimonial, about which more later, but unfortunately he or she cannot consult a scrap of chronology, since neither the poet nor his editors thought it necessary to include a single date anywhere in the text or to group poems by previously published books. As a result, a reader coming to Kinsella’s work for the first time cannot tell new poems from selected ones or know which poems came at which points in his career. This large omission will not bother all readers or perhaps even many of them, but those who do notice the complete suppression of chronology may wonder about the reason for withholding such basic information.
A tendency to withhold something informs Kinsella’s work at another level as well. At the uncharacteristically straightforward opening of “Approaching the Anniversary of my Last Meeting with my Son,” the poet puts the matter bluntly: “I never write ‘confessional’ poetry / but your voice--like forked lightning / etching a thunder-dark river--leaves me / no choice but to speak directly.” Saying that he has no choice but to speak directly at this moment implies that at other moments the speaker does have a choice between speaking directly and not doing so and that at such moments he usually opts for the latter mode. No existing law mandates that a poet speak directly, and in the history of American poetry, amidst which Kinsella’s book now asks to be considered, precedents for not doing so abound. Whitman often spoke of approaching a subject, such as the Civil War, by indirection; Dickinson advised us to tell all the truth but to tell it slant; and Frost slyly asserted that poems are the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. If Kinsella chooses as his rule indirectness, so that in his work directness becomes the exception, he has plenty of good company around him. But in fact in his case the matter may present more complications, complications having something to do with his wanting to hold the word “confessional” at arm’s length, handling it gingerly with the typographic tongs of quotation marks. (Interesting that in a book heralded as the poet’s American debut, the copy-editor has retained the Anglo usage of single quotation marks.) What do these marks mean? That Kinsella does not trust us to recognize the term “confessional” as naming a mode of American poetry that has been around since the 1950s? That he feels a little uncomfortable with the term, as though he were saying “so-called confessional” poetry? That he can only approach the term ironically, winking at those of us who know better than to take seriously such a misguided enterprise as writing confessional poetry?
This moment has some awkwardness to it, and its awkwardness provides a glimpse into Kinsella’s poetics. Whether one relishes or despises confessional poetry, to have any accurate sense of what the confessional mode can do at its most effective, one must recognize immediately that it has its own set of conventions and artifices and that among them perhaps the most successful and memorable are those that generate illusions or images of directness, so that what appear to be directly literal first-person revelations actually function as another set of figurative maskings, slantings, and indirections. Surely, Kinsella knows all this at some level, but just as surely a new reader of his will quickly discover that the poetry of Peripheral Light, much of which is good and worth several rereadings, does not often commend itself by way of the personal and the confidential, or by images of the personal and confidential. Instead, as suggested by poem titles such as “Eclogue on a Well,” “Chilli Catharsis,” “Skeleton weed/generative grammar,” “Bluff Knoll Sublimity,” “Anathalamion,” “Skylab and the Theory of Forms,” “Sine Qua Non,” “Lyrical Unification in Gambier,” “First Essay on Linguistic Disobedience” (there are seven such essays), “The Semiotics of a Truck Overturned in Fog,” “Boustrophedon,” and “Intimations of Sign and Subjectivity in York,” the sensibility behind these poems, no matter how deeply involved in personal matters of the heart, chooses to represent itself primarily in a way that tends toward the impersonal language of the head, often self-consciously literate and literary, intellectual, abstract, theoretical, and academic. To say so is not to judge that sensibility and its creations negatively, but rather to attempt to describe quickly and efficiently the delights and instructions they offer, as well as those they do not.
Kinsella claims never to write confessional poetry and distances himself from speaking directly, but confessional poetry and direct poetry are not necessarily the same things. One way to approach Peripheral Light is to study its shifting tides of direct clarity, albeit non-confessional, and indirect opacity. Here are neighboring strophes of the long sequence “Field Notes from Mount Bakewell,” which is dedicated to Bloom:
Bandwidth locusts mono rain
bending frequency interlock wandoo
rock sheoak the botanist
Ludwig Preiss, priority one taxon,
and, of course, Thomasia montana,
which I don’t see: oedipal, unreceptive,
adjusting the bandwidth.
The guy from the chemical company
drinks a half-glass of Herbicide.
“There you go, harmless to humans.”
The farmer, impressed, sprays
and gets his sheep straight back in there.
Fans of Stein, Williams in Kora in Hell, Pound’s Cantos, and Language poetry written over the last twenty-five years can probably find the first strophe perfectly legible (wandoo and sheoak are trees), while fans of simple, free-verse narrative of the kind that has dominated so much American poetry since reductive imitations of Williams began to emerge, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, can feel right at home with the second strophe. These two modes define the extremes of Kinsella’s range, and an impressively wide range it is. The second strophe contains the baldest verse in all of Peripheral Light, and its exceptional uniqueness comes as no surprise in the work of a poet who elsewhere rails against “this sick patriotism to vernacular,” but the first strophe does have various cousins throughout the book, as in this bracingly unvernacular moment from “Diagnostics”: “gnosis epodes dogma / all agisting the form / and offerings.”
Reading Bloom’s introduction to Peripheral Light, one would have no sense of the linguistically disobedient side of Kinsella’s poetic practice, as not surprisingly the Sage of Yale and NYU massively represses his subject’s sweet tooth for verbal play and experimentation in order to adopt him into the Bloomian canon of the strongly sublime and to link him at various points with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Emerson, Ruskin, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Crane, and Ashbery. Kinsella makes clear his fealty to Bloom (is he the Harold to whom the book is jointly dedicated?), and the people at Norton are savvy enough to know that the Bloomian name-recognition factor enhances the marketability of Peripheral Light. But Kinsella has another, un-Bloomian side, or perhaps many other un-Bloomian sides, to his mercurial poetic temperament, and it would be a shame if Bloom’s sponsorship cost him readers who might otherwise find something congenial in his work.
One aspect of poetry, and Kinsella’s in particular, that does not interest Bloom enough to draw commentary from him is formal technique. As lovers of the Romantic sublime can find something in Peripheral Light, along with lovers of Language poetry and its antecedents, so can lovers of traditional poetic form and formalism. Examples of the villanelle and terza rima, along with copious rhyme and meter throughout, will surely please them. Kinsella’s verse may be at its best, combining tautness with suppleness, when he shortens his lines to a two-stress norm, as he does at many moments in the book. Not every formal feature of Peripheral Light reaches impeccability, though. Kinsella has, for example, a weakness for lackluster enjambments between adjectives and nouns, the latter widowed as one-word syntactic remainders, as in “from the heart of the white / silo,” “through its unguent / body,” “out of an uncharacteristic / torpor,” “fizzes and winces with impending / rain,” “at their exclusive city boarding / schools.” Such enjambments become distracting tics, making no use of the Miltonic legacy of drawing sense out from one line to another in order to generate phantom images, double meanings, or opportunities for suggestive misreading, and they mar the verse. Usually, however, the high quality of Kinsella’s lines and stanzas strongly suggests that students who study creative writing with him have the opportunity to learn from a skilled craftsman.
But it would also be a shame if debate over his poetic allegiances, affinities, and bloodlines distracted Kinsella’s potential readers from his most immediate and substantial contribution, the deeply textured evocation of a realm unfamiliar to most Americans, the landscape of western Australia, with its distinctive flora and fauna and features and objects and words that appear throughout Peripheral Light: spinifex, cockatoos, salt paddocks, sheep skulls, mallee, sheoak, dugite, wandoo, echidna, jinker, rosellas, digeridoos, and always everywhere in this oasis of fertility the wheat, which farmers struggle to grow and harvest and which, when gathered in a silo, can drown the boys who play in it. Some may opt to read Kinsella’s poems about the Australian wheatbelt under the literary sign of the pastoral, associating him perhaps with Frost, from whom he clearly has learned. But the imaginative scale here is larger than in Frost, for although Frost gave us poems from the then overlooked world north of Boston, Kinsella has given us, or at least many of us in America, a vision of a wholly different, powerfully strange world, a world in which the “hot glacier” of salt encroaches on the fertile world of wheat, a world dotted by sheep skulls that come to glow and haunt like the visionary totems of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of the American southwest. The scale of accomplishment, at least in the context of geographical representation and all it entails, is analogous to that of Derek Walcott, who first showed so many American readers the beauties and layers of St. Lucia and the Caribbean. It is a large achievement, and although it may be unfair to him and to us to burden a mid-career poet with Bloom’s prophesy of “a major art,” it is an achievement that deserves both attention and gratitude.