John Kinsella. Firebreaks. (Norton 2016).
The Australian writer, John Kinsella, has earned an international reputation as a poet both progressive & traditional, exploring innovative or more conventional forms, depending on what each book ends up being, ‘about’. Firebreaks, his latest, is big, 284 pages, & expansive, charged with personal as well as public ambition. I guess it could be called a kind of ecopoetic diary/memoir-in-verse(s), as it registers his (& his family’s) life in England, then back ‘home’ in the land he owns (inherited?) in Western Australia, Jam Tree Gully, land which they are striving to protect & preserve, against the encroachments of modern Oz & the up-to-date farmers in the surrounding area, who love their machines, their Monsanto, their shooting of roos. The poems emerge as a complex argument with both others & the self, also as containing, if only by implication, a kind of manifesto for the organic way of life.
Kinsella is a highly eclectic writer, & in Firebreaks, he opts to explore & rehabilitate through generic play a variety of traditional modes: he takes up the narrative lyric, the lyric dialogue, the poetic essay, the ode, & many others, & weaves them into a sort of domestic epic, a compilation of complicated perceptions & arguments, including a ‘(frequently oppositional) dialogue I’ve had with Ovid’s late works of exile, Tristia and Ex Ponto, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and The Psychoanalysis of Fire.’ And that comment certainly sets a kind of rhetorical standard for the book.
The various sections register the real ‘exile’ of living in England for a time, away from Jam Tree Gully & thus unable to protect it in person; but when he returns, he still feels he’s in ‘internal exile,’ & rages against both his own people who refuse to see how the planet (more than the world) is changing, or being changed by their efforts, for the worse. His ‘envoy’ to ‘Internal Exile,’ the first half of the book, ‘(out of Ex Ponto IV, XVI, line 47-52)’, demonstrates the kind of directness he achieves at various places in Firebreaks, though more often it’s a descriptive directness, while here it’s a polemical one: ‘Unbearable blue / crouching over / incendiary breeze / to inflict wounds / where there’s no room / for further wounds; / but none compares / to loss of land / or land degraded / so even the dead / are troubled; / the malice / of profiteers / loving conversion / of land into commodities / in this golden age / of the consumer. / Iron rods in puppets. / My alienated ‘belonging’. / The small choices I have. / The Gall. The pall / of this western subject. / Forgive me, you / who have lost / so much more. / I sign over these words. / Ash on the page.’ But this short lined poem only arrives at the end of 147 pages of carefully wrought exercises in seeing & feeling one person’s embodied relations to the land & the people, surrounding where he lives but, living in their different ways on it. There are poems of lament, of simple delight in natural beauty, of anger at those who not only dismiss that beauty but take great pleasure in destroying it for what they see as simple ordinary & necessary progress.
The 2nd half of Firebreaks, ‘Inside Out,’ takes a more personal look at living in this small place during a ‘time of “mouse plague” and fire.’ The poems here delve into the difficulty his family has in trying to live as close to their little piece of land as they can. He achieves some fine social/cultural/agricultural comedy, as well as gorgeous representations of the Australian landscape, both native & changed by the European colonists, even on a small, & apparently still untouched, ‘block’ of land. The descriptions of flora & fauna, those eagles both native & introduced, for instance, the little dramas of encounters with mice or other people, the representations of the fires attacking the land: Kinsella handles all these set pieces with energy & élan; these are story poems in the best sense. But the anger is real too; how to deal with it, with them, these others: ‘And the cruel are out there killing roos / with arrows snapped off near hearts. Violent weekend parties / calling time on nature in the valley. On the other side of the country, / Queensland farmers are chomping at remnant bushland. That’s regional / and that’s national: accumulation of like-mindedness. Like mining; / it leaves nothing for anyone.’ Here we see Kinsella the rhetorician utilizing the long line for argument, yet the sensitivity to sound (as sense) remains.
Firebreaks is, as said, a big book, a series of intense images & insights, yet also a single, & singular, work. It demands careful reading, but it repays with a complex, often profoundly personal, representation of one aspect of our (failing) engagement with the natural world we too easily forget & so devalue, & so lose. If that makes it sound too didactic, it’s not; rather it’s a carefully woven poetic tapestry of well wrought tales that draw you in to one man’s continuing attempt to live as fully as possible what he has concluded is the good life, against all the (ordinary) odds arrayed against him, is family, & their home place.