John Kinsella is a poet with few aesthetic pieties. His new collection, Armour, will be irritating to anyone attempting to fold him into the variously sized boxes of ‘New Formalist’ or ‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet’ (although he sometimes seems both). Equally worn out genre descriptors like ‘Avant-Garde’ are (thankfully) wholly inappropriate, as his assured lyric voice seems in a constant state of imaginative flux: moving from one landscape to another, from one form to another, from one skin (or armour) to another. Yet, in every one of these poems, Australia hovers in the background. I don’t mean ‘Australia’ in a strictly geographical sense, I mean John Kinsella’s Australia, which (though clearly based on the real one) is a vivid territory open to anyone reading the book. Kinsella is a self-described ‘eco-poet’, with a refreshing attitude of ‘anti-pastoral’, and Armour is a book of poems which narrates how the earth develops its own ‘armour’ in response to the violence we’ve done to it.
In Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending,’ a school teacher concludes a discussion of Ted Hughes’ work with the line ‘of course we’re all wondering what will happen when he runs out of animals.’ As regards Kinsella, I somehow doubt he will ever come to that point. Owls, dogs, rhinoceros, cutworms, megamouth shark, blowflies, kangaroo, salmon, blue-ringed octopi, and the strangely human sounding Laetiporis Portentosus (an Australian fungus) are all animating forces of this book. But these portraits are extraordinarily different from a poem like Ted Hughes’ ‘The Jaguar’. Take, for instance, ‘Dürer’s Rhinoceros’, which is a brilliant meld of history, myth, childhood memory and landscape:
Rhinoceros of childhood seen through thick bars
with sandpit and wagtails, zoo savannah or grasslands,
country compacted to a round peg in a square hole,
resigned in flesh if not eyes—vacuums of desire,
armour the leathern shields of the most ancient myth,
army writ into the single body that carries all
This poem strikes me as the best poem in the collection, and an enormous accomplishment for a few reasons which I will discuss. I am increasingly bored by poems based on works of visual art; they seem to have become a go-to genre with very little variation. In addition to this, at page ninety-six in the collection, I was also growing very tired of poems about animals. But this poem shook me out of a stupor. Dürer’s ‘Rhinoceros’ is a wood-cut by Albrecht Dürer (blind at the time of its composition), which I would encourage you to look at. To unfold this bit: the first view of the rhino is a child’s view through zoo bars, which gives Kinsella an opportunity to lament the Rhinoceros’ ‘resigned’ temperament and false habitat. However much I relate to Kinsella’s lament, I wasn’t terribly surprised by it. But almost exactly at the dash between ‘eyes’ and ‘vacuum’, something else happens: the syntax shifts into a higher gear (almost reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’) and we understand that Kinsella’s title (Armour) is a work of what we might call eco-mythological poetics. The heroic stances of the Iliad and the Aeneid (remember Virgil began his epic Arma virumque cano, of Arms and the man I sing) have been re-applied to a description of the historical process whereby Rhinoceros’ were transplanted from country to country, idealized as exotic symbols of strength, and made the toy-gifts of Kings. As Kinsella goes on,
…Dürer made this beast his own
for centuries, never witnessing its drowning
in wild seas, shipped from pillar to post, its second
skin armour on armour, body sculpted, riveted.
In this controlled spill of history and detail from an ever cornucopic imagination, we’ve got the best of Kinsella’s strengths: an ever-political awareness of our interaction with the natural world, and a highly imaginative landscape, mixing memory and fact, retrospectively taking what we now know of the horrors of history and re-applying them to what is in front of us. The rhinoceros becomes the ‘…embodiment of wars/ Europe was preparing for.’ This is far more than a poem based on a work of visual art: it is a critique of history, a re-imagining of myth and a rhythmically fierce, syntactically daring plunge into a strange, aesthetically composite world.
The line ‘who am I to say?’ appears more than once in this book. Whether consciously or not, this question is, I think, the increasingly persistent verbal gesture of our species. The poet’s job, however, is to address this question and proceed to ‘say’ despite it. Though I came to tire of Kinsella’s persistent political tone (not because I disagreed with him on the issues), I believe his voice is a necessary one. He is, in the best sense, a topical poet; somebody concerned with art’s necessary hesitance in the face of violence and extinction. The fact that, in Kinsella’s final analysis, Durer’s artistic representation was ‘Anatomically suspect,’ reminds us that art (however brilliant) is a secondary pre-occupation, but that we rally to it for protection, protection from our own violence, armour.