South Countries: John Kinsella, J.S. Harry

It is cold, deepest cold, the lake frozen as far as the eye can see, which is not so far because there is also mist, low and heavy, a twilight mist, swept, as if it came from an endless plain, a vast tundra, by an icy blast, constantly changing, constantly the same. And semi-darkness. Hardly a soul in sight, if you can call them souls, although there is perhaps nothing else that they can be called. The sense of them, rather than the presence, a track worn by footsteps across a ridge of ice, mud mixed into it, making the surface grainy, giving traction. But the cold, so intense, just when you would have thought the heat would be most fierce. For days now wandering through a burning landscape, everything smoke, ash, devastation, the heat beyond bearing, the burnt forms declaring what they had to declare, their state so desperate it seemed they could not believe that they were talking to any living body, but now so cold, all the more so for the contrast, their thin cloaks no protection, bodies beneath them – slowly it has become apparent that that is what they are – and to the left and right, frozen in the ice, sometimes only the feet visible, sometimes the head, others, side on, head near the feet as if divers in a full pike, one of them holding, what is it? a theodolite?, another what looks like a cattle-prod, another a mobile phone. They would die here, he and the Master, if dying were not part of the problem. Neither of them quite knowing why they are in this place – observers? – or what there could be for exit. Somehow each of them had expected a king of some sort, a vast figure of evil, a dictator, a president on a burning throne, attended by thugs of the worst description. But this is beyond thinking, some monster, prehistoric, frozen in deepest, permanent ice. ‘The ill Worm that pierces the world’s core’. The Region of Traitors. Is this its back they are walking on? But not entirely frozen. A pit that they see, as they rise to what at first he thinks is the nape of the neck, but then realises is brow, above a meat hole, and what you might call mouth, and jaws, cracking through bones of the living, blood everywhere, the same hideous screams running over and over as if on an audio loop. The same hideous bites taken. Shining entrails, spooling out. Flesh then reformed so that it can be devoured again. Endless supply. And this isn’t the worst of it. The things they see then they will never be able to say. Eternal damnation. Two huge pillars rising, each the anchor of a wall. ‘As we walked between them I realised that they were wings, plumeless, like the pinions of a bat.’ And further, along the spine, toward the pelvis – all frozen so deeply solid – to where, at the thigh, the Master tells him to clamber upon his shoulders through a rocky vent where, effort done (he finding footing, dragging the Master up), they both stand in a vast cavern, a kind of ‘natural prison’, in which no longer the frozen spine, but the upturned feet (anti – podes) of the monster are visible. Something turned on its head. The Antipodes, he says. You have gone through a door (‘the point passed by / Toward which all weight bears down from everywhere’). What was night there will be morning here.

That’s Dante, of course, in modern guise. I’ll come back to him shortly. I thought I’d start a little differently. Attract your attention. (Although how would I know if it’s worked, if you’re still there?: that constant problem of writing. At some point I could be out on the tundra all alone.)

There’s been a snag, anyway. My co-editor can’t do her first blog for another week yet. And to fill the gap I’ve stuck my hand up, said there’s one I’ve had in mind. Could be an essay, could be a review: why not a blog?

When you’ve been editing a journal for a while you get a kind of regret-list, of books that you wished you’d got someone to review, because you’ve come to realise that they are important, or perhaps knew it all along, but that you didn’t get reviewed for one reason or another, sometimes not for lack of trying. And the books are of all sorts. Of the five that come most readily to my mind, for example, two are of poetry, one is of photographs, two are works of criticism. The book of photographs is Totem and Ore, B. Wongar’s remarkable exposé of the effect of nuclear testing and uranium mining and exploration upon the indigenous peoples of central and northern Australia, a book that has been largely ignored because it exposes so dramatically and fearlessly one of our greatest national shames:

The books of criticism are Bernadette Brennan’s Brian Castro’s Fiction: The Seductive Play of Language, the best critical work yet on one of Australia’s finest writers, and Remembering Patrick White, a collection of essays (and one bibliography) on White’s fiction, drama and life, co-edited by my co-editor, Elizabeth McMahon, and Brigitta Olubas.

And the books of poetry, principal subjects of this blog: John Kinsella’s Divine Comedy, and J.S. Harry’s Not Finding Wittgenstein, two of the most extraordinary collections to appear in Australia in recent years (‘collections’? try demotic cathedrals), each arguably its author’s magnum opus (so far), and each, it seems, just a tad too difficult and problematic to have had much serious review. This isn’t going to be one either: there’s no space. But perhaps a blog, in terms of drawing attention to these masterworks, will be even better.

Back to my opening paragraph:

Dante and Virgil, his mentor/Master, have just come through hell and encountered Dis (Satan), a gigantic creature frozen in a lake of ice. Walking along his spine they come to a doorway, an exit, by means of which they find themselves at the base of the Mountain of Purgatory, which Dante locates in the Southern Hemisphere (the Antipodes: Lucifer’s Feet) and, interestingly, describes as an island. Even more interestingly, he says that it seems at first like a natural prison, which of course this island continent of Australia did – and was – to the convicts who first were sent here, as doubtless was the intention of the ingenious bureaucrats who thought up the scheme of transportation in the first place.

Kinsella exploits this connection. He doesn’t need to, to do what he has done, but it is interesting to know, when looking at his book, that it is there, and that it perhaps inspired him.  That we are Dante’s Purgatory. As if, in some part, we (‘Australia’, ‘Australians’) have been a textual thing all along, which of course we have been, written before we even came to be.

It’s not the first time Kinsella has done this. It’s a method, a part of his arsenal. He’s ‘translated’ Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia into the West Australian wheat-belt, for example, confusing many readers and critics because it didn’t seem like a re-writing of Arcadia at all, although that of course was the idea: the difference, the distance. And now it’s Dante’s vast spiritual portrait of his time and of times before it, their vices and their dreams of paradise, translated into what? a vast spiritual portrait of our times, our vices? well, yes, and no: it is these things, but through the lens, much of the time, of Kinsella’s own life (two of its principal characters his partner and his son).

Kinsella’s is not Dante’s Divine Comedy. He doesn’t call it The Divine Comedy, but simply Divine Comedy, and the reader should probably mull over the difference. But he watches his forebear closely. I.E. It’s not a competition, or even a blueprint, but there is a relation, and it helps to bear the ‘original’ in mind while reading the latter (‘Numbers included in some titles’, writes Kinsella, ‘allude to the original, but are not necessarily confined to it: that is, there is a point of reference with the relevant canto in Dante that might go through varying degrees of separation’).

It’s a rejection of inscription, rather than any kind of interlinear commentary. As much to do with departure (Kinsella also calls this ‘distraction’) as with any kind of following. It’s not otherworldly, to start with (and as is so much of Dante), but here and now. And although written in three-line stanzas, it’s not terza rima. The lines are left to follow the contours of the poem/landscape, rather than forced to a predetermined formula. Kinsella, contra Dante, begins with Purgatory, goes then to Paradise, ends with the Inferno, and although his three main sections, order aside, allude directly enough to Dante’s, it’s a very loose correlation: if there’s any purgatory it’s mixed in with hell; if there’s any paradise it’s scrambled into the other two. Although mostly, to be honest, it’s the hell, a contemporary environmental hell much of the time, with a stern and focussed eye, above all, on what has elsewhere come to be called the Eternal Treblinka of the animals. Drawing, one suspects, as much from Lorca (‘Gacela of Desperate Love’, ‘Gacela of the Bitter Root’) as from Dante for his titles, there’s a ‘Canto of Slipping at Night’, a ‘Canto of Antipodean Emergence’, even a ‘Canto of the Muscular Treasurer of Australia – Mr Costello’).

If I had the time, which I don’t think I do in a blog of this kind (and knowing what else I want to do), I’d look fairly closely at one of Kinsella’s poems here, and trace its links with and departures from the Dante. Probably ‘Canto of Boiling Blood (Seventh Circle, first subcircle, 12)’, from his Inferno, which directs us to Canto XII of Dante’s. This, by way of summary, from the great Dorothy Sayers translation:

The Story. At the point where the sheer precipice leading down to the Seventh Circle is made negotiable by a pile of tumbled rock, Virgil and Dante are faced by the Minotaur. A taunt from Virgil throws him into a fit of blind fury, and while he is thrashing wildly about, the Poets slip past him. Virgil tells Dante how the rocks were dislodged by the earthquake which took place at the hour of Christ’s descent into Limbo. At the foot of the cliff they come to Phlegethon, the river of boiling blood, in which the Violent against their Neighbours are immersed, and whose banks are guarded by the Centaurs. At Virgil’s request, Chiron, the chief Centaur, sends Nessus to guide them to the ford and carry Dante over on his back. On the way, Nessus points out a number of notable tyrants and robbers.

Kinsella’s canto sees us in a tannery:

As suburbs bulge into bush,
cleared quicker than night, blood
still boils in the tannery’s vats.

The workers know horses.
They are centaurs: part human,
part horse – semi-permeable,

osmotic. They think like horses,
leading the beasts in from paddocks
doused in the fumes of horse.

Whenever a soul rises
from the vats, they force
it back down: punishment

for all violence horses
have performed against others.
Horses. People. Horse-people.

The guardians/workers – people – are horse-people (as were centaurs, part horse, part human, but supposedly far wiser than humans), and they are slaughtering horses. We are part of each other, slaughtering our kind. It’s hard to find a moral foothold. We are so corrupted that it’s hard to realise we are in the midst of a paysage moralisé, a moral landscape, hard to get our sense of it. These poems will help us.

So too J.S. Harry in Not finding Wittgenstein – looking for the moral landscape beneath the seemingly benign, trying to work out how we’ve got into the ethically bankrupt condition in which we find ourselves, by which we find ourselves surrounded and perpetually manipulated. It’s not Dante but a rabbit, Pierre Henri Lepus, who in truth began his life in the early 1990s as Peter Rabbit, but was forced into a name change when the Beatrix Potter estate refused him permission to be. A rabbit who tours the world, looking at it from a rabbit’s point of view. It sounds strange, but only until we remember Swift. Then it sounds brilliant, a coup. Peter Rabbit in Iraq. Peter Rabbit in Calcutta. Peter Rabbit at a gathering of the New South Wales Poets’ Union to welcome the visiting American critic Charles Altieri. Peter Rabbit in the Australian outback, looking at how we treat his brethren:

One of the unwell rabbits drags itself past.
Are there any dandelions around here?
Peter asks it politely…

But the rabbit is too busy –
it is going down a long dark tunnel inside itself
to a ground
where it has never been before. The eyes
it looks at the world with are losing interest.
It does not answer Peter. Its whiskers quiver.
Peter leans closer to hear. How beautiful
grass is…it breathes, almost with no air.
then it gives a long slow exhalation
as its lungs say goodbye to the world.

Rabbits. Myxomatosis Trial, Wardang Island 1938.

Peter Rabbit, indeed, is so perturbed and confused by what he sees – all the hypocrisy and moral contradiction, all the absurdity, all the irrationality (even a rabbit has more sense) – that he begins to seek out the great philosophers of the twentieth century to see if they can explain, which of course, lacking a rabbit’s commonsense, they can’t. Indeed, talking to them – listening to them (since he can’t make them listen to him) – he begins to realise how we’ve got into our situation in the first place.

It sounds like fun, and in a sense it is; but, beneath, it is deepest commitment. Harry is not only a master – mistress – of letting the tiny, to quote a wonderful poem of Francis Webb’s, ‘not the immense / … teach our groping eyes’, but she has spent much of her lifetime putting her money where her mouth is, nurturing injured animals, feeding hungry ones, giving herself – not I think that it was ever a matter of use – the opportunity to observe and learn constantly from the lives which are not our own. Poetics connect with – reflect – philosophy (or the lack of it); maybe, at best, they even embody it. One of Harry’s poetic masters is Charles Olsen, who saw poetry first and foremost as a matter of – and  mode of – paying attention. And it’s this attention that, through her central character, her creole Pierre, she counterposes to the ‘great’ philosophers. Peter exists; the things about him exist; the suffering he encounters is real. In the attempt to understand how the human mind can so have lost itself and its sense of this reality, he engages – Harry engages, through him – especially that species of modern philosopher known as the Logical Positivist, in the form of A.J. Ayer (with his concern for sense data theory and the verification principle) and J.L. Austin (with his idea that speech is a form of action), although he/she is also much exercised by Bertrand Russell and, as the book’s title suggests, his erstwhile disciple Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Of course, Peter/Pierre is a very intelligent rabbit – he can not only read the philosophers for himself but is writing a thesis – and that, for some, will be Harry’s problem. She may want to show things through his eyes and his innocent mind, but she is showing some things – the philosophy of Austin, Ayer, Husserl, Russell, Wittgenstein himself – that, although they might gain her critical approval, are not common currency amongst her own most likely readers, and might put some of those readers off. A passage like the following, for example, in which Pierre encounters A.J. Ayer, derives a good deal of its orientation from a basic knowledge of Ayer’s philosophical position, just as, since the encounter takes place in a war zone (Iraq), it helps to know that, during the Second World War, Ayer worked in the Special Operations Executive and spied for MI6:

He is drifting into sleep, without shelter,

on the flat

dry gritty sand that’s plainly not
greybrown like rabbit’s fur – he’s aware
of nowhere to hide…Dreaming of Arctic
animals whose fur
‘s mistakenly stayed dark
when the first, Arctic snows came down,
he sees, on the sand,
the small troubled figure
of the philosopher Alfred Jules Ayer
crouched under a rock. There is a
scratched drawing of a tree
with the letters ‘Bo’
scrawled under it.
The philosopher’s paws are clasped
round the pages of a book
emblazoned on its spine.
It seems he is struggling with RE-
VISIONS to the work
which he first finished

in  n i n e t e e n
t h i r t y-

f i v e.

Putting out a shaking paw, Ayer says, in less
than confident ‘voice’, I am gaining a sense-datum
of fur, long ears, & round, brown eyes,
the sense-experience of what
in language, I’d likely call a rabbit.
Ayer cogitates. (Has
his remark, his ‘locutionary act’,
given the impression
he is ‘impulsive’, ‘hasty’, ‘rash’?)

Sitting under a figurative Bo tree, he seems anything but enlightened. But then Bo trees, as far as this philosopher is concerned, are one of those things it is meaningless to talk about.

To reiterate. Knowing about Ayer will enrich this passage considerably; not knowing about him will impoverish it; and there are, one way or another, numerous passages in this book – this long poem – which present a similar problem. How much are they a liability as far as the general reader is concerned? How much do we really need to know about such things, in order to understand – to take something from – this work? Ah, well (my first answer), literature’s supposed to follow us, isn’t it? And not to get uppity (a good rabbit word). And those who feel an hour or two on Wiki, looking up Ayer and Austin and Russell and Wittgenstein (or Dante, for these comments apply to the Kinsella as well), learning a few of the secrets of our time will not be worth their while have, anyway, the other poetry of J.S. Harry to peruse, can be shocked, moved, devastated by poems like “Tunnel Vision” and “Mouse Poem” (and a few dozen others), without having to lift a finger. And (my second answer), the reader still has a great deal of poem left, aside from these passages, and a great deal of that shines, as does Harry’s poetry generally, with the kind of attention to the moment and the world’s detail that Charles Olsen called for – a dual moment, in fact, since, even while it is encountering the world the poem is also at a moment within itself, so that for the reader who will themselves go attently enough there is a dual pleasure of being shown the world that the poem/poet/rabbit is looking at, and poem‘s game, the ‘dance of the intellect amongst words’, as it does so.

And what about Wittgenstein? The poets’ favourite philosopher (Gwen Harwood was much smitten by him too), because, having insisted, in a brilliant first work, that all must be reduced to logic – having given thereby a foundation to logical positivism and its rejection of all metaphysical and aesthetic speculation as meaningless – and that (one of its most famous statements) ‘Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent’, he then changed his mind? A man who thought through philosophy and then rejected it as but one more form of illusion? Well, the title, at least for this reader, still remains a bit of a mystery. Peter/Pierre does encounter Wittgenstein, in a rather remarkable passage which I am about to discuss, and thereafter spends a fair bit of time with him, but there’s a sense in which, Wittgenstein not having found himself, that that perhaps cannot be said to be finding him.

Which is not in any way to enter the mystique of Wittgenstein, which runs (mightn’t it?) along the dual lines that (a) he came from one of the richest families in Europe at the time (Ayer, too, came from very wealthy stock [the Citroens]), and that he gave away his fortune and insisted upon living on his own (substantial) wits, and (b) that he composed the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in the trenches during the first world war and that it therefore, in itself, amounts to a rubbing of philosophy up against some of the hardest existing that he might have encountered, in a manner which makes him, in potentia, Pierre’s philosopher.

But now to the passage I mentioned a little earlier, and I’ll close upon it, no doubt leaving numerous matters up in the air. It’s a passage in which ‘the tiny, not the immense’ comes to one of its finest and most memorable foci in the book, a passage where Wittgenstein is seen in a particularly sensitive, almost empathic light, yearning for the world and the knowledge that his own philosophy and, we suspect, the nature of human thought (as he understands it) shut him out from. It’s from one of the earliest of Harry’s Peter Rabbit poems, ‘Antarctica?’ (note the question mark in the title: the whole of harry’s/Pierre Henri’s world is under erasure – under question – in this way; not too the way the icy barrenness of Antarctica balances the desert of the later Iraq poems, as if the whole of modern philosophy were being figured as infertile waste land). I’ll quote it and then say nothing more. Linger upon it. Try to sort the chickens from the eggs (and reflect upon how we’ve come a full cycle, and are back on the ice again):

comes walking towards him
down an iceberg. He is followed
by a crowd of students
who levitate – six inches
above the ice            & higher
than Wittgenstein, though they seem
less solid. More ethereally dressed.

Now advancing, now retreating, they

& their garments

around Wittgenstein,
in an icy
avid mist.


Wittgenstein is wearing
an anguished

look of concentration – wall-to-wall pain stretched tight
across his face. Uncaught & not yet clear thoughts
are hiding in his pockets – roosting
just out of range – like wily
feral hens. His stretching ice-stiff fingers,
curling towards them, cup them & become warm as eggs.

David Brooks


Books referred to:

B. Wongar, Totem and Ore (Carnegie, Vic.: Dingo Books, 2006).

Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas, eds, Remembering Patrick White: Contemporary Critical Essays, Cross/Cultures 128 (Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2010).

Bernadette Brennan, Brian Castro’s Fiction: The Seductive Play of Language (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008).

John Kinsella, Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography (St Lucia: UQP, 2008).

J.S. Harry, Not Finding Wittgenstein (Sydney: Giramondo, 2007).

Illustration sources:

Gustav Dore, Exit from Hell:

Vellutello, Lucifer:

Rabbits at Waterhole:

2 thoughts on “South Countries: John Kinsella, J.S. Harry

  1. I must admit that I keep forgetting the details of J. S. Harry’s work, and have neglected it as a result, but I have John Kinsella’s, and the sheer breadth of vitality of the work keep knocking me out whenever I approach it. And my estimation of its abilities continually rises the more I dip into it.

    It is, I hope, one of the very definite answers to the problem posed by the seeming absence of the long poem.

    1. Yes, Harry has been neglected. Her Not Finding Wittgenstein used quirky language-games testing history and philosophy against recent warzones. Comic and audacious, using the improbable mechanism of a philosophical Peter Rabbit, her character travels, studies, discusses, learns, and ends up in Iraq in 2003. Although one of the country’s keenest satirists and political commentators, Harry is often disregarded. She’s not associated with any Australian poetic school, yet is an important poet who has worked for decades in this country. Her vision is unique – even madcap – and perhaps has been honed by being ignored by accredited artistic tribes.
      And you gotta love a book ending “No editor would touch it.”

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