Radical re-envisioning

Firebreaks. John Kinsella (286pp, $21.95. Norton)
Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems 1980-2015
. John Kinsella
(392pp, £16.99, Picador)

John Kinsella's new collection, Firebreaks, is an absolute 'must read'. A 286-page tour de force of sustained poetic voice and formal variety, with a dedicated and committed ecopolitical worldview. I could, quite literally, not put it down. The book of poems considers the poet's home of Jam Tree Gully in the Australian wheatbelt (a locale with which we become intimately familiar), firstly in a group of poems written in 'exile' from that home, exploring ideas of departure and return, and then in a second half written from inside Jam Tree Gully looking out to its wider interconnections.

The poems are concerned with place, human and animal dwelling, ecology and politics, both local and global, and reveal in extraordinary detail the human and non-human habitation of these lands. In their specific relation to a local dwelling place, the poems speak back in unannounced ways to other great bioregionalist texts in this tradition: Thoreau's Walden
, Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, the work of Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard's Tinker Creek, and other notable authors, as well as more recent exemplars in the genre - Linda Russo and Jorie Graham spring to mind. The poet also acknowledges his poems as being in dialogue with 'Ovid's late works of exile, Tristia and Ex Ponto and Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space and the Psychoanalysis of Fire' - the former putting the work in dialogue with classical pastoral and the latter author influencing a phenomenological focus in the poems on the objects of dwelling.

At times these poems are very personal - family and local narratives, including the co-habiting mice and ants that are the real inheritors of these acres of land - and the family includes all who live and have lived in the place, people, animals, 'the traditional owners and custodians of the land he writes'. And good lord! this man writes a lot! One poem's title perhaps explains why: 'I Lose Connection with What I Am Most Intimate With if I am Not Writing ItÉ'

There are poems in a great variety of forms, from free verse experiments to formal sestinas, couplets, quatrains, sonnets, and much else. There are narratives, moments of humour, moments of exasperated ecological politics, the full gamut of feeling and expression. The repetitive intensity of trees, birds, mice, kangaroos, ants, disengaged neighbours, and the whole panoply of Kinsella's postmodern Australian pastoral, feels like an act of total immersion, carried by the sheer linguistic vivacity of the poems. I will be doing the book no favours at all by selectively quoting from it - it needs to be read like a novel, in an intense burst of reading, which the poems richly reward. If you are at all interested in how the 'natural world' can be written about in dynamic, engaging, new, politically engaged poetry, then you must read Kinsella's Firebreaks, one of the best, most sustained displays of poetry I have read in a long while.

At nearly 400 pages, John Kinsella's Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems 1980-2015, is another testament to the poet's staggering productivity, gathering together as it does some thirty years worth of his poetry (although it includes nothing from his verse plays, or book-length poems, of which there are many). From his earlier Poems 1980-1994 - itself a book of some 350 pages - Kinsella has drawn just 30 poems to begin Drowning in Wheat (I am reminded again of that title 'I Lose Connection with What I Am Most Intimate With if I am Not Writing ItÉ'). Thereafter, there are selections from Kinsella's first few excellent UK collections, The Silo; Lightning Tree; The Hunt; Visitants; The Hierarchy of Sheep and, following that, wide-ranging selections from his superb mid-career Selected Poems in the US, Peripheral Light, and his later Picador books from the UK, Sack and Armour, amongst other newer books, all of which have gained him much deserved international accolade. He is, quite rightly, thought of as one of the greatest living Australian poets and, in his radical re-envisioning of how we live and write the places in which we dwell, he is rightly considered to have revolutionised the pastoral and the ecopoetic for our own age. Kinsella's formal range and poetic versatility is, once again, on abundant show in this Selected, as well as his resourceful range of subject matter. If you haven't read Kinsella yet, quite simply, you must. This book will introduce you to one of the essential poetic voices of our times.  

    © Andy Brown 2016