White Punks in Armour

, John Kinsella (126pp. £9.99, Picador)

The 'armour' alluded to in this review's title, and characterising many of John Kinsella's poems here, is just that; it does what it says on the tin; it is armour: on rhinoceroses in the zoo; on thick-skinned children weathering their parents' divorce; on knights in the Fitzwilliam Museum; on sculptured horses; on Durer's 'Rhinoceros'; on the bark of trees defending themselves against insect and parasite attack. The world Kinsella conjures is one that is either necessarily self-protecting, or one in need of protection - one might say in need of careful human stewardhship.

The 'white punks' are a form of Australian fungus - Laetiporous portentosus - growing on eucalyptus trees across the continent, and the subject of the first poem in the fascinating sequence 'Idyllatry': '...its white / punk posture has injected rot into the heart / of the eucalypt', for that is exactly what the said fungus does, parasitizes and rots the tree before the insects then get in. One is tempted to read this as Kinsella's metaphor for what might have happened to the land of his nation, its heart rotted out through neglect; its armour breached. Tellingly, the first people in Australia 'carried fire / in its smouldering tinder', making the fungus one of indispensible cultural utility. Interesting then that 'punk' is an Old English word meaning 'something that smoulders'.

The cultural opposition of 'punk' also smoulders, just as Kinsella's own take on it as 'Po¸te engage
' (meaning a 'committed poet', from his poem 'Hyperbole') smoulders with a cultural, historical and political subversiveness. These are some of the essential things that poetry should be raising questions about, this poetry collection seems to be saying. So it is then that many of these poems treat of the historical, political and cultural engagements of people with the landscapes in which they live - very often rural, outback landscapes; or coastal, liminal ones - and the roles which land, labour and (particularly) language have played in shaping their identity and their experience of such landscapes, from first peoples to farm-hands. Kinsella seems compelled to deal with pressing ideas of responsibility, for each other, for the land, for the language, and for the creatures that inhabit the land alongside the people.

The poems range in form from free verses, to tightly controlled quatrains; from long, loose verse narratives, to careful sequences of beautiful shorter lyrics. The book is wonderfully various and inventive, with a music that ranges from near-rhyme to the inclusion of scientific vocabulary and wonderfully evocative local names and words, for example the recurring boobook
or barn owl, and 'frass' (the powder that insects excrete after chewing through bark). The poet also has a finely developed sense of dramatic development and structure in his poems which, developed through some fine imagery and aforementioned musical language, makes many of these poems into finely crafted little word machines.

If that word seems too logical (the superb poem 'Owl' contains the vocabulary of 'calculation', 'adding up', 'answer' and 'logic' alongside the wonderful image of an owl hunting out a 'component of the algorithm: a freshly dug mousehole'), then there is also a magical (almost spiritual) poetic anti-logic at work here too; one that questions 'all that post-Enlightenment posturing'. In fact there's quite a lot of spirit in here, and a good deal of praying. But there's that word 'posturing' again, like the 'white punk posture' from earlier. Kinsella is very aware that poetry, and language in its widest senses, make us play roles, with each other (as in the several very fine, and often touching, familial poems here); with each other, and with the natural world (as in the excellent poem 'Reverse Anthropomorphism'). That 'role play', from this last poem, is part of the complex emergent patterning that characterises  cultural interaction, but also the stewardship of  - the mindfulness and attention directed towards - the natural environment.

Those emergent patterns are also characteristic of the many animal and insect swarms and groups that recur throughout these poems - from blowfly swarms, to ant nests and bee swarms, to caterpillar processions ('the single-mindedness / of their collective'), to jellyfish in their bondamines (meaning 'groups'; more lovely vocab), to groups of great white sharks in a feeding frenzy - just as those emergent patterns and complex structures in language are what lead to the beautiful structures of poems and cultural identities. The idea of the 'collective' is a powerful image behind so much of what goes on in these poems; Kinsella seems to be urging us to reconsider what it is that makes us cohere. And to value it. To reconsider which 'armours' we might necessarily sport to protect us, and what protections and postures we might need also to question and do away with - are we just white punks in armour, or are we up for something that is altogether more culturally, politically and spiritually rewarding? And to pull that kind of philosophical enquiry off in poetry is a challenging and wonderful thing; a task that a great poet of Kinsella's standing is truly up to. A brilliant and necessary book.

      © Andy Brown 2011