Friday, November 04, 2005

Last night I read part of John Kinsella's new book, The New Arcadia; he's probably the highest-profile poet writing and thinking about pastoral right now. Though the poems are for the most part fierce anti-pastorals, laments for the agricultural abuse of nature and the landscape in Western Australia; at the same time there's pleasure in the precision and strangeness of his descriptions. The poems are crammed with Australian words that create an aura of strangeness and exoticism for this American reader, yet that's hardly Kinsella's intention: in his work the exotic is in tension with unsparing precision and accuracy. His lines are thorny, unlovely, crammed with vernacular anger. The book is written in five "acts," each bookended by a "Reflector" (a long poem describing the same cross-country drive at different times; you can read the first one here) and an "eclogue," a dialogue between quasi-iconic figures like "Younger Brother" and "Elder Brother," "Groom" and "Bride," "Woman" and "Poltergeist". His engagement with pastoral is more urgently connected with environmental questions and the particular persons and places of Australia than the more self-consciously literary pastoral that I've concerned myself with. Though his title tells us that Kinsella is hardly unaware of the legacy of pastoral poetry, he wants to implode the genre, to wake us up from a sentimental attachment to spectacles of nature and farmers that obscure the lasting and irrevocable damage we're doing to real plants, animals, and people. The latent utopianism of the genre, its revolutionary potential, only appears in flickers and kernels: Kinsella seems more concerned with making us feel the sharp edges of an uncomfortable reality: "Theft is history, metaphor / assimilation" (the dialectical ambiguity of that line break is breathtaking). When I finish reading the book I might have more to say about it.

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