Thursday, July 06, 2006

John Kinsella and the Parliament of the Birds

I've just sent off a review piece on John Kinsella's last two books, The New Arcadia and America, to the Australian. Still thinking hard about the first one, which is an elaborate, focused, politicised portrait of Kinsella's home landscapes in the WA wheat belt.

One thing that struck and kept striking me about this book-length and formally elaborate, playful, engaged and enraged poem is the way it speaks to Les Murray's work without any sense of competitiveness, imitation or regrettable boyo muscling-up. I have no idea what relations are like between Kinsella and Murray but despite their political differences (not as huge, if their work is anything to go by, as some imagine, and certainly neither of them toes anybody else's party line) I bet they understand each other's work very well.

The New Arcadia is divided into five 'acts' each of which begins with a 'drive'. It's the same drive five times, at different times on different days in different moods: a meditation on being in and moving through a landscape. One of my favourite things about it is the birds. Kensella is armpit-deep in eco-politics and that's one of the bases of his vision here.

Where I'm living, in an old suburb of Adelaide that's fairly near the sea, one of the joys of the last eight and a half years has been the daily communing with assorted birds: blackbirds, rainbow lorikeets, musk lorikeets, sparrows, honey-eaters, pigeons, willy wagtails, magpies and crows are birds I see at least one of every day. Sometimes I wake to the crooning and burbling of next door's chooks; some days I see a seagull; and occasionally, bizarrely, I happen to look up and see a pelican ponderously riding some sky current or other, like an angel in a painting. But Kinsella's avian landscape puts this modest suburban flock to shame, and I like this poem and its ideological underpinnings so much, here's a tribute to him and his birds: a list of every feathered creature in the poem, and some of their best moments.


MAGPIE
KOOKABURRA
GALAH
CROW
EMU
CORELLA
FINCH
BLACK-FACED CUCKOO-SHRIKE
WAGTAIL

*****

In the corner paddock, four species of birds
congregate -- if not interacting
then scanning spaces between others'
courses: insect-hunting heron

knifing random lines between scattered
pink and grey galahs, magpie larks
stressing laws of genre, place, and limits,
and the crow watching acutely:

*****

RED-CAPPED ROBIN
LITTLE CORELLA

*****

... there was a species
of bird high in the salmon gum
that no longer exists,

*****

MULGA PARROT
TWENTY-EIGHT PARROT
WHITE COCKATOO
WHITE-FACED HERON
RUFOUS SONGLARK
SILVER-EYE
SWALLOW
EAGLE
BOOBOOK OWL
CHICKEN
ELEGANT PARROT
SKYLARK
CRESTED BELLBIRD
THORNBILL
HAWK
PURPLE-CROWNED LORIKEET
OWL
TAWNY FROGMOUTH
WHITE-TAILED BLACK COCKATOO
BLACK-SHOULDERED KITE
WEDGE-TAILED EAGLE
COCKATIEL
TURKEY
NIGHTJAR

*****

Three white-faced herons arrive this morning,
the extinct volcano weathered down to the emollient
of mist and oil of eucalypt, spiralling
on to the limbs of their roosting tree, body fed
on soakage and samphire, their deep-throated croak
the result of scandal or espionage, swaying
as the dregs of the front stir the mist and gently
whip the leaves, but never at risk
of unseating.

*****

YELLOW ROBIN
WOOD SWALLOW
GOLDEN WHISTLER

*******************

But now I will you tell a wondrous thing:
As long as I lay in that swooning,
Me thought I wist what the birds meant,
And what they said, and what was their intent
And of their speech I hadde good knowing.

3 comments:

Galaxy said...

Every morning around 7.30 the crows in my neighbourhood have a conference. I am usually still in bed at this time and sometimes they wake me up, which I don't mind. Probably time to get moving anyway. I've always thought that crows move like old men, so I imagine they're talking about whatever old men do. In contrast I think of Kookaburras as two-year olds, especially when they sit, fluffed-up on a telephone wire, laughing loudly and demanding our attention, which, of course, they get.

KLG said...

Sometimes in spring and summer the cats sit at the front screen door (they are inside cats) looking out at the world, an activity known in my family as 'watching cat television'. And occasionally a honey-eater will come right in under the front veranda and hover two feet or so above the front doormat, making a noise that can't possibly mean anything but 'Nyerdy nyerdy nyer, ya can't get me, I'm a bird and you're a cat, you're inside and I'm not, phbphbphbphb.'

It drives them bonkers.

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