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.
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:
... there was a species
of bird high in the salmon gum
that no longer exists,
WHITE-TAILED BLACK COCKATOO
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
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.