Visitors

By John Kinsella on 4.17.09

In some ways I have been increasingly cutting myself off from contact with the ‘outside’ world. I still get out and about, traveling by train and (soon) ship, and turn up to lecture or teach classes, but these are discrete spaces that belong to their actions, and not places of social choice or growth for me. I am increasingly focused on the block of stony ground on a hillside we have been making our home, in the region I have always considered my home-place, though I have had many homes (especially in Ohio and Cambridgeshire), and the reference place/space for so much of what I write. But it is not my land, though the government (and as an anarchist, I neither believe in nor respect any government) might defend my right to ‘ownership’ against my beliefs and wishes.

The land I write is the land of the Ballardong Nyungar people, and I know it. At best, I am a custodian in a place that needed no other custodians spiritually, but in the grim light of rapacious development and exploitation, needs whatever protectors it can get. ‘Our place’, Jam Tree Gully, as we call it, is consciously a Walden for me, and my writing there is now in dialogue with Thoreau. I have chosen Walden for a lot of reasons, not least because despite his limitations in appreciating the impacts of theft of land that belonged to others, and the implications of the rhizomes of an earlier (and ongoing, of course) relationship to the land by indigenous peoples, Thoreau knew what it was to step consciously outside society (though he was never in reality far from it). Also, because I have lived in America and had a son born there, in a country that gives citizenship by place of birth rather than heritage, it becomes a means of dialoguing with a place a long way away that is an essential part of my conceptualization of the ‘world’. The macro and micro operate in conversation as I inflect a colonized Australian space and my part therein, and a (very specific, it should be noted!) colonized American space and my meetings therein.


Photo by LSykora on Flickr

As I plant trees, climb the steep hill and watch the wedge-tailed eagles, stand watching the kangaroos in the early morning or evening, I bring to mind the woods of central Ohio near Kenyon College, Mohican State Park which I often visited with family and even on one occasion with my students, and the separations and links declare themselves loudly. The politics aren’t global but local, and what I remember are the ‘isolations’ of each melded into a self-constructed commonality of abandonment—of places to avoid the social activity of the capitalist marketplace. Financially, socially, pragmatically, Jam Tree Gully doesn’t make sense, but it makes ecological sense, and it’s ecological sense I wish to make.

My poetry is inseparable from this process. When I was a teenager writing poetry on my uncle’s Wheatlands farm, I believed that learning the names of things (in as many different ways of naming as I could discover—the common name, the name we kids made up, the Latin names, the local indigenous names) would make them part of me and me part of the place. It was like an entree to belonging. I collected proper nouns. I was wrong—that’s not belonging, it’s visiting. Names evolve with belonging—you acquire them without work, even without consciousness. They are pre-speech. In my poems, I deploy these names still, almost obsessively, though it’s not to pin them down as an inventory, but rather as a recognition of genuine strangeness, an alienation of my own condition from theirs.

The politics of de-anthropomorphics—by which I mean the poet fearing anthropomorphics and so avoiding descriptions of animals and plants, because to remove the discussion from a register of human comparison is ultimately impossible (we always get back to it via degrees of separation)—has led, ironically, to my mind, to a limitation in the ability to empathize with ‘nature’ outside the human.  Pathetic fallacy is actually a generator of positive engagement with nature, however impaired and limited, and will inevitably be part of a communion with nature. I should note that this is a very conditional defense of anthropomorphics and pathetic fallacy, largely arising from lament for other paths of engagement with the natural world largely being ignored or unrealized. Humans often need to give human attributes to the action of the non-human in order to transcribe into a language of affirmation and protest (to translate, as many other poets and critics have observed—but it’s more than that), and when this is done with awareness of the politics of appropriation it becomes communion rather than yet a further example of an egotistical sublime. The problem, I feel, in writing poetry of place, is that few writers accept the status of visitor when it is inevitable that that is the role they are playing—from the overt visitation of the colonizer to the movement outside one’s familiar space so that the familiar fades and changes, and the world becomes strange. This is the energy and drive of poetry of questioning, as opposed to poetry of ritual. The two aspects are part of a poem for me.

In Walden, Thoreau is highly conscious of his literal visitors (and their absence!), as am I. I have invited very few people out to ‘our’ place, though when I do, it’s special and is about conversations on many planes. Recently, a friend who is a literary theorist visited there, and he was the one, more than ecologically-minded activist-friends, whom I took up on an offer to plant trees. His gesture said much about the dynamics of guest-host relationships, but more, that he was willing to step outside his comfort zone as he understood that having a visitor there at all was a major step outside my comfort zone. I wrote him a poem, which is part of this Walden cycle. That poem is below, and really explains what I am getting at, but beforehand let’s consider Walden and the politics (and spatiality, slightly) of visitations, which comes (interestingly and ironically) from the chapter entitled ‘Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors’.

Thoreau notes previous inhabitants of the woods as he understands habitation, and in doing so creates a map of both connection and disconnection. This is relevant to Jam Tree Gully insofar as the original inhabitants were driven from their land and it was claimed and divided up into properties by the early settlers in the context of the colonial government of the Swan River Colony, and ultimately the British Crown. The land ‘our’ block is on was part of a very large settler land grant with the landlord largely an absentee—this may be part of why it wasn’t cleared as extensively as other areas (it is still quite wooded)—and indigenous names and knowledge pertaining to it remain to a greater extent than some other places in the region.  I draw attention to these disturbing lines in Walden:

“…or like that early settler’s family in the town of Sutton, in this State, whose cottage was completely covered by the great snow of 1717 when he was absent, and an Indian found it only by the hole which the chimney’s breath made in the drift, and so relieved the family. But no friendly Indian concerned himself about me; nor needed he, for the master of the house was at home…”

Here, there is a tacit acknowledgment of an authority of presence prior to the “presence” he tracks as relevant to his own, but gentle irony doesn’t distort the impact of ultimately erasing indigenous presence. However much this is imported into a broader discourse of acknowledgment and even respect, it remains the work of a colonizer, just as my work, regardless of its empathies and even the associations and culturality of family (early ‘settlers’), must ultimately remain. I should clarify here: I have not met my distant Kinsella relatives who I’m told are Nyungar, but I am acutely aware of them and desperately want to connect if the occasion should arise outside a ‘contact’ situation which would be patronizing to all concerned, especially given my politics of total and utter belief in the primacy of land rights—that is, the return of significant tracts of land to indigenous custodianship.

Thoreau’s description of the dynamics of a small room, and how the act of visitation functions, is fascinating, but more to the point of my piece is this:

“The one who came from farthest to my lodge, through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love. Who can predict his comings and goings?”

In my case, it was the height of summer, and the theorist came in a car playing Aretha Franklin on his stereo (maybe along with some AC/DC?), and what I appreciated about his visit was, as I have already implied, that it was done within the knowledge that for me this was not usual—that I live as I do because I enjoy the company of my own thoughts, my family, and the ecology around me, within a framework of waiting and expectation in terms of how my custodianship (part of a custodianship) will be passed on, mediated, and reformed with the truth of its past—that is, its theft. His brilliant literary theorizing (check out his Derrida Dictionary) is, to me, a pure form of poetry. My friend, Niall, is supremely untranscendental, which makes his willingness to bring his family to plant trees all the more resonant and creates an ecology of friendship and visitation as much as an ecology of land. So, anyway, here’s that Jam Tree Gully / ‘Walden’ poem written for my visitor:

An Elective of Gradients

You choose which inclines you show a friend,
or which inclines your friend might favor—
but he makes his own way through the stones
and up the steepest parts and is interested
in what happens when water runs and cuts.
He is interested in gradients and erosions,
in the pair of eagles that come at dusk
before shutting down, in the echidnas
eating the termites that hollow York gums
that 28 parrots nest in. He is interested
in bringing his boys up here to plant trees,
to labor. I offer to pay them and him
but he declines, saying he would like them
to labor where the steepness sharpens
seeing and their work will grow without end.

Editor’s Note: You can read more about Jam Tree Gully on the blog Mutally Said: Poets Vegan Anarchist Pacifist co-written by John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan.

topics: Columnists