The Cortland Review


Tory Dent
An interview and reading with New York Poet Tory Dent. Grace Cavalieri hosts this one hour program of transformation.

R.T. Smith
Fatalities: A poem for 9/11

James Reidel
Ex-Libris Weldon Kees: Silver Poets of the 16th Century leads to a meditation on the life of Weldon Kees.

Robert Kendall
A Day In The Life: Epistemological sit-ups and perception stretches.

John Kinsella
You and I—blackout: Cambridge, mushrooms, anarchy, and teetotalling, all in the final installment of John Kinsella's autobiographical series.

John Kinsella

John Kinsella is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, most recently, The Hunt and Poems 1980-1994. His work has appeared in Poetry and The Paris Review, among many others. As well, he is the editor of Salt. Currently, he teaches at Cambridge University in England.
John Kinsella Autobiography Series


18. You and I—blackout

They put a tube into me yesterday and sedated me with an injection of temazepam, a tricyclical hypnotic. They cut polyps out of my colon using an electrical current. Last night I fell into waking nightmares. The horrors of the past were reawakened; this morning I feel like I'm coming down from a binge of narcotics and hallucinogens. I know where I don't want to be. I'm glad I'm here and not there. Those periods that are totally lost—the blackouts—still haunt me.

You're visiting Bob Adamson in Balmain. You've brought a friend from Perth, Jason, who has been sleeping on the floor of your room in the Cross. He is sick of you and your girlfriend fucking while he's in the room. You tell them they're all bastards and that you're going to leave for Queensland. You run out into and crash out in a park. Your girlfriend finds you and takes you back to Bob's. He gives you Serepax and says: that'll help calm him down. Now, it's years later and you're going through withdrawals and have been up at the white bunker on the Hawkesbury. You've been up all night reading poetry and are strung out. Bob gives you a packet of Serepax. You go back to your place in the Cross and eat the whole packet. You lose two days, and when you eventually come to, it's in a ditch, bleeding. You phone Bob and Juno, and Juno asks if you've had a chance to speak with Don Walker, the brother of a close friend. You can't remember, and know you've just got to get on a plane back to Perth.

You're touring outback New South Wales with another poet. You've just done a photo shoot for a local newspaper, a radio session for the ABC, and a reading for the Wagga Wagga Writers Writers. That's their name. You're back in your room after drinking heavily and turning down the offer of a threesome. You eat a handful of valium and pass out and your poet friend tells you the following day that he rang the hospital. You fly out of Wagga and gradually make your way back to Perth. The dams like holes into parallel universes. The countryside so familiar and yet different. Western Australia is a different country and you know this now.

As a child you went with the family mushrooming in the horse paddock every year. Back then the mushrooms grew to the size of dinner plates. This was either said or was how you saw them. They were rich and abundant and you wondered why more weren't damaged by the horses. Sitting on the back of the saddle, holding onto your oldest cousin around the waist, you imagined he was mentally connected with the horse, side-stepping the silvery caps of the mushrooms. Over the years the yields diminished. People would say, quietly, that it was the spray. The search area widened and the mushrooms were picked soon after erupting from the earth—it was as if the air decayed them faster than before. Still, knives in hand, we'd cut the stems and fill the buckets. Down at Happy Valley my brother and I would collect sacks full. This is grazing land and the filament structures below the ground tend to remain intact. Rhizomic empires. You're cold and poor, so a thick mushroom soup boosts you for days. Every second bite crunches with grit from gills and caps.

"Out there..." out there where sheep dung
collates and top-dressed soil exudes
decomposing nitrogen, where under-rings
filigree networks of sensitivity
uneasy as roundup drifts from firebreaks
and first rains stimulate filaments;
where THE LAND does its urge thing,
conscious of literary precedent,
all that nudge and mystery
and primal aching: clair de lune,
the push-button radio astronomy
with calling occupants precision
in the blur of the between-seasons
evening—and yes, I'm afraid they DO believe it;
and yes, pink and grey and loud despite
a chill setting in: you know what we've
been reading. So, mushrooms
stem-severed and bagged, gills riddled
with field krill, rise to the less-pressured
waters, that is, out of the light-starved
trenches, rotting in sacks already bruised.
The disc plough wastes no time
before cutting in, breaking systems
of mycelium, night growth and industry.
Decay feeds and is bled: the freelancing
narratology of marketing boards.

There are many Cambridges. The gown Cambridge which is all decoration—the rituals that keep it together and maintain its public profile are only a diversion. Its intactness remains because there is a town which it is not. There are the estates, there is Mill Road, there are the homeless shelters. The horse-chestnut trees have been introduced. The place is a construct. In College, with the surveillance cameras and mock-monastic social structure, you can feel safe. What was before is no longer relevant. You can bury yourself in work. A steady stream of visitors comes through—reading, lecturing, performing. You interact with them and then retreat. Both sides feel intact. It's about intactness.

X's and Y's house was an island. Of retreat, of Doctor Moreau. You'd get marooned there for days. You'd maroon yourself. The run out into the outer suburbs to score, the retreat into a space where every drug victim in town would end up, at least once a week. The narrative threads moved in and out of each other. Like clockwork, but only if you accept that time is programmatic randomness. A death, a new face. All part of it. X was a Calvinistic pagan. He accepted his lot, there was no changing it. "You see people who spend their whole lives saving and saving and the end of it they've lost the lot. Not this guy, it's all gone up my arm and is safe. It's who I am." You cook vegan pizza for the family and the drop-ins. They like it. The Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary" pumps out of the stereo in the background. People talk about it as critics would talk about a rendition of Alkan. In the end though, it's all about profit and loss. Here, the market economy is at its most effective. People come and go...

The plough sticks in the heavy earth. The top paddock has a long run from east to west. You follow the fence lines by the top bush, keeping the plough guide wheel in its rut. The sun is bright and cold. The pitch of the tractor's engine varies with the density of the soil. The disks cut and cast the chunk ribbons of earth aside at an angle. A wedge-tailed eagle settles on a wandoo. They're rare now. You recall one being shot when you were a child. It's illegal to shoot them now.

I am part of everything I've written. I cannot hide behind text. You cannot hide. And yet I am nothing to the reader. I am not relevant. The text is not me nor does it belong to me. This is the contradiction that keeps me writing. Death is everywhere in my work and yet I celebrate life. I have chosen to live. My pastorals are dark because the occupation and consumption of the environment is a dark practice. The wells are poisoned because the act of making them is violent. An old man waiting to go into the endoscopy unit says that he can understand why people are protesting against the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation. Why people in Seattle and London are saying enough is enough. "It's all for the rich," he says—and you can tell he's not hard up. Accent is an investment in Britain. "Problem is that you get one or two anarchists in the mix and the whole thing turns into something else. It gets violent. They make chaos." But I'm an anarchist and deplore violence. I deplore the power that arises out of apportioning money, out of "doing the right thing" by those who have less than we do. In the Guardian yesterday a group of anarchists were interviewed about television via an anarchist homepage on the web. One of them said: "I don't like a lot of the programmes that are on at the moment. This Who Wants To Be A Millionaire seems to have got the nation stunned, but I think it's lame; very tired and quite depressing. I had a theory—only famous people should apply to be on it. The nation would be in uproar—the rich getting richer—and it would show up the programme for what it was."

Where is home now? If they stopped the pumps the fens would flood. If the work of the Dutch drainage engineer Sir Cornelius Vermuyden had never been, this might be a wilderness of ducks and eels and water. The fen people would still retain their dialect and ways. Or maybe not. Maybe change would have come internally, left to itself. The wetlands of Perth are disappearing, Nyoongahs fight for urban space and are thwarted at every turn. Every government agency is racist, no matter what they say.

On the goldfields of Kookynie, my grandmother would wait for her dad to come home from the South Champion Mine. The house they lived in had earthen floors and white-washed hessian walls. At night they'd hear the dingoes howl and sometimes the Afghans would come into town with their camel trains, carting water from Niagara dam. There was a pub on every corner and the Salvation Army did Christmas picnics and sing-alongs. My grandmother's mother had come from Gaffney's Creek in Victoria, and her family from Scotland via New Zealand. They were from strongly Protestant stock. My grandmother's father would die of miner's disease in Wooroloo sanatorium. I reviewed Frieda Hughes's book Wooroloo earlier this year. Her art studio burnt down and she saw foxes in the fields. For her it's a place where family physically disconnects though it lives in the shadows, in swirls of paints, in words. For me it is a place where old men died slow deaths, where my grandmother visited and retold as memory. She remembered particular things—the shutters, the smells, a pack of cards on the corner of a table. Before she dies she tells me stories of Kookynie. She remembers her childhood in detail. I am convinced she remembers every hour. Every plant—the rare flowerings, the geranium grown against the odds.

The Garden

For years after they'd left
turnips would appear—
each season the townsfolk
heading down for the woody
harvest. For a while
it was as if the town
had one up on the desert,
but the lineage weakened,
likes the mines failing,
the hotels drying up,
the creek thinning,
the gardeners leaving town
and the desert


You plant a cutting
and wait—investing
the dry red soil
with all the water
you can spare.
In the shade
it grows with the heat.
As if it's too good to be true,
you become anxious—
almost wanting
it to finish,
to have spent
its time—as it would
even in a perfect climate,
surrounded by
a variety of species.

The Dam

To drown
in a dry place
doesn't bear
thinking about.
The long dam
they used for races,
the Salvation Army
picnicking with the children
nearby, singing
and clapping hands,
kicking up a din,
smothering the shrieks
of bewilderment
as Mr Cram dived
and jammed his head
between the rocks,
his blood spreading
out into the dead calm
of the dam, the heat.


They named it in hope
that it would yield the greatest
of riches. The name was not
a metaphor for gold.
It signified the huge
shift of water
over the Falls.
But it wasn't to be,
and water remained brackish
and expensive—
the town's wealth siphoned off—
the mines crackling
underfoot like parched
circulatory systems.

My grandmother remembered the Irish on the goldfields. Catholics were people who wouldn't go into her church. "If she won't come into my church I'll be damned if I'll go into hers." Her daughter—my mother—would marry a man from an Irish family, one in which the Catholic and Protestant were constantly at odds. They left Ireland because of "strife". In me lives all of this. I am married to a Catholic. My daughter goes to both churches. I believe in everything and nothing.

My grandfather was a teetotaller. Back in London, his father, drunk, had thrown himself under a train in front of his small son. He'd been an artist. Great Aunt Minnie sang at La Scala. My grandfather won a gold medal for violin, left England at the age of twelve with his mother and sister, and arrived in Perth to become a signwriter, and life member of the East Perth Football Club.

The landscapes of Wheatlands and Happy Valley have become mixed in my mind with the grounds surrounding Churchill College. The fields, the mushrooms. Just behind the observatory, animal research is in full swing. You can smell slaughter days. And Cambridge is the heart of the biotech industries. It's a place of potential patents. As the drums of chemicals roll off the trucks and railway carriages back in Western Australia, the word profit floats high into the atmosphere and lodges in what's left of the ozone layer. Somebody shoots a dugite out in the middle of nowhere because its relative might bite someone in their backyard on the edge of the city. The borders are confused and yet the surveyors return again and again to make sure things are in the right place.

This is the longest I've been in one place since I was a kid.



© 2002 The Cortland Review