The Cortland Review


Mark Jarman
J.M. Spalding interviews the poet.

John Kinsella
The River - Initial chapter of John Kinsella's  autobiography series at TCR.

John Kinsella


The River


152 Bateman Road Mount Pleasant was our address. The phone number had six digits 64 74 76. There's an extra digit now. I lived there until I was fourteen, apart from holidays and stints Up North with my father and time on the farm. My mother rented the house out when we moved to Geraldton and later sold it. Just down Canning Avenue was the river the Canning River that met the Swan River at Canning Bridge which formed a frontier for my brother and me, only occasionally venturing across to Applecross jetty or up to Blackwall Reach. I did my first swimming lessons at Deep Water Point Jetty and had to dive to the bottom and pick up a brick to get my Junior Swimming Certificate. I particularly hated swimming lessons but loved the river. We always got ear, nose, and throat infections. The water was tannin-coloured and smelt of decomposition at the height of summer. There were shark scares but they usually turned out to be dolphin sightings. Though sharks did occasionally come in to the river and the odd Grey Nurse was caught in the Swan off the Brewery site near Kings Park. My brother and I went there most days in summer.

Diving off a concrete yacht. It shouldn't have floated, it looked ridiculously heavy. We guessed we shouldn't be there. But the river was ours. My brother climbed up one day and a hatch opened. He made friends with the yacht's owner who lived on board and told my brother he'd listened to us diving off time after time but had kept quiet "you were having so much fun I didn't want to disturb you". My brother asked why he didn't clean the bird shit off the decks the yacht was covered in it.

Even more than the fish which we worked hard at extracting — the whiting, flounder, kingfish, flathead, cobbler — the birds defined the river for us. Especially the darters with their snake necks and the cormorants looking primal and suspect and shitting on everything. We'd catch a glimpse of a night heron and because of this it's the bird I identify with. The further I've moved from the river the more I've thought, even obsessed, over the night heron. It is a stealthy hunter of darkness, I am a vegan (have been all my adult life) who loves light. The attraction is indelible, like the waters of the river purple at dusk.

I was stabbed with a rusty fishing knife on Gunbower Road Jetty and my bike was thrown into the river. I've written a poem about this and the agony is held taut in a fabric of meditation. The recollection is reduced to the moment, a glimpse. But this is what holds it in place. It is the fear, the trauma of riding to school, down the shops, to the river with the local gang the Brentwood Rocks, subsidiary of the Freo Rocks on the lookout for prey. They hate kids who read. They hate kids who have chemistry sets. They hate kids who are black. They hate kids with foreign accents. They hate kids with glasses. They hate kids who don't play footy. They hate and they hate and they hate. And they mean business. And stab to kill. My brother pulled my bike from the river and I had a tetanus injection. I kept my mouth shut.

I am thirteen and my friend Anthony and I are going out for the night on Peter's boat. Peter is the son of a judge and his parents own a house right on the river's edge. They have their own jetty. Peter is our age and has his own boat. A hulk of a thing with an inboard motor — a Holden engine with worn rings that blows heaps of smoke. You have to work hard at the bilge pumps every few days or it will sink. There's a built-in pump which you work with a handle and another that's hand-held that's a bit like a large bicycle pump. On my first visit I do a lot of pumping. The night we go out I turn up in my fishing clothes. We are going in search of bream, or whatever. The other guys don't know much about fishing but I've been fishing the river since I was six. The engine kicks in and the navigation lights come on. It's magic. Despite the heavy sound of the holden motor we glide out of Bull Creek into the Canning. We move further and further towards Canning Bridge and break through into the Swan which opens up like night was really day. The lights of the city clarify like a photograph developing in the dark room. Peter has his own dark room. My eyes are cameras. Box Brownie cameras. We stop, drop anchor, and lower our lines. I've prepared the tackle, the rigs. Nothing is biting and I cop the blame. We sit in a dark halo of burley, the moon light is savage and mauls the city lights. It gets bitterly cold and we up-anchor and set sail. I'm sent to the front of the boat to pull in a trailing rope. I slip and plunge into the black glass. It bites and cuts and I wonder if they're coming back. It's a slow boat. I huddle over the engine with tea from my thermos flask. I'm shivering so much the others aren't sure whether they can laugh. I can't recall why but it takes us hours to get back and I'm almost blue by the time we find the mooring where the dinghy bobs in the dawn light. We row across to the jetty. Peter goes up to the house and comes back shortly with his mother following. Her hair is blue with morning. She wears a gown that is of some fine yet warm material. I'm shivering on the jetty, in my torn jeans and shaggy jumper. My fishing clothes. "Well, aren't you a lucky boy going out on Peter's big boat! He's never been too proud to play with the poorer kids in the neighbourhood." She said this. It's true. When Peter got his jaw broken by one of the Freo Rocks his father made sure the offender did time.

Swimming from Brentwood across to Shelley was worth bragging about. Kids didn't do it often because out there you were vulnerable. Some kids did it at night and they instantly got themselves reputations. The mud was so deep on the other side that it never gave you up the gas of decomposition rising to the surface, the stink.

We saw lights over the river on more than one occasion. These were lights from right off the spectrum. At their core was a burning as bright as a strip of magnesium ribbon burning to white dust. The river grew molten and the sand finer. Even blowfish gave up biting and the morning would see their puffed-up corpses tapping lightly at the foam-ringed shores and grassy banks. Paperbarks would have shed an extra layer of skin and the usual flights of birds arcing in the gold-black twilight would avoid their usual route, fly in from a completely different direction. Like white-tailed black cockatoos auguring a storm, like blue haloes around a dead cold moon. The river reflected nothing.

Even before you knew what it was, sex hung about the river like dank cloth. The toilets near Deep Water Point where men watched you piss, the sea scouts grabbing at each other's crotches and sailing close to girls swimming in shallow water. You're twelve and rowing a dinghy out into the Canning. You are rowing the girl who lives with you and her friend in circles and they are giggling. She's lived with you for years. She's almost like a sister, but not really. She's like a sister to your brother though. They're the same age. You're a couple of years older and the river is heavy and the oars slipping in the rowlocks. The skiers slice past and you get lost in their wash. You cross the frontier on your bicycle travelling as far as Applecross Jetty where the kid with a brace of whiting strung through the eye with fishing line tells you how he sucks his mother's tits but doesn't get any milk out of them, how she's got a tattoo on her inside leg near her "thing". You don't want to see him again.

The storm was the tail end of a cyclone. Sea Hawk was an eighteen footer Mum had bought through the Sunday Times Reader's Mart for a song. It had an Evinrude outboard motor that had to be flushed out with clean water. Grandpa painted Sea Hawk on the bow and it looked like it could sail anywhere. A second cousin came with three engine blocks and you dropped them near the rich yachts at Bull Creek, just down from Spinnaway Crescent. The judge's son had his boat nearby but you hadn't seen him for a year. The buoy bobbed bright and you moored Sea Hawk and it swung with the wind, shadowing and paralleling the yachts of the wealthy. It looked like a barnacle. Then the storm came and it dragged its mooring close to the yachts and financial destruction. A family friend and I went out in the dinghy and fought the waves and wind and temperamental engine to drive it towards the shore thin arc of white sand hedged by road as hard as we could. To set the sheet anchor into the sand and pray. That was the first time death by water seemed the way I'd go. Dissolved into the river. As my friend years later would be. Outside, the river inflects...


2002 The Cortland Review