The Cortland Review


Robert Pinsky
A postcard from U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky promoting TCR's participation in the Favorite Poem Project.

Favorite Poems
Celebrate National Poetry Month with a TCR contribution to Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project in real audio.

John Kinsella
In and Out of the Swamp- The next chapter in John Kinsella's autobiography series at TCR.

John Kinsella


In and Out of the Swamp

We live on the border of two suburbs. It's two hours' drive from the farm. Brentwood Primary School is just down the road, in the opposite direction to the river. Brentwood is a State Housing suburb and the kids at school note that we're from the other side of the fence. A quarter-acre block, big brick house. But we're from Mount Pleasant when it opens doors, and Brentwood Primary when it closes them. Near the school is Bluegum Swamp. The swamp balances the meditative inclinations of river-dwelling. It is rhizomic and consuming. It favours the evolution of abjection. It will lead to your reading Nietzsche, Kristeva, and Deleuze and Guattari. They're like popular novelists. Now, but not then. Who was Kristeva then?

Did Mum bring her into the house from university or was it before her whose? time. She and K watched Number 96 and went to see the first Emmanuelle film. They were big on The Killing of Sister George. K took you to The Day of the Jackal and The Sting and taught you about cars. Your dad a mechanic, once a mechanic managing things now. A boss. The swamp that oozed and bubbled during the wet, that rotted in summer, botulism killing off the pet ducks you released to the wild at its height, the neighbourhood bores multiplying, breeding during your childhood, sucking the lifeblood out of the place. Praying mantises and bearded dragons and blue-tongued lizards and smears of blood on glass slides and the aggressive mixing of chemicals. The tapping into a jet air liner's communications to the tower, telephone lines throughout the neighbourhood. War films on Saturday afternoons and the campaigns of Alexander, learning to distrust Lord Byron and discover that Blake was telling the truth. The truth. A car accident on the corner of Bateman Road and Cranford Avenue. The ninth or tenth fatal accident in five years.

The ghouls from school parked on their bikes eating crisps gloating over the head and leg separated from the body of a motorcyclist. The thud late at night and Mum going out with blankets, first at the scene? Earlier, Dad's still about and there are more vacant blocks with bush on them. Later kids will mine them, and build underground fortresses in sand that'll come down around their ears. A phone box is blown up in the middle of the night. A red wooden phone box that splinters for hundreds of yards. The next version some while coming is made of aluminium. That's when I first heard the word gelignite. Later I'd find some with detonators nearby. Sweating toluene.

Making things sterile. But that was in Bluff Point, a suburb of Geraldton. Later. The real ghoul was the kid next door. He listened to Deep Purple and stuck a stick with cr�pe paper wrapped around it into a girl you know. It was on top of the Simcar that the racing driver left parked in our driveway. Wrecking it for spare parts. The parents were cold out on that one. He liked to talk about dead animals. He was king of the corner accident pack. The Death Posse. He was the guy who taught me to "root". I threw a fork into the air one afternoon and it landed prongs down in his foot. Rushed to the doctor's for a tetanus shot.

When he was finally forbidden to have contact with us he took to perching crow-like on the fence between our yards. He'd say nothing, just stare vacantly, though you knew behind his gas-mask eyes another set of eyes burned, like the sewerage from the dry well his father poured over his garden, burning the leaves of plants, the neighbourhood's noses, throats, and lungs. Ladling shit out of the hole with a teapot - the neighbourhood stinking for weeks. He'd found his way to the fence after a string of incidents that became local knowledge. The adults knew nothing of his feeding me that bottle of lemonade, specially chilled, that turned out to be urine, or his teaching me to "root" by touching dicks under the sharp eye of the everready torch, nor his lust for car accidents describing the gore in the finest detail. He made a few dollars renting his sister's bush out for other kids to study. And that fence.

All of us felt him inside us & would often wash our hands after playing in the back yard. I said once that his face was like television & I didn't need to explain because everyone knew what I meant. Someone else described him as a cross between a bird & a dog that he'd fly into the slightest crack in the window of the soul if it weren't for the weight of dog-flesh he carried. This we also understood. His mother had been in a concentration camp during the war he'd mock her by wearing Nazi insignia. Once she taught me a few words of Russian. She told me her son had steel in his head. Had fallen out of a car. But that he'd been like that before. He never took sides in arguments but would stir up both parties. She cried when he made animals suffer and told me he would eat a dead dog�s biscuits.

I've been making explosives. A friend wants to use them to demolish a beehive in a lightning-shattered tree down the road. I feel unsure. Later, I will add this incident to my reasons for becoming vegan. What I felt inside as he set the explosives that I'd manufactured. The swarm. The swarm symbolizes loss for me the communal drive against individuality, forced by crisis or need. I watched and the sickness I felt burnt in the anger I found as A. watched the beheaded chook dancing around the back garden.

It wasn't so much that she had to watch
but that she laughed until the blood
filled her face like a balloon,
that she laughed again
as she spoke of it
in the cool of the evening
that a chook dancing
round the back garden
its lopped head dumb on the block
was the funniest thing she'd ever seen;
that she told you again under the covers
when you touched each other
with nervous fingers, the blood
hot and fast
in your twitching bodies.

Your brother publishes a poem before you about a chicken breaking out of an egg. He's thirteen and you say you don't care. But it's not you speaking. I am listening to my breath in a darkened room. There's a girl nearby. I can't hear her breathe though I strive to. She's touching my face. She says, "Teach me to kiss." I learn as I teach. I am dizzy. She is the same person who disgusts me for laughing at the dance of the headless chicken. How does this work? Or the shaking fit I had when I heard of the cats dumped in a sack in the Chapman River. The off-colour of the water in summer, the influx of the sea when the sandbar broke through in winter. The sandstone cliffs upstream where the river ate through history and ignored settlement. Where human nature was a sack of cats dumped down on the flats below by persons unknown, driving a blue car with covered number plates. Where an army reserve backed onto the gorge, and you considered that despite live ammunition, nature had the best chance behind the barbed-wire fences. Where bream grew smarter along the lengths of a golf course, dragging red flesh on endless runs, poisoning the unwitting with their spikes. Where heat and water-birds colluded and something like myth made a ghost of itself and got into your bones. When solitude became reason enough for fear and the city hundreds of miles south was always too close.

The distance between passivity and action. The eating of killed flesh and the killing. Why did you do this? For this or that reason, but really for reasons I don't know. The effect is cumulative. Thorium nitrate I picked up from a friend ‹ at school it trips the Geiger counter over and over. I have a lot of adult friends, scientists, military people, ecologists. The mix is bizarre. I've always had adult friends. The guy who would take me to philatelic society meetings - I'd sit on his knee and hear about the Pope and select stamps hinged on circulation sheets. I knew he liked me being on his knee. There's nothing else to say about this because I don't know. I just don't know. You look out for different things as a kid. If it's you that is. The sea is rolling in. St George's and you're snorkelling. The sea is clean though a sea snake swims right past you. It is death. Like the sharks. A friend has half his foot bitten off by a wobbegong, it's considered a bit of a joke. Not the most threatening of sharks.

You camp out and a girl from school comes down, sneaking out, and you have something that resembles sex. The Geraldton Drives: why you'd understand A Clockwork Orange years later. Three years later at a Sci Fi festival in Perth. As Pinball Wizard played at full tilt your head crunched into the asphalt, cars firing their horns, the strobe effect as the big screen loomed up overhead, green ginger wine fuelling the assault. Hospital. The cops trying to force the names out of you. You keep your mouth shut and acquire immunity, but only to a certain degree. Your name at school is Dictionary and you play chess. You write. There are other incidents. An affair with a girl you've known for years comes to an end. You listen to the boys in the change rooms talk about feeling "this chick up" on the school bus. They call you a poof and you keep your mouth shut. One of the boys is overweight and an outsider, but tries to participate. His father has one of the first big video screens out and he shows his son's friends pornos on them. Later, you club with the son as he cruises the city pick-up spots. He'll be your best friend. You'll live a vicarious life on the fringes of the gay nightlife of Perth. You'll hook into the substances and angst of the scene, you'll be left a shell and your friend will drown, convinced that he was Christ.

You'll march against racism, help form barriers against bulldozers in bush areas on the fringe of the city. But he'll be helping build a military airport in the far North when you're being dragged out of a mining company's offices in the city, being shot at by timber workers in the deep south. Something shifts. Has shifted. In a bottled glass room in the suburbs of Perth a boy and a girl are sitting on shag carpet as the spring sun streams in, making them drowsy. They'll leave for school, in separate directions, in a few minutes. Their bags are next to them. She's striking at his crotch, and he's doing the same to her. They are laughing. An early morning piano practice session has left them in good spirits. He's also in a good mood because he's been made president of the school's junior Gould League Club. He's raised over four hundred dollars to help the birds of the swamp. The dusky minors, the magpies, the waterbirds. Later, in Geraldton, the reproduction of Blue Poles on a staircase wall at your school will remind you of the swamp. Of the thick undergrowth thinning, crosscut with tracks, the birds disappearing. Where am I in this? I feel it in my body, and as the past is forced into the single moment of living, it's as if all times are present. But there's a clinical detachment there as well. Someone else's experience. I am what I read, have read, am writing. You are I are in this together. We are complicit. Kids sharing the blame.


� 2002 The Cortland Review