The Cortland Review

David Lehman
  Tom Disch talks with poet and critic David Lehman about his daily poems. David reads three poems from his upcoming book.

Lyn Lifshin
  A Day in the Life: Lyn recounts the details of her day.

Robert Kendall
  Tales from the Hard Disk: The future of literature online.

John Kinsella
  Familiar Territory: Changes of Tense: the next chapter in John Kinsella's continuing autobiography 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.

Familiar Territory: Changes of Tense



Your mate's father says you should start investing in bricks and mortar as soon as you can. Houses don't generally mean that much to you, but this place is special. It's the old Geraldton hospital, now owned by the Education Department, rented out to visiting teachers for a song. It's always offered to the headmaster first, but then it's up for grabs. Mum's had her eye on it for a year and you're really excited when she gets the word. It's on a half-acre opposite the prison. It's got verandahs on three sides and has a ballroom. There are six bedrooms. The kitchen could seat twenty, maybe thirty. It backs onto a vacant block that's surrounded on all sides. No one will be building it out in the foreseeable future. Years later, going back to visit a friend—the poet Anthony Lawrence who is living in Geraldton—you find the house gone and the whole area consumed by a car park and shopping centre. You reconstruct it from memory, a few photographs—to get the whole picture, two prints have to be placed side by side—and conversation. But it's more than that, it's your body—the veins, the organs. It's alive. You work against the materiality of recollection and come up with a house. Thick with ghosts, it ghosts itself into your present. It shadows you. It was one of the great homes of Geraldton. You saw a shadow race down the corridor. You watched a door handle turn slowly back and forth by itself; you crawled through the tunnels beneath the house and hid caches of chemicals after a huge explosion ripped a funeral sign apart in the vacant block and rocked the town. 

The boys from the drug & alcohol 
reform centre next door 
would lean over the balcony 
& curse, the building shaking on its stilts.
These kids are like dry drunks
they'd say.
a launch-pad disaster would see
shrapnel rip into the night sky
like a bad hallucination,
flickering like a mad pinwheel
escaping the projector. 
separates the mind & body.
Science deplores luck. Prophecy
is something you formulate.
Burnt flesh, like rocketry,
is shaped by heat & light.

The limestone foundations were crumbling and the red brick bled when the tail of a cyclone dumped heavy rain on the town. Something else inhabited that house, you were sure about that. 

Your house mesmerised with its portico 
and bay windows and floating tableau of sheet metal
rising in peaks and troughs, intensified
by the threshold between the sea's white-light
running widdershins in the tidal rush
and an off-centre and elongated vista,
focussing the town or feigning
an aura or intensifying the sibilant flights
of sea-birds or those birds for which the proximity
of the sea is not unfamiliar—
their being there a syllogism
for sensitivity to the Other Side,
the ad-hoc or stand-in medium,
impresario of otherness.
When an observation or encounter
caught in your throat and gagged
like conspiracy, as The Shadow ran down the corridor
and you measured ectoplasm by the millilitre,
weighed probability on a Mettler balance,
put the perspiration that appeared
on your forehead—it being high summer—
to the spectrograph; and as the door handles turned
at night and the verandahs seemed
to grip the field of the house even closer
you thought of your mother
teaching English to the prisoners
across the street, the limestone and red brick
of the old hospital your home contracting 
with macro abruptness, the off-sea wind
driving hard against the fever,
turning it to powder.
From the inside looking out,
you revelled in the apprehension
of passers-by: "Who'd live in the old hospital
with its heritage of agues and premature deaths?"
saying over to yourself that it was the decay
out there that drove the sickness here.
From the air the settlement looks like a dot painting
of the chaos theory, the electric clocks
in the house crazy, light on the windows
buzzing like foo fighters over the chromium sea; history
is your recollection, and years later a car park
and shopping centre will seal the troubled
airs within, the sea still glinting, photographs
of the "old place"—incidents 
glaring like exposure. 

The explosion was heard over six miles away according to the paper. Of course, the reporters didn't know where the epicentre was, but they said it was loud in the centre of town and registered at the fertiliser factory out towards Bluff Point. Maybe it was a friend who mentioned the fertiliser factory, and the paper Bluff Point. Whatever. Your mother dug her fingers deep into the arm of a pregnant neighbour; the guys next door in the drug and alcohol rehab centre thought it was a mortar. The girl who lived by the vacant block, where flying through the air with the force of the explosion as shrapnel ripped into the ground you considered that time is relative—a second is an hour and the moment of death stretches infinitely in all directions—would tell you a couple of years down the track that her family talked about sticks of gelignite. You corresponded with her, a Young Writer's winner, like your now wife. Bits of the letters buried in archives somewhere. From the city you sent an invitation to Beethoven's 1st Symphony at the Perth Concert Hall and she wondered why; though she did turn up. Later drunk on a beach by the Geraldton lighthouse, making jokes about Freud, you picked a smashed champagne flute out of food, trying to remake it. Her novel in the second person about a Dylanesque minstrel wandering the back roads of Australia was in the house for years—and then a letter came asking for it back. You don't know where it is now. You wanted sex and she wanted to talk about it. You wear pink hats two years later and attract the abuse of boys in panel vans.

Shooting an air rifle in the back garden, you lost your temper as a mate targeted neighbours throwing tomatoes and broke every male code around, frothing at the mouth. His hatred became pathological, reinforced by you watching his seasickness as a boat twenty miles out at Africa Reef plunged deeply in three-metre swells and at risk of breaking up forced its way back. Smashing your Mother's car up at a party and vomiting over the windscreen, you waited as he joined the Special Air Service and became a sharp shooter. He protected the Pope as your wife in her habit kissed his hand and synchronicity bored deep deep, calibre of the rifle you slaughtered rabbits and birds with on the farm, the rifle your father used for shooting the litter of dogs.

The tunnels under the house were a retreat and you hid toxic chemicals down there and hoped you'd get trapped. The skin cells of the dying would fall from hospital beds and you were breathing their dust. The limestone and floorboards breathed and you became part of them. The carpets over the floorboards crackled with crystals of explosive that erupted with contact—the bottom blown out of a filter paper as it dried. You're so paranoid you won't use the name of the compound nor mention the process of making it/them. Later, at the uni bus stop, a kid from Geraldton will run into you and ask for your "explosives book". He has decided to become a revolutionary and threatens violence if you don't hand it over. He's living with an old woman in a wealthy area and has heard god speak at that very bus stop. You go home and destroy the book. You protest against nuclear weapons and protests against US warships in Fremantle Harbour.

Behind the house a cop gets shot by a girl that your mother teaches at school. At the time you're angry with her though you feel something for her and you can't say it. At school you're on the run and the sports teacher watches as some guy smashes your head into the asphalt. "Smashes" was the word for violence then and the head biology teacher who picked his nose who was nowhere around when the violence took place wrote the chapter on genetics in the core biology textbook for senior school kids, The Web of Life. Tom, whom you can mention by name, got or maybe gets arrested climbing the walls of Boans department store and reciting from Hamlet. He'll fail his tertiary entrance examination gloriously. You drink cooking sherry on the quiet at home, and Cointreau and Southern Comfort at a friend's house. He's the friend whose father navigates the boat out of potential disaster, when your ex-friend vomits green shit over the side as the wooden hull thumps into wall on wall of water. If it turns side-on we're fucked, someone says. You like the feeling. It's like being on the edge of a cliff. You drink with him and he tells you what it's like being Jewish in Geraldton. You want to become a Jew because he's so isolated. He eats non-kosher foods when his parents are away. You listen to Pink Floyd with him and he smashes up his father's car. And his brother's. He's wild but will settle down and follow his father's profession. You lose him and he loses you. You become interested in the cabalistic arts.

Years before at Wollaston College you go for retreat before confirmation into the Anglican Church. A light pierces the stained glass and you've suddenly got a vocation. It's the sun getting low in the sky and if you know it you ignore the science. It's enough, and years later it will strike again in the abbey grounds at Walsingham. You've become entirely ecumenical by then. Your friend who will drown himself was or is an altar boy. He's being fondled in the vestry. He hates that he likes it. He hates the guy who does it—there's no indecision here. Hatred is pure, but you don't feel any hate. Just anger. You both march against parliament house. He hopes to make it in theatre. He gets a minor part in Uncle Vanya when you both go down to the city.

It's Back Beach and the school has managed to force you into doing sport. You don't mind so much because you live up the hill from Back Beach now and they'll let you go straight home at the end of the lesson. The beach is okay. Some guy—a big guy who talks about wanking himself off in the shower and perving on his sister—gets caught in a rip. You're nearby and have often been in rips, letting them drag you a mile out and swimming back. You swim every day. The water will take you and that's okay. You want it to happen. You go out after him and grab him round the neck and drag him back. He says things you'll never repeat, because you'd take something from him that would kill him. Emerging from the water, with him coughing his guts out, you're met by the sports teacher who's been in 'Nam and hates you, because your mother could keep studying classics when they were at uni together and his number came up, like—almost like—the John Forbes poem. In a tangential way. You're living in three different times writing this—the text is becoming itself. Its rhizomes are spreading further and further. The teacher is there with the big boys, the boys who've got hair on their chests. They don't say much. These are guys who'll crawl through the drainage pipes under the new housing development as long as no one mentions it at school. They've almost got their licences and have had a "fuck". Your "life-saving" will never be spoken of, and you fall backwards into the surf, kicking and kicking until you're back out near where the rips start. 

Schematic utterance in the underbelly
as above and out on a sandy ledge
spit-sundered and unctuous with white water,
the maze of rips apprehends the adolescent
bluster and bravado, the hydraulic pull
or maybe reclamation as the flesh
is sucked and driven out, as around
the point Hell's Gate snaps a crayboat
that's been caught on the off-beat,
and the butterfly effect is felt
as the plastic linkages of a six-pack
repeat against the news of yet another maritime disaster
and so, as you pull the big boy and his hubris
from the deathly undercurrent
he gasps "help me", later denied
to the point of religious persecution,
and the sporting master
says merely, "that was okay",
and turns away.

Below the newly-laid streets
you wander the drainage system—
masterly feat of town planning—
with a flashlight, as if it were the veins
of your own memory, where light
is a sequence of repetitions,
bundles of energy simulating
an opening like discovery,
and all around the darkness is braced
against the concrete tubing,
and the Back Beach being so close
this is the undersound it makes—
a rip-roaring emptiness
that you can never really hear when
your ears are full of water,
when the surf and sand shine your body
and it crosses your mind that if memory
fails or luck doesn't come up trumps
then your obituaries are unlikely to be critical,
just so, like the rips that are there
and that's all there is to it: love
in all its complexities 

"Familiar Territory: Changes of Tense"
a continuing autobiography series by John Kinsella
TCR September 1999 Feature


� 2002 The Cortland Review