On John Kinsella’s Tide

John Kinsella’s new collection of short stories, Tide, begins with an acknowledgement of ‘the traditional owners and custodians of the land he [i.e. the author] writes’. Certainly Kinsella’s work can feel like part of the Australian landscape; with over thirty collections of poetry to his name, and many works of prose besides, the Perth-born writer is nothing if not conspicuous. (The US critic Harold Bloom, one of Kinsella’s noisiest spruikers, has described him as a one-man Parnassus.) Affinity, not ubiquity, however, is what the author is trying to convey in this instance, and to this extent ‘the land he writes’ feels like a claim to poetic intensity. Whether that claim is fully earned is the key question to emerge from a reading of this book.

The particular land that Kinsella ‘writes’ is Western Australia’s Wheatbelt region. Though in no way a parochial writer (he has lived and worked in the UK and the US and has often written those lands, too), Kinsella is a Sandgroper through and through and the peculiar environment of WA is the one source of constant fascination in his work. This fascination is an ambiguous affair, comprising at once a love of the land and a hatred for its (human) pollution, and Tide is shot-through with the queasy sense that humanity and nature are often at odds. Kinsella’s ‘anti-pastoralism’ is not as conspicuous as it is in his poems, but saline paddocks, over-clearing and other signs of human mismanagement are nevertheless in evidence. (‘I felt every scrap of pollution’, says the narrator in ‘Ferryman’, referring to the Swan River.) Moreover, one often gets the sense that nature is determined to revenge itself on humanity. Storms, rips and the rising tide combine to recall humankind to its limits, while in ‘Flight’ Kinsella takes aim at hubris in the form of a man who claims he can fly. A line from Marlow’s Doctor Faustus – ‘Faustus is gone. Regard his hellish fall’ – hints at his eventual run-in with gravity.

Too often Kinsella’s misgivings about humanity shade into outright misanthropy. For me, by far the best stories in the book are those with a kernel of human sympathy, though these are few and far between. (Strangely, the story of a defunct mathematician and mild sex pest called Heinrich is among them.) The book is full of aggressive males – sporty, tattooed, promiscuous – who are just too unattractive to be true. The thicker Kinsella lays it on, the less three-dimensional the characters become:

Kepler adjusted the rear-vision mirror and caught a glimpse of himself. His face was red and weary and he was getting uglier. Grooves had worn into his cheeks and his eyes were bloodshot. He glanced across at Pete, still fresh-faced despite the sleaze in his eyes. He’s treading a well-worn path, thought Kepler, and smiled.

The ugliness of the human male has always been a sub-theme in Kinsella’s books. In Tide, it attains to the status of a neurosis.

As a poet with postmodern sympathies, Kinsella can usually be relied upon to challenge literary convention in his work, but apart from the non-appearance of speech-marks and occasional outbreak of sentence fragments (‘Sun-up sundown. Night day. Diurnal nocturnal’) the prose of Tide is fairly undemanding. In fact, it often feels slightly amateurish. While clichés of speech are unavoidable in the search for verisimilitude, clichés of description aren’t, and it is strange that such a dedicated poet should rely on them so heavily. Similarly, the simplistic onomatopoeia – ‘Their Shoes went thwock thwock in the mud … He kept walking, steadily, slosh slosh slosh’ – and cumbersome phrasing – ‘if he was enjoying himself it was only in a form specific to his relationship with his father … We believed him the moment we perceived what he was saying’ – bespeak a certain laziness. Happily, the occasional solecism does afford a touch of humour. ‘Peter looked at Kepler’s trunk-like dick, full of admiration.’ That’s what grammarians call a misplaced modifier, or, more appropriately perhaps, a dangler.

That Kinsella is a restless writer is clear from the size of his literary output. But reading Tide one has the sense that this restlessness is not always helpful to his writing – that prolificacy gets in the road of intensity. The poet who can describe a mud-spattered tail-light as looking like a supernova remnant has, one feels, gone missing in these pages. In his stead stands a writer who can sometimes seem rather bored of his own creative endeavours. At any rate, I felt ‘the land’ only rarely came to life in this book.

John Kinsella, Tide
Transit Lounge; $29.95; 237pp

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First published in The Australian.