The characters in Crow’s Breath, the new story collection from the poet, essayist and critic John Kinsella, are mostly country people. They’re alone, either physically or emotionally. They are misunderstood and they are both cruel and the victims of cruelty. There are, among others, a doctors’ receptionist who fancies herself everyone’s saviour, a woman who covers herself from head to toe, “… the brutal reality of having so many skin cancers burned from her overly white skin”, and a fragile man who makes tiny ships in bottles.
Crow’s Breath, though, is not really about characters or what happens to them. It’s not about language either: considering Kinsella is among our most eminent poets, much of Crow’s Breath is lacking in lyricism and subtlety. Dogs leap into utes “like lightning” and children “squeal with delight”. In “The Plough star and the fence”, a recovering drug addict remembers “… studying for Honours, writing a dissertation on ‘Satan and Redemption’ in Paradise Lost.”
Instead, the collection continues Kinsella’s fascination with landscape. His characters don’t belong to the land the way crows and dogs and lizards do. In “Monitor”, a young “city boarder home for the holidays” and potential arsonist tells Mary, the covered woman: “In the network of burrows, there is the anatomy of a fall, the map of a town.” There is the mark of destiny in these communities’ decay and in more than one story, it’s written underground.
In the title story, a town is dying from salt rising in the water table.
Sometimes at dusk the family would sit outside the shop and stare at the wheat bin. The last caws of crows stretched with the fading light. Dusk is a crushing time for a dying town. If dawn surprises and mocks with hopelessness, the suggestion that light might lift it all, then dusk is worn out and can’t be bothered taunting. Crow’s breath, the maintenance workers called it, enough to singe the bin’s whitewash.
Many of Kinsella’s characters are brutal, but is this cause or effect? Perhaps humans are simply unsuited to living in these haunted places, whether here in the wheat belt or on the coast of Ireland or in Ohio. In “Sleeper”, it’s only when a train-traveller becomes an eagle and flies “over the sand made from shells ground down over the millions of years since this place was an inland sea, the bluebush” that the beauty of the “treeless place” is revealed. LS
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "John Kinsella, Crow’s Breath ". Subscribe here.