Books

John Kinsella
Old Growth

One of Australia’s leading poets, as well as professor of sustainability and literature at Curtin University, John Kinsella has stated that the “purpose” of his poetry is “to draw attention to the damage being done and to show that we are all implicated”. It’s pretty clear that he has hewn from the same brief in writing the stories that make up this collection.

The damage being done here is chiefly that of humiliation. Old Growth is replete with bullies and misfits: blokes with short fuses, schoolyard and domestic cruelties, vandals of the heart. 

In the title story, a farmer seeks to assuage a grudge he can’t articulate by torching a pocket of wandoo bushland that his dead wife had loved. “Always on about the bloody bush bush bush,” she’d seen something in it that had eluded and excluded him.

The title character of “The Hannaford Grader Man” grades the grain, season after season, in the country north of Northam and, in the pub, nurses a lemonade and a secret no one could guess at. The protagonist of “An Introduction” craves admittance to the arcane brotherhood of stamp-dealers: “Philately is about calm, calm, calm…” 

And “The Boy Who Read Marvell to the Sheep” is nourished on art, poetry and classical music by a mother who accuses him, at 12, of being “too precocious for your own good”.

Like their writer, these stories are grounded in the West: wheatbelt towns, farms and bush blocks, dying pubs, the Pioneer bus to Karratha, the city as outlier. Kinsella writes as one deeply familiar, if hardly at ease, with his stories’ milieu.

His publishers call Old Growth “luminous”, which led me to expect radiance, where what’s on offer is clear, unstrained prose and stories that are tart, shading to bitter. Passages that might strike a reader as brazenly poetic are reserved for the natural world (“The jewel beetle rainbowed in the sun”, “the magnificent wandoos that held the sunset cold and warm at once in their powdery barks”), seeming to illuminate Kinsella’s affinities. 

Old Growth presents a scheme of things in which nature stands blameless, while humans are corrupt, vicious or just plain weak.  FL

Transit Lounge, 256pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 11, 2017 as "John Kinsella, Old Growth ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL