In the late 1980s, American nuclear-armed warships visit Perth, prompting impassioned protest from a wide array of people, including the narrator of John Kinsella’s verse novel Cellnight. After a brief prologue, they recall what they have seen and experienced. The waves of questions begin: “Who will / remember”. These rhetorical questions reverberate throughout the book and into the present.
At the time, the narrator lived in a cave near Fremantle’s Round House, a former prison dating from 1831 and a monument to how inextricable the carceral is from the colonial. Arrested at the protest, they are thrown into the lock-up, where they observe “At three am / a young / Noongar kid” brutally assaulted by police. From that point on, the threads of police and judicial power, militarism and empire, are traced through institutions, people and Country.
The narrator’s testimony is blocked from the outset by police and the judge. They are seen as “Troublemaker”, “full of shit / for caring”, but are perpetually haunted by the “quietness in / the cells”, a space without the sound of breathing “beyond / policebreath”.
Kinsella, an uncompromising and prolific poet who has published about a dozen books in the past five years, could hardly be accused of being reluctant to speak. His poetry has always explored the many ways in which the need to testify must grapple with the complicity of the self, within systems of power.
As with all contemporary poetry that doesn’t try to insulate itself from the political, there is a tension in Cellnight, between a focus on specific events and a centrifugal exploration of broader systems. Kinsella’s response to this conundrum is to suggest that the abstract is always embedded in the concrete, and the need to make connections is paramount.
There’s a taut, precarious urgency here. The lines are very short, usually between one and four words long, arranged in “spindle sonnets” that flow into each other. The sentences are generally long, with many clauses, dashes, parentheses and anaphora. It’s hypnotic, at times disorientingly so, to be swept up in the book’s overwhelming sense of injustice.
The novel finds its most pointed impact when it subtly diverges from its poetic form with longer lines or lines indented across the page. These moments of rupture and expansion signal a way out of an impasse, the sense that justice is not only “acknowledgement” but “vigilance / to prevent / harm, it is / remembering, / it is / lifeforce”.
Transit Lounge, 208pp, $28
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 15, 2023 as "Cellnight: A Verse Novel".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription