Prose from Poetry Magazine

Vermin: A Notebook

Poems can stop bulldozers.

Driving down to the city this morning, we saw five or six emus crossing the road in an area of national park where I hadn’t seen emus before—not once in a lifetime of driving that way. It was a remarkable and invigorating sight as they plunged into the wandoo woodlands of Western Australia, negotiating their way through the spiky hakeas and parrot bush.

On a personal level, it came as a kind of foil for the weekend-that-was—a complex amalgamation of environmental affirmation and also witnessing of horrific environmental crime. The sort of experience that leaves you wondering if any form of environmental activism has any chance of succeeding, yet nonetheless also convinced that there is no choice about acts of resistance. Without them, the environment has no chance.

John Kinsella in the Australian outback.

Driving down to the city this morning, we saw five or six emus crossing the road in an area of national park where I hadn’t seen emus before—not once in a lifetime of driving that way. It was a remarkable and invigorating sight as they plunged into the wandoo woodlands of Western Australia, negotiating their way through the spiky hakeas and parrot bush.

On a personal level, it came as a kind of foil for the weekend-that-was—a complex amalgamation of environmental affirmation and also witnessing of horrific environmental crime. The sort of experience that leaves you wondering if any form of environmental activism has any chance of succeeding, yet nonetheless also convinced that there is no choice about acts of resistance. Without them, the environment has no chance.

And writing a statement like this is part of a process of creating poems that hopefully resonate in different ways and in different contexts, and extend what is a particularly local debate into the wider dialogue of which, sadly, it is also part. The compulsion to witness in poetry, the desire to overcome a feeling of crushing failure, and the need to create a cautionary tale that is more than propaganda—all this goes hand-in-hand with a volatility and (maybe overly) emotional reaction to the situations as they happen.

I can see the poem forming in my head as I am raging against an act of destruction, not as a fetishized aesthetic “response,” but in the struggle to formulate a language of reply that is not aggressive and thus self-defeating and hypocritical. I am being somewhat obtuse here. To begin at one possible beginning . . .

*     *     *

On Friday night at about 9:00 PM, Tracy asked me if I’d heard a rifle shot. I hadn’t, but I did hear the one that came just after she spoke. A few minutes later: another, and much closer. I went outside and wandered into the dark, detecting torchlights up the bushed laneway, next to the small road reserve. Another shot—maybe two hundred meters away at most. It was the report of a high-powered rifle.

I yelled at the top of my voice to stop, the torches swung in my direction, and there was another gunshot. Inside, Tracy thought I had been hit; for a moment, so did I. Eventually, though we’re a long way out of town, it took the police to resolve this situation. Never a desired intervention, but it has to be said that if they hadn’t shown up, someone in our family mightn’t be alive.

It turned out (we discovered this the next day), that there was a fox hunt being conducted in the area. Fascinating, how private land, which people around our way defend with such passion, should change into public land without boundaries when pursuing foxes—the great hunter-capitalist liminality!—and that reserve land, where shooting is illegal, should become part of the script. That’s part one of the shire-as-killing-zone.

*     *     *

Part two. Saturday morning about 8:30 AM. A cascade of explosions in the distance. Sounds like firecrackers or a fireworks display. It can't be—no events on, and the wrong time of year . . . the whole district would erupt in flame, as everything is still tinder-dry and there's a full fire ban.

The sound diminishes, and one can detect the tone of individual shots being fired—shotgun rounds. I realize that it’s happening in town, probably by the river. Corellas. They are culling corellas. Someone in the house says, yes, locals have been going on about it for weeks—the corellas have been eating the croquet lawn and making a noise. The usual complaints. I drive downtown and see corellas in the dead trees (dead from salinity, however, not from the corellas, as some claim) along the river. I cross the bridge and park next to the church, as I see utility vehicles parked outside. I jump out—round the old Holy Trinity Church where I attended services as a child and struggled between skepticism and soul, formulating my own spiritual anarchism—to see a guy with a shotgun and a boy on a two-way. A number of guys are walking around searching the trees and skies and firing.

The shotguns are no cheap pieces—they are what such shooters consider artworks. Sports shooters. I scream at one of the men and call him a murderer. If nothing else, can’t they even respect a house of worship? I ask if they’re professional shooters, which wouldn’t make it any better from my point of view, but would indicate what the shire was up to. No. Go and see the ranger, they tell me.

I do—she’s fifty feet away. I yell at her and say: This is not the way, this is not the way. You are wrong. I lose my cool. She sends me to the shire. I drive down there and have an angry exchange with one of the shire officers. If nothing else, having sports shooters in town on a Saturday morning, with families and their dogs walking around, is not acceptable. I can’t make you see that the corellas matter, but surely the bloody people do? It then degenerates into what I think of the shire and its failure to protect the environment, now and on any other occasion, and I storm off. It is all very extreme. I probably achieve little, but coincidentally or not, I hear no more gunshots today.

*     *     *

These two incidents turned out to be unrelated, but they do convey a lot of notions about the “country.” Though I live out in the wheatbelt, and though I have a lifelong connection with it, I am not “country.” Nor am I “city.” These are terms used to control discourses of place, movement, and especially the production of food (and mining).

I live where I live to help conserve the “nature” that’s left. I write poems of resistance and protection. To fill in the rest of the picture of this weekend: I spent the time at Jam Tree Gully, a rocky hillside block abutting a nature reserve with acres of York gums and jam trees. Rehabilitating the land, very much denuded by horse and sheep grazing, is the aim of my coming years. Off-grid, off main water. Over the two days, I watched and photographed mistletoe birds, thornbills, willy wagtails, twenty-eight parrots, magpies, a kestrel, two eagles, a mulga snake, white-chinned honeyeaters, pardalotes, an orb weaver spider, bull-ants, and a family of kangaroos. I watched their movements—how local birds follow the nomadic birds as they pass through, the locals going to the edge of their own territory, then flying back; I watched how obvious edge-effects like roads and even fencelines with firebreaks work as imposition or are adapted into larger pictures of flight and crossover involving rocky ledges, gullies, and vegetation. In watching, I understand how better to write a poetry of resistance that will declare the necessity of preserving this region. Can it operate without me shouting out my poems against the shooters, the shires? Whatever the answer is, I do know that every act of resistance adds together, and remaining non-aggressive but resolute in response is what slows the assault against the environment. The assault is remorseless.

*     *     *

For me, poetry has no point in existing if it’s not to be a prompt or aid to political and ethical change. This is not to say that a poem should be political or ethical instruction, but rather that it might engender a dialogue between the poem itself and the reader / listener, between itself and other poems and texts, and between all of these and a broader public (whatever that might be). I see myself as a poet activist—every time I write a poem, it is an act of resistance to the state, the myriad hierarchies of control, and the human urge to conquer our natural surroundings.

*     *     *

In using the language tools I have inherited (and, at times, neologistically sought to alter, even dismantle), I am inevitably part of what I critique. I am complicit. I try to lessen the ironies of my own life (by being vegan, giving up flying, resisting the logging of forests, and so on), but I am still participating in social discourse and “making a living,” and that paints me into the same corner as most of us. The very act of using a computer contradicts the de-technologizing impulse that underpins what I do. Furthermore, I accept that what I see as core ethical issues are not perceived that way by many readers of poetry.

*     *     *

I come out of a science background and at an early age was working in labs and obsessed with the nomenclatures of science. In subscribing to “Neo-luddism,” I am not opposing the accretion of knowledge, but the misuse of that knowledge. So much “science” is a desire to control and to profit. This I oppose. The language of poetry, even in its most lyrical modes, is a language of specific usage—poetry is about arrangement, selection, and presentation as much as what’s said. That process of knowledge regarding expression is, to me, scientific.

Science per se is a process of investigation, observation, patterning through to hypothesis, and rests in the scrutinizable and systematic acquisition of knowledge. That’s what a poem is to me too. This is why an activist poetics doesn’t have to be subjective propaganda. The subjective has a part in it; indeed, some would say that without this a text can’t be a poem. But if a poem doesn’t utilize knowledge and the processes of obtaining knowledge, then it does less work than it might towards resisting damage (to people, to animals, to plants, to the land itself). I am interested in extensive digression, degrees of separation, even verbal tricks and diversions—in other words, a circuitous route to discussing or seeking to discover a “truth.”

No poem really knows a truth, but it has knowledge and offers ways of approaching truth. The use of language is precise, even when it gives a semblance of the unconscious, even when it is automatic writing. In the Surrealist sense, the conducting of automatic writing exercises was experimental textually and scientifically, and was as much about the act of recording the data of process as it was about  the subject connecting with the unconscious. It was, at least, quasi-scientific.

And the pseudo- and quasi- interest me. The games of dismantling and rearranging, of exquisite corpse and chance, are all part of the science of a poem for me: they are just different systems of knowledge. That’s why an activist poetics can include the radically linguistically innovative, as well as the straight declaration (“logging the Tuart Forest is wrong”). Parataxis, conventional end-stopped lines and enjambment, narrative description, metaphor and metonymies, are all part of a process towards confronting hierarchies and imposed structures. We work from inside to open a view of the outside, but not one that destroys in the process.

*     *     *

A pacifist, which is what I am, can be the strongest resister, and pacifism the most defiant form of resistance. Same with language usage: I mix the old and the new to engage with a debate about protection, preservation, conservation, and respect of the “natural” world. I am aware of the problems these words carry in terms of implying complicity, because I am a poet rather than a speech writer. For me, because of this, poems can stop bulldozers. Not because they just say “stop bulldozer,” but because the intricacies of language challenge, distract, and entangle the bulldozer. I am using a semantics not of analogy, but of opposition. My words are intended to halt the damage—to see what shouldn’t be seen, to declare and challenge it.

*     *     *

I have not yet written the poems that go hand in hand with these actions, though I have seen them in my mind’s eye, because they happen as I interact and respond physically and emotionally to the world around me, and also they appear between the lines in my notebook, attaching themselves to broader ideas and counterpointing received systems of thought. Really, though, the activist moment that becomes a poem is often away from the incident or the moment of witnessing. It becomes a moment where the figurative merges with a politics of response, forming what we might term the “para-figurative”—not didactic, but still informed by a genuine political-ethical idea / l. Last night, for example.

*     *     *

Once again, around 9:00 PM, a strange and confusing noise arose outside. I went out to investigate. As all in the house described it, it was like a mob of injured birds calling out. I thought of the corellas—maybe some had survived and were on the block calling in pain. Flashlight in hand, I raced up the hill; then suddenly the noise intensified and I heard a rush, and the sound of feet.

Moments later, the sound came from a different paddock. I walked over and the noise became a mixture of growls, squawks, and screams. I shone the torch in the direction of the sound and two pairs of eyes caught the light. One on top of the other.

It was foxes mating. Foxes who’d been missed by the hunt. I turned the light off and left them to it. If ever there was a sound of pleasure and pain rolled into one . . .

The poetic analogy is obvious and irresistible. And that’s where the poet activist has to be careful—what I can take from this moment is no more or less than what I can take from the events that preceded it over the weekend. Foxes and corellas are both considered vermin. The corellas increase in number because of clearing and monoculture. Foxes were introduced in the nineteenth century as sport. Entertainment by way of killing them is sold as environmental, and yet the pleasure is all in the hands of the shooters and those who incite them. In this equation is the entire politics of what I write—in resisting through poetry the industry of pleasure and control that comes from hunting and exploitation of the environment, I am also, I believe, writing the survival and liberty of animals (including humans!).

Originally Published: December 1st, 2009

Australian John Kinsella has written over 20 books of poetry, as well as plays and fiction; he also maintains an active literary career as a teacher and editor. Kinsella’s poetry is both experimental and pastoral, featuring the landscape of Western Australia. Paul Kane observed in World Literature Today, “In Kinsella’s...

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  1. December 5, 2009

    I too have seen idiocy in the name of progress as egoism bares the 'ritual of rights'. The 'who says we can't do what we want' prevails at eye (I!?) level throughout world society and for most power-mongers cataclysm is the only cure for their blindness of mind.
    Poems or rather Poetically stated revelations of knowledge (either those of mis-deeds done or of plans to usurp power and say-so over public outcry) need to be skillfully directed 'into the face' of wrong thinkers with little mercy toward their feelings (truth and pacifism go together and are good things, powerful things) being your concern.
    The part of the world where I live is where the cousins of your 'problem people' reside. Here, herds of Elk wanted only to exist in their own world as they had done forever. People, politics, dollars and an ongoing misconstruction of rights versus power and greed is making life difficult for them. The Elk were drugged and flown away to allow for man to have their say. When they returned (much to the amazement of greedy-power) there was much outcry and gnashing of teeth. Both 'sides' were up in arms and all had a story to tell. One idea was to build a miles-long wall to keep the Elk at bay, for the dollars were frantic to call the shots.
    Seasonally, the Elk migrate up to the mountain or down through the valley to (nearly) the sea. Within their traverse are many dollars, many people in many big new houses, with much landscaping to eat and fences to crush. As you can tell, the story is ongoing. Best of luck in telling yours to the 'right' people with a skilled poetical persuasion.

  2. December 5, 2009
     genie strache

    Thanks for this long essay which I just skimmed, but agree with.. I feel the same way about writing poetry. Do you like Mary Oliver? Gary Snyder? THey are my favorite nature poets. I am sending this on to my twelve year old granddaughter, Lael Truth, as she lives in the country and has to live with hunters around her house too.
    Keep hanging in there.
    As Plato said, if only poets and philosphers ruled the world.

  3. December 9, 2009
     ray gibbs

    Civil, Humane, Citizen our World

  4. December 11, 2009
     Richa Upamanyu

    I really liked when you said , 'For me, because of this, poems can stop bulldozers.' More than ' 'this' stands for' it is important because most of the people say what a poetry can do? how can a poet do? He can just sit and write poetry! But I say atleast he is writing for the environment... he is doing something in his periphery which is actually boundless.

    Yes, pacifism is the right path...I have experimented it in many small matters also. It saves energy to think and sought out the sustainable solutions...
    And have seen in bigger matters like..Mahatma Gandhi...and of course you!! Go on!!

  5. December 19, 2009
     utsuk srestha

    Thanks for this long piece i went through. I really enjoyed writer's pacifism-filled sentiments with actions.

  6. January 19, 2010
     Dr. Barbara Mossberb

    I loved both the title and terrific essay.
    I have spent the last decades as a
    poet, professor, and spokesperson for
    the humanities to make the argument
    that poetry is not only useful but urgent
    in our lives. I am writing a book
    entitled, The Butterfly and the Glacier:
    the power of nobody to change the
    world. It is about the unlikely force of
    poetry to move mountains--or to save
    them! I will cite your essay and the
    persistent work of poets throughout
    time to make that infinite gesture of
    hope and faith that one's words matter,
    even if one feels marginal and not an
    official leader of society. I also take
    this theme for my weekly hour radio
    show The Poetry Slow Down, and
    every week feature examples of
    poems and poets that change our
    world. Last week I featured an
    Australian/New Zealand poet, Stephen
    Oliver, in discussing how poetry can
    lead to public policy, legislation, and
    even war and peace. I will cite your
    essay and work. Your essay is
    marvelous and I thank you for your


    Barbara Mossberg
    Founder and Host, The Poetry Slow
    Down, KRXA 540AM

  7. March 8, 2010
     Michael Hudson

    John Kinsella’s response to my letter to the editor complaining about this essay (both letter and response were printed in Poetry, March 2010) was no response at all. My original letter was an attempt to make Kinsella own up to his own words, in particular the outrageous statement that “For me, poetry has no point in existing if it’s not to be a prompt or aid to political and ethical change.” Kinsella’s response starts with a bizarre semi-retraction (“First, I said, “For me…”). Yes, I knew John Kinsella said these things from the byline, and I thereby assumed he was taking responsibility for what he is writing. Standing by your remarks is an important part of the process of writing essays and letters to the editor. As for his sanctimonious complaint about my use of imagery, it doesn’t matter whether or not Kinsella wields a sword, metaphorical or otherwise. I wrote the letter, and so it was my metaphorical sword, not Kinsella’s, that was being wielded. This sword, by the way, was an ironic literary allusion to the one enduring Abolitionist poem: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a work not likely to find favor with pacifists despite the rightness of its anti-slavery cause. But I quibble. It is when Kinsella tries to refute the original points I was trying to make that his response really fails. For real argument he substitutes off-the-point posturing (the pacifism, the arrest for protesting the “Reganite” empire, etc.) and unfair name-calling (I am “grossly insensitive” about the Holocaust and “offensive” in regards to Abolition). Poems and poets are referred to, but not specifically or to any real substantive point. Since the argument is an important one (poetry’s role, if it has one, in politics), I thought I would try to clarify my original points. First for the name-calling: I was not being “grossly insensitive” when I wrote “musing on Auschwitz.” I was making a point about Wallace Stevens’ work during the 1940s. Auschwitz happened, it just did. And Stevens failed to attempt to “do” anything about it in his poetry, he just did. My comment was meant to demonstrate how fatuous it is to insist on a poetry that only has a “point in existing” unless it offers a “prompt or aid to political and ethical change,” since it is pretty much universally acknowledged that Stevens’ work from the 1940s are among the most enduring poems of the 20th century. To try and ignore this fact by implying that I am dishonoring the Holocaust is a rhetorical evasion as well as a cheap shot. Ditto Kinsella’s attempt to smear me because of my comments on the Abolitionists and their bad poems. These are clumsy politically-holier-than-thou debate moves rather than good faith attempts to mount a coherent defense of his own radical, narrow-minded and doctrinaire approach to poetry. My question still stands: what was Emily Dickinson supposed to be doing throughout 1862 when she was at the height of her powers and the outcome of the Civil War most in doubt? Based on Kinsella’s statements, Dickinson was wasting her time. When Kinsella does get around to actual poetry, his arguments are vaporous or defective. Although I always appreciate a self-righteous book recommendation, I have in fact read some of Paul Celan’s poetry and a chunk of his biography as well. Celan’s poems are rarely “prompts” or “aids” to any kind of political change. More often Celan’s poetry is a poetry of what was lost; if it is political it is certainly very subtly so. Kinsella might do well to re-read Celan’s work to refresh his memory on this point, keeping in mind that a poet’s tragic political backstory is not the same thing as his actual poems. As for Kinsella’s other examples of politically engaged poets, he merely lists names. Neruda and Dante were great poets for extra-political reasons, not because they were political. As for Adrienne Rich, she was indeed one of America’s most talented poets, but she substituted politics for poetry decades ago. As much as one might applaud her decision to do so politically or morally, in a discussion of poetry (and we are talking about poetry here, at least I am), it is hard not to be a little sad about the loss of Adrienne Rich’s voice. Maybe, the way Denise Levertov finally did, Rich will come to realize that swapping poetry for political sloganeering is a bad trade and will come back to her art. This being said, I want to be clear about this: I am not against political poetry and I am not claiming that a great poem can’t be political. Yeats “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” is political and (yet) a very fine poem. James Wright’s “Two Poems about President Harding” are both political and heartbreaking. So is Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” as is this one by Lowell: July in Washington The stiff spokes of this wheel touch the sore spots of the earth. On the Potomac, swan-white power launches keep breasting the sulphurous wave. Otters slide and dive and slick back their hair, raccoons clean their meat in the creek. On the circles, green statues ride like South American liberators above the breeding vegetation – prongs and spearheads of some equatorial backland that will inherit the globe. The elect, the elected…they come here bright as dimes, and die disheveled and soft. We cannot name their names, or number their dates— circle on circle, like rings on a tree— but we wish the river had another shore, some further range of delectable mountains, distant hills powdered blue as a girl’s eyelid. It seems the least little shove would land us there, that only the slightest repugnance of our bodies we no longer control could drag us back. This is an overtly political poem. But unlike most of them, to use the Robert Frost quote again, this is a poem of grief not grievance. But enduring political poems are rare and my point still stands: when John Kinsella states that poetry “has no point in existing if it’s not to be a prompt or aid to political and ethical change,” he heedlessly tosses away most of the world’s great poetry. Perhaps more shocking than the statements Kinsella makes is the round of applause he receives for saying these things.

  8. August 17, 2010
     Mike the Poet

    Lewis MAcAdams work in Los Angeles with the Friends of the Los Angeles River is proof Poems Can Stop Bulldozers...

    Thanks for this excellent article John..
    Much respect with the Activist Poetics!