My journey through John Kinsella’s geography of the Divine Comedy leads me to Kwinana – the S.S. Kwinana actually – a ship that wrecked off the coast of western Australia. The ship was filled in with cement and transformed into a permanent part of the jetty.
The only hint in the poem to this history are some oblique references to “seaside burials” and a “historical meniscus.” After spending some time with my dictionary and the Google, my understanding of the poem is much deeper and richer.
To wit: Meniscus is a crescent or crescent-shaped body. The Roundhouse prison is built as a decagon, “matrix of good order on the coastline.” The area of Kwinana contains industrial plants whose “fumes swept across the suburbs.”
Seaside burials, tombs
micro-waved, waves slinky,
under forests, hacked
out of limestone, sand basin
wash-away built to forget. Haves
and have-nots, displace
and transverse, slaughter
and bury, historical meniscus
of pride and asperity,
– Canto of the Heretics
At first, my need to look up the references to the flora and fauna of Australia – goanna, dugite, galah, corella – is distracting. I feel that I cannot concentrate on the flow of the lines. But after a while, curiosity takes hold and I begin to delight in every new (to me) lizard and plant that Kinsella introduces.
“Blue-tongues are rampant in the heat today” says the Canto of Fallen Angels, Barring the Way into the City of Dis. And I cry aloud with surprise at the photo I find on the Internet of a lizard with a bold blue tongue, like a child’s tongue after a blueberry slurpee.
Surrounded by good economics, the leisured,
even the ‘keep-to-themselves’, they retreat:
under siege. The are still glorious, stoical.
In the Canto of the The Shape of the Iron Pit in the Hills, I learn that Koolanooka is a defunct iron mining operation, now about to restart after the requisite environmental studies:
closed, re-opened, first
profitable again: can-can
of fertiliser and gasoline,
hooray, up she rises,
mallee fowl totem,
man-made where men
make over what was made,
unable to dig down
to dig out, obliterating
Kinsella is deeply concerned about the degradation of his local landscape. Paragliders clear away rare brush on the hills of the Dyott Range. Telecommunications companies erect their towers on its peaks like “the entrapped legs of Satan himself.” Kinsella sees one specific hill – Walwalinj – as a corrupted paradise and makes it the entrance and exit to hell in the geography of this poems.
My initial intimidation (the force of Kinsella’s passion is a bit overwhelming at first) has given way to admiration. This cycle of poems is an amazing achievement. I look forward to returning to read his Paradiso and Purgatorio once I’ve studied Dante’s originals.