Friday, June 17, 2011

and then a boulder of granite

On the fifth of June a poster named George left a note in the comments section at Whispering Gums, saying that he couldn't think of "poetry involving rocks," and it hit me as I read this that John Kinsella's Divine Comedy had very few rocks in it. "Which is strange," I thought, "because Kinsella is writing about a small area of country Western Australia, and there is a mountain nearby, which he mentions, (it is "the tallest hill/mountain in the wheatbelt -- Walwalinj, or Mount Bakewell") and yet I can't remember him writing about the rocks."

I went and checked. He discusses the mountain as a whole mass, and he mentions "granite" in a number of places as a casual feature of the backdrop, and at least once he turns the granite into a liberated rock, and invents a "boulder of granite" --

They hesitated,
then, without opening their beaks,
ventriloquised, a jam tree speaking

and then a boulder of granite,
I couldn't separate the voices

-- and then there are some stones, "rose quartz chunks," but he doesn't concentrate on rocks, on any rock, in the way that he concentrates on animals and plants, on living creatures, on mushrooms in Sub-Paradiso: Mushrooms, or on a white-faced heron in Canto of the Uncanny, or on snakes in the Canto of Serpents and Theft. "You lift snakes from roads -- / before compression -- drivers / swerving 'to take them out'" he writes, and H. in Arizona did this too, she swerved her car to hit snakes. "Is that a snake?" she would wonder, and it was only a poor black stick lying patient by the side of the road in the twilight; and when I was in Thailand I met a university professor who told us that he did the same with his car for dogs, though Arizona snakes are probably in better physical and mental shape than Thailand's stray dogs, with their ribs like cage bars containing the heart in a basket, their sores like trapped lava bubbles, the skin running in concave descents off the spine, and the ears and legs that aren't there, limbs in absentia and the senses diminished, sight stripped to half with the loss of an eye, and there is such a mass of these dogs in that country, such a mob of these damned-looking creatures, Pestilence and Plague, War and Rape (you can see this as you are sitting outdoors at a restaurant, two of them under the table next to you), trotting in herds at night behind you, so that you look back, or not you but I, I looked back, as I was walking along a road in the warm early night after the evening thunderstorm which used to arrive regularly at six o'clock, and there were the discs of the eyes, marking time about two feet off the road, a line of them, so quietly, a fleet of horrors and ghost-lights -- and in a fantasy I see their missing legs vanished into the same hinterworld as John Kinsella's rocks, present once but now gone, gone, and never thought about by anyone again, as if the dogs had never had legs, and the countryside by a mountain had never had rocks.

Teejay in the comments section points out the existence of James McAuley's poem, Granite Boulder.

And Freddy (also in the comments) posts a Kinsella poem called Negation of Granite.


  1. Hi

    I have this book too.

    I'm confused why you query a "boulder of granite"? (James McAuley had a poem called "Granite Boulder", by the way.)

    It seems to me there are many references to and explorations of rock/s in the Kinsella book. In "Canto of Avarice", "Canto of the Dry Bite of Dust" ("gneissic rock and Archaean granite"), "Canto of the Soil", "Canto of Malfeasances" and "Canto of Scorpions and Rock Dragons". And probably many more.

  2. Hi there. I'm not really querying the boulder -- that is, I'm not disputing its presence, or arguing that he should have phrased it in a different way. I'm only noticing that it's there. My point is that he doesn't explore that "gneissic rock" or the "scattered gravel" in Avarice or "granite flakes" in Scorpions and Rock Dragons with the dedication that he shows to the snake or the mushroom.* Malfeasances isn't about the "conglomerate rockwork" (with my "about" here I'm talking only about the material things from the landscape that he puts in the poem, not a deeper about-ness), it's about a goanna. All the way through: goanna goanna goanna. At the beginning, goanna, in the middle, goanna, at the end, goanna. The rockwork is a detail.

    And, because I know I didn't make this clear in the post, I'll add that I'm not trying to say that Kinsella is wrong for writing as he writes, or that the book is a bad book because he doesn't dedicate five pages to a pebble, or even that my post is a criticism, as criticisms go -- it's not a careful measurement of the book, I'm not weighing up its merits and demerits. When I saw that comment at Whispering Gums I was almost sure I'd find a rock poem in Kinsella's book -- I thought, "I'll find one and I'll post it for this George --" and then there wasn't one, and I was surprised. So I'm coming from the direction of that surprise.

    *Or with the dedication that McAuley shows to his own boulder, and thank you kindly for that poem: I didn't know it and I've just looked it up.

  3. This poem was published in The West Australian newspaper a couple of years ago.

    The Negation of Granite (by John Kinsella)

    for Glen, who visits us...

    In the pit formed by removing the carpals
    of granite, shucked or shrugged, tumbled
    show-through, clustered as Zen space or lean-to,
    even pressure point, slapdash or ritual-
    obsessed huckster lampooned as tremors rumble
    and disperse, or just hoisted out so a few
    lie scattered about, large enough to have led
    to conjecture over arrival, evolution of the lair,
    what physics prised apart ball and joint, cored an acre.

    About our place there’s a grotesque of granite —
    that’s collective, collative, and an exact measurement
    in the figurative, skinks welded by the sun bright
    but not yet deadly, absorbing and throwing out
    in its imperfect cylindrical way, wagtails tossing
    boulders on their tails, hyping the sky and racing
    after cells of light; we mark our positions against
    their emanations, an out-of-kilter jiggery of heat
    and cold, slightly above or below the surrounding beat.

    Enclaves shut out lines of rolling and resting,
    the tumbledown cumulatives of lateral history;
    as surrounding the broad beans or silverbeet,
    granite shoals step along the path of the dugite;
    our toddler climbs all domed rocks in climbing
    here, and up where the York gums rankle
    against termites and limb-shattering
    storms that gather with a cult-like lightning intensity,
    high-wiring visitors who tackle the rocky driveway.

  4. Nice one. That's something like the rock-examination I was anticipating in Divine Comedy. Now you've persuaded me to go through his poems at the Australian Poetry site and see if I can find more rocks.