Alert, but not alarmed: emotion, place, and anticipated disaster in John Kinsellas "Bushfire Approaching".
"there are so many ambiguous ways to die"
--John Kinsella, "The Immolation of Imagination"
"all sanctuaries are vulnerable: to decay, entropy, the wrecking ball, flood, fire ...
--John Kinsella, "Rural Diary"
Described as "an awkward, manic wheatbelt laureate," John Kinsella is Australia's most highly regarded ecological poet. (1) Known for its combination of activism and lyricism, his poetry is notable for the connections that it makes between the local and the global or, as Kinsella himself terms it, his "international regionalism." (2) This approach enables Kinsellas very specifically "local" poems to speak to broader national and transnational concerns. A poet of place, whose work charts the flora and fauna of the Western Australian environment, and their destruction, Kinsella deploys international regionalism to document the effects of climate change in his immediate vicinity. As Tony Hughes d'Aeth expresses it, the Western Australian wheatbelt has been subjected to "widespread annihilation" and Kinsellas poems "hatch and crawl across the wrecked ... landscapes they describe," tracing the ecological mismanagement of the region and chronicling its impact on both wildlife and weather patterns. (3) The effects of climatic alteration are, according to government scientists, already clearly visible in the arid Australian countryside. (4) Prolonged droughts are increasingly considered to be part of the norm across Australia, with more than two hundred years of settler "pastoralization" resulting in widespread deforesting, as hundreds upon thousands of acres of trees have been sacrificed to allow imported European livestock to graze or, as in the case of Kinsella's beloved home, the Western Australian wheatbelt, to grow cereal crops. Fire has always been a part of the Australian ecology, a naturally occurring phenomenon that allows the land to regenerate and which, for some species of native plant, is the only way in which their seeds can be released. (5) Critically, though, the changes to the vegetation which have accompanied European settlement have increased the frequency of fire over the last two hundred years. Furthermore, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology predicts that by 2020 the annual average number of days posing extreme fire danger will have increased by somewhere between 25 and 60 percent, when compared with 1990, as a result of the effects of global warming. (6)
Kinsella's poem "Bushfire Approaching" (2013) exploits the lyric's capacity to envelope personal feelings in the present tense, while also drawing upon a regionally specific problem to discuss the more wide-reaching environmental concern that is climate change. (7) The poem's "eye" sees a figure in the landscape, anticipating a bushfire, responding affectively to the fire in the present moment and the future, more extreme fires that it heralds. The fire draws nearer as the poem unfolds, yet is not quite present. Thus, its ontology generates and signifies anxiety: the fire is imminent, but not secured in view. Such spatializing of the trope of fire to keep it at a distance is central to the ecological politics within Kinsella's oeuvre, which often critiques a false sense of connection or intimacy with the environment. The environment, its elements, properties, and creatures are, for Kinsella, frequently discordant--apart from and yet in relationship to the human subject in the landscape. What might appear to be a simple but energized politics of representation is here--as indicated by the poem's title--a negative poetic stance that embodies the tension and breakdown between word and thing, between historical consciousness and present-day action. The tension is nuanced in "Bushfire Approaching" through its progression from ideas of "country" via culture, memory and time. These concepts permeate each other to foreground a rich sense of space that is alert to modes of alienation and to the tensions between settler pastoralism and the land's self-management. Focusing particularly on "Bushfire Approaching," this essay will examine the seasonal menace that fire poses to bush dwellers, while at the same time considering how its dangers inflect Kinsella's emotional relations with changing climates and threatened places. We will examine the poet's contradictory (and, at times, vexed) sense of connection to the environmentally degraded land that he inhabits, deploying the work of the social theorist Brian Massumi to consider the multiple layers of catastrophe represented by a bushfire, along with their visceral effects. (8)
Kinsella remarks in his collection of essays, Spatial Relations, "I have spent a life writing smoke and fire poems, and little wonder. It's part of our earliest and most recent memories." (9) Kinsella's words echo those of the architectural historian Luis Fernandez-Galiano, who notes of the homestead that fire "both dwells in the building" and "builds the dwelling.'" (10) However, while Fernandez-Galiano considers humanity's primal attraction to fire and its role in creating a sense of the homely, for Kinsella it is much more of a force of nature and thus a key motif in his ecopoetics and environmental ethics. Kinsella's fires occasionally warm, but mostly they are catastrophic and destructive, sweeping across the land and spreading terror. These fires are symbolically complex and at times contradictory. Often, they are invested with what Massumi describes as the "could-have/would-have logic," in that if a specific fire does not result in widespread destruction, it remains a harbinger of fires to come. (11) It is also a reminder of those in the past, thus gesturing to how Australian settler culture continues to be confronted by the seasonal burning of the landscape. As fire historians Christine Hansen and Tom Griffiths have put it, "Bushfire makes its victims feel hunted down and its survivors toyed with," while Robert Kenny notes that for the settler community in Australia, "Fire is the thing to endure and control ... Yes it destroys and devastates but it is in that intrinsic to the nature of Australia." (12) Fire, for Kinsella, is something immediate and tangible--a danger that accompanies life in the Western Australian wheatbelt--and something that must be assimilated into the experience of living in the countryside. It is both inevitable and inescapable, and to seek to avoid fire is futile and misguided. The lines
Smoke-mushrooms are haloes about wattles they haven't yet touched where it counts. Prelude. Early life of devastation, its long legacy too long in its brief moment of, well, beauty.
encapsulate the plurality of emotions that fire can evoke and Kinsella's vexed positioning in relation to them. This fire is beautiful and destructive, yet as its pluming smoke invests plant life with angelic qualities, it also seems unnatural and misdirected, missing the opportunity to open up the wattle seed (which depends on fire for regeneration), while signaling the paradox of its long legacy of historical burns and its immediate, sweeping path of destruction. This fire--obliterating yet not renewing--is a signifier of escalating climatic damage and Kinsella moves between the local and the global to map and connect ecological dilemmas, all the time nodding to what Massumi terms the "smoke of future fires." (13) In "Bushfire Approaching," Kinsella considers how fire challenges our sense of human mastery over the bush. Pitting the vulnerable trappings of modern domesticity against the indiscriminate destruction of the burning countryside, the poem explores the tensions between what fire means to the householder and what it means for the land. The speaking voice also ponders what it means to be a poet (and a poet of place) when fire threatens to devour both homes and lives. In his "Rural Diary," Kinsella has appointed himself a chronicler of the impact of changing weather conditions on the wheatbelt, asserting that he wishes to keep
A record of a place where climate change has rendered seasons defunct. The four seasons of the colonisers clearly don't fit this place as template, and the six seasons of the Nyungars, while clearly closer to the divisions of a years cycle here, are also going askew as representation. There are two seasons now: the dry and the wet. And the wet in itself is a few months and broken up by much dryness. The year is lopsided and there are no longer cycles of nature.' (14)
The months of dryness are increasingly marked by wildfire, and we would therefore argue that "Bushfire Approaching" forms part of Kinsella's witnessing of the collapsing of seasons and the land's devastation. Burning is simultaneously a cyclical source of renewal and, increasingly, a signifier of the effects of a shifting climate, which are particularly visible in an Australian context, where the imported farming methods outlined above have led to what Kinsella calls "a scarring, rather than a renewing of the land." (15)
Deeply sensitive to issues of custodianship and management of land, for Kinsella, a bushfire is a reminder of white Australia's tenuous connection to what indigenous Australians term "country." Country is about belonging and kinship with the earth and, as the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose expresses it, about "nourishing terrain"; sometimes that nourishment involves what may seen by the uninitiated as destruction. Rose continues, in what is the best encapsulation of the ethos of country that we have encountered,
Country in Aboriginal English is not only a common noun, but also a proper noun. People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country. People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy ... country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. (16)
Country, then, is not just care for and respect of the environment; it is also an expression of emotional connectedness. Kinsella's own sense of duty towards country and his attempts to restore the land on which he and his family dwell at Jam Tree Gully in Western Australia embrace this sense of custodianship and responsibility to future generations, both human and nonhuman. Fire, while it menaces the homestead, forms part of this understanding and connection. What, for Europeans and their descendants, represents devastation (usually of property) occupies a far more complex place in antipodean ecology and in Kinsella's poetry.
Fire, for Kinsella, is a force to be both respected and feared. Reflecting on the destruction caused by a prescribed burn in a reserve near to his home, he remarks on the shortcomings of settler-Australia's relationship to fire, commenting, "Fire is wielded as a weapon and is feared as the enemy. People build houses amongst trees, then pull the trees down because they are a fire risk." (17) There is a genuine perplexity underpinning this assessment of the bush dweller's attempts to avoid fire or to future-proof against it that is inextricably bound up with ideas of homelessness and displacement. The poet expresses puzzlement at what he terms, in the poem, the "burning question," those who, "build houses in the bush, then blame the bush." This perplexity is part of Kinsella's broader place-consciousness, which illustrates "the hidden violence of the pastoral scene: the violence of shared histories, eroded and poisoned landscapes, and harsh weather." (18) "Bushfire Approaching" connects this toxic and postsettlement vision to the global context of climate change, a phenomenon that calls for alternative models of space and time, and different forms of environmental representation--a new witnessing to the contemporary warping of our seasons.
For Kinsella, inhabiting the bush involves accepting its many moods, even while fearing some of them. As a point of contrast to those unidentified "people," the speaker presents his brother--a surfer--who says, "If I get taken by a shark / remember it was while doing something I love in its universe." The poem then ends abruptly, "Remember me in this light. The fire has jumped Julimar Road." (19) Living in the bush is, as Kinsella sees it, akin to surfing with sharks, both in terms of its possible dangers and of the great passion that it can inspire. The brothers accept responsibility for their immersion in different elements of the natural world and the accompanying dangers, knowing that the risks are at once real, yet outweighed by the pleasures of surfing or bush life. Many bush dwellers, though, elect to ignore or downplay the dangers posed by their environment, believing that acts like clearing trees will somehow ensure their safety, when in fact their behavior is tantamount to ecological vandalism.
Responsibility is an important concern in "Bushfire Approaching." The poem invites the reader to consider the settler community's assault on the bush through insensitive land management practices. The panic generated by the fire evokes a type of psychosis in the speaker, whose vivid flashback becomes "Strychnine-saturated, like the bush / where rangers claim to conserve native species / through poisoned baits." Physical endangerment from the land thus evokes extreme affect that is steeped in environmental, rather than personal, damage. Individuality gives way to a much broader catastrophe, while spirituality and topography blur their boundaries, almost as though they are melting together. Tony Hughes-d'Aeth has noted of Kinsellas work that "in the moment of unbearable loss there is a supervening ethics that is not inimical to expression" an ethics which, we would argue, attends to the situatedness of the human in relation to the environment. (20) The poem alludes to some of the environmental dilemmas that Kinsella stages in much of his writing: where and how to live and whether we can situate ourselves and our values in locations subject to such "fire conditions." (21) The piece also gestures towards climate change ethics and their negative by-product, the misanthropic rhetoric of culpability, with the lines, "Blame burns with a heat unlike any other and burns long / after last embers have faded." Here, blame becomes conflated with memory in its intense capacity to linger, yet beyond the world of the poem the responsibility is displaced. The fire is the fault of the bush, not those who have chosen to make it their home. The haunted speaker of this poem may be able to see and experience the dissolution of boundaries between selfhood and the natural world, but this empathy with his surroundings distinguishes him from those "who blame the bush."
The poem's title--while apparently pointing to a particular fire that is approaching--becomes, on rereading, a broader reference, not just to this incident, but to fires of the past and those yet to come. In so fully identifying himself with the Australian bush, Kinsella registers the human dependency on the land, thus signaling the broader concern that underpins the work: the effects of a changing climate. The speaking voice tells us that it is "monitor[ing] and speakjing] through the gaps," ostensibly referring to specific weather reports and evacuation updates, but also deploying rhetorical space within the poem to point to a bigger picture that cannot be contained by or explored fully within this work. He tells us:
I am not hearing AC/DC's 'This House is on Fire' out of perversity. This morning a rush of colour brought on a flashback, and I've not had one of those for a decade.
Here, the fire invokes memories (possibly traumatic, certainly involuntary), and it is also proleptic in that alongside the "Rapid heartbeat, dry mouth," the speaker anticipates, "annihilation: spiritual and topographical." His vision here is on the one hand of himself, but on the other it signals a state that goes beyond the personal. Alongside a collection of colorful images attributed to acid-induced hallucinations of the past, there emerges a deeper concern, "the weird melancholy of habitat loss," although whose habitat remains deliberately ambiguous. We might interpret this anticipated loss as a personal reference. The poet has, after all, already considered what will be left behind "if fire sweeps through," noting that "only the mangled / metal of this Hermes typewriter will remain." This individual reflection gives way to something broader, though, as the speaker foresees the wholesale loss of habitat that will ensue for bush-dwelling creatures, the endangered "native species" who form part of the elaborate "Strychnine-saturated" simile that Kinsella invokes to convey the severity of his experience.
Merging personal preoccupations with his understanding of the natural order, Kinsella explores the contradictory responses that fire elicits for him as a poet, as an ecologist who cares for "country," and as a human: vulnerable and alone. (22) He writes, "Figurative destiny will take hold, and landscape / will be less fragile, the font more robust. It won't rely / on paper: ash become an idea, a taste for some." Cutting back and forth between the poet's tools and the countryside that is under threat, the idea of a less fragile landscape submitting to destiny points to a deeper understanding of, and engagement with, fire and its significance. Caught in an impasse, '"between seeing the thing and making it into a word,"' at the same time as wondering whether to "Defend or abandon," he considers the relics of his life and work that may withstand the flames, and ponders their value: (23)
I'm abandoning my poem on the wheatbelt stone gecko And the 'keeled tail' of a black-headed monitor which is running amok through the roof, along walls, scaling trees with maritime skill. The images lack explanation and coalesce, are minimalist, but will serve as a poor kind of last will and testament. One sheet in my pocket, and it will be this.
There is a futility to writing poetry in the face of fire that, for Kinsella here, is akin to fiddling while Rome burns, but at the same time, there is also an irony in the poet abandoning his poem. The gecko and the monitor (the latter offering an echo of the earlier "monitoring" of the fire) shift our attention from the world of the human, to remind us of the many other habitats endangered by the blaze. Scuttling about on the roof, it is unclear whether the lizard even knows that his life is in danger; there is a threat on the horizon, yet he is unable to see it coming.
There are deliberate limits to the sensory experience of the fire offered in this poem: we hear it and smell it, yet we never see its flames. Equally, while the speaker is able to imagine his death by fire, his body is somehow--unrealistically--saved, to be found, lying with a poem in his pocket. Whether the poem is the piece about the gecko, or the work we are presently engaged in reading, remains unresolved as incredulity at the survival of mortal remains takes hold of the reader instead. Kinsella is well aware that bodies, let alone pieces of paper, seldom survive the intensity of a bushfire's heat, making this vision both absurd and uncanny. It is not a vision of ego, but rather one that seems designed to elicit a sense of denial within the reader. In refusing to anticipate the effacement of his presence on earth, Kinsella gestures with great subtlety to a more widespread state of refusal that does not face up to the full, terminal, implications of altered weather systems.
The voice of anxiety that drives the poem is heightened as the fire moves closer. The poet attempts to guard against hallucinations and the fragmentation of thought through ordering words. He tells us, "I make rhetoric / out of the flood of image-fragments," yet this word-smithery is not enough to keep the work's psychotic tone at bay. Kinsella identifies fire's power to traumatize with the lines, "But true burning feeds on ash and the idea / of fire: it perseveres and requires only oxygen and memory." Blurring the fire of the present with fires from the past, he suggests the ways in which blazes accumulate in consciousness through individual and collective memory. It is not simply the approaching fire that poses a danger, but a larger "idea / of fire" compiled from experiences that are both vicarious and firsthand. Brian Massumi's work on "surplus threat" is helpful in unpacking the layers of memory and anticipation that we bring to natural disasters like bushfires and which shape the speaker's affective response in the poem. As Massumi explains it,
An event where threat materializes as a dear and present danger extrudes a surplus-remainder of threat potential that can contaminate new objects, persons, and contexts through the joint mechanisms of the double conditional and the objective imprecision of the specificity of threat. Threat's self-causing proliferates. (24)
Massumi insightfully conveys how the fear generated by an individual disaster (either at first hand, or through the media) can be transformed into a deep-rooted anxiety that the event will recur. In many ways, this is an extremely useful way of conceptualizing the cyclical threat posed to humans and their property by seasonal disasters like bushfires. For Kinsella, who is particularly attuned to his surroundings, the wildfire is an important motif, which recurs throughout his oeuvre. Visions of "Eucalypts imploding" feature in his revisioning of The Divine Comedy--a work that is fascinated by what Andy Grace has described as a "landscape that is continuously being compromised, both physically and spiritually." (25) Kinsella also highlights the long history of settler-Australia's struggle with fire through his vision of
Eucalypts and Apocalypses ... Debased in old Europeans. Smoke in valley. Old Dutch ships off the coast, imagining fired grass. Eucalypts. (26)
Here, fire is a natural part of the land and its renewal that is visibly present on its "discovery" by Europeans. The Apocalypse is, perhaps, superimposed onto the burnscape by a settler community that still needs to refine its relations with fire and the important ecological role that it plays; not all observers would interpret the smoke and fired grass in the same way. For some, this is Armageddon; for those more carefully attuned to "country," it is tied to regeneration. However, as the seasons collapse into one another, the meaning of fire shifts once more, signifying soaring temperatures and human agency. The fire in the 2013 poem is thus loaded with even more portent than the "fired grass" that Kinsella imagines confronting the first European invaders.
Fire is a powerful symbol in the first volume of Kinsella's 2012 collection jam Tree Gully. Poems including "I had wondered about the signs of burning" explore human agency in relation to fires, while at the same time attending to its role in the natural world. (27) Reading the land and the house that has been built upon it for the signs of conflagrations past, Kinsella explores natural versus human-ignited fires. His relationship to burning is not just profoundly affective, however, it is also informed by a sense of inevitability that mirrors Massumis anticipated disasters. The poem ends on a note that might be foreboding or simply well informed:
Regardless, we bring a knowledge of such catastrophes from our old place, and they serve us well and serve as warnings here, too, and we know fire is just around the corner, the house's shadow.
For Kinsella, fire is always there, sometimes as a danger, more often as a memory, but also as a type of neighbor whose extremes are unavoidable. Fire inscribes itself upon place and etches itself into the poet's memory, shaping his interactions with the idea of home, and lurking nearby, ever-ready to strike.
Paradoxically, although the threat of fire is semiannual for those who, like Kinsella, inhabit the tinder-dry Australian countryside, for many, con sciousness of anticipated disaster fades rapidly. The bushfire survivor and memoirist Robert Kenny articulates this inconsistency when he asserts that "Fire is the thing to endure and control." (28) Thus, we give priority to our recognition that it is cyclical and therefore inevitable, before going on to observe that "we slip into a forgetfulness about that which should be unforgettable. As inevitable, as intrinsic as fire is to the environment with which we ourselves have become one, we become stoical and shrug our shoulders at its chance." (29) Kenny is not alone in his assertion of forgetfulness. Writing of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, Tom Griffiths commented, "for those who know history, the most haunting aspect of this tragedy is the familiarity," pointing to Teonard Stretton's erudite royal commission report into the 1939 bushfires in Victoria and New South Wales as evidence of both cyclicality and collective amnesia. (30) Forgetting can, of course, constitute another manifestation of trauma and it is important to consider how labeling and naming individual fires as "events" enables us to consign them to the past. Kinsella's fire is omnipresent, though, with the fire that warms his family eerily evoking visions of burnings yet to come.
Bushfire, wildfires, and forest fires are all natural occurrences. Yet the intervals between catastrophic blazes (particularly, but not exclusively, in Australia) are becoming less and less frequent in ways that are profoundly unnatural. Kinsella flags this concern in "Bushfire Approaching," when he reports, "Three years ago, fire destroyed / forty homes just south of here. It was like this then, too." While we know from his writing in Agora that this incident resulted from a prescribed burn gone wrong, Kinsella's emphasis on the weather conditions reminds readers of the land's aridity. Monitoring the situation, as he pledged to do at the poem's outset, the "real-time," almost-formal poetic voice speaks in the continuous present tense to inform readers, "I check / outside again and the plume is still moving southwest / though the wind is tentative and temperature / up five degrees over the last thirty minutes." The fire's origins are here irrelevant; what is important is its trajectory, which has already been determined by the heat of the summer and which will now be dictated by the strength and direction of the wind.
Tater, we learn that "The wind has dropped, though smoke--not impenetrable / but more substantial than 'thin'--hangs over the block, / a tentative fallout." The dropping of the wind may seem to signal a lull in the danger, but the silence of birds and the smell of burning soon renders this sense of security an illusion. The comparison of smoke to nuclear fallout signals a much deeper and more widespread threat that underpins this poem, which is emphasized in the fifth section by references to "Smoke-mushrooms." This is not simply a poem about an individual bushfire approaching; rather, it is about what Kinsella ironically terms--echoing North American realtors--"Location location location" and the always-already-present threat of fire. Furthermore, although it does not explicitly identify itself as such, this is also a work engaging with the effects of climate change through the fire's increasingly predictable seasonality. Bushfires will approach and encroach with ever more frequency because of the effects of climate change, a state that is anticipated through the lines "And with days of heat and high / winds ahead, even a dead ember might find heart again, and leap / to the occasion. Elemental showdown." While on the one hand Kinsella is clearly referring to a specific fire's potential to reignite--the bushfire which has been approaching--on the other, these "days of heat" are the end days, foreshadowing a more wholesale "elemental showdown."
Kinsella offers a prophetic vision of a future punctuated by repeated climatic catastrophes, fust as apocalyptic time collapses, so, in Kinsella's vision of a fiery future, do all fires become one and the same. This process echoes Massumi's conceptualization--via Charles Peirce--of the "smoke of future fires," in which traumatized bodies respond affectively to smoke that is both real and future conditional. As Massumi articulates it, "The dynamical object [i.e., something forced upon the mind in perception] is the innervated flesh to which the sign performatively correlates 'fire,' existent or nonexistent. It is the nervous body astartle that is 'the object of command to alertness.'" Massumi goes on to think about the anticipated experience of fire as a state of hypervigilance in which both body and mind are constantly on the alert for danger signs, thinking about the ongoing dread of a recurrence that haunts survivors of traumatic incidents. Massumi asks, "What happens when the fire is not falsely nonexistent, but nonexistent in a future tense? What happens if the sign event is triggered by a future cause?" (31) His work on anticipated future disaster is extremely useful in considering the anxieties faced by many Australian bush dwellers during the annual fire season. (32) The only knowledge that is certain is that the fire will come again; we just cannot always predict when what Hansen and Griffiths call the "inevitable recurrence of the event" will take place. (33)
Writing of the aftermath of the horrific Victorian bushfires of 7 February, 2009, Hansen and Griffiths speak of an "emotional need to deny the 'naturalness' and therefore the inevitable recurrence of the event.'" (34) As they explain, this "need" is tied to the processes of recovery and reconstruction, along with the survivor's desire to view the natural disaster as a "once-in-a-lifetime experience". The "naturalness" of the bushfire is, indeed, a vexed question, which has been complicated further in recent decades by debates surrounding human agency in relation to fires and climate change more generally. In his famous, and stylistically beautiful, report on the 1939 bushfires, Judge Leonard Stretton deployed the chilling phrase "the hand of man" to represent the roles of arson and sheer carelessness in igniting bushfires. Stretton's words resonate when reading Kinsella's poem "The Immolation of Imagination," in which the noise of trail bikes during a ban on vehicle movement generates fear of fire for the poet:
I burst out the door and bolt up the hill, wanting to stop them, stop the fire they will spark, that will kill all that's living other than the riders,
While imagination may have been immolated, the fear of the fire to come certainly has not. With a "twenty-knot northerly / ripping into the overdry / bushland," climatic conditions mean that the speaker can envision destructive flames and very little else. As in "Bushfire Approaching," poetry becomes secondary to survival and the fear of the fire to come. In "The Immolation oflmagination," though, he is also exploring the tensions between the "natural" and the "unnatural" and the fluidity between their boundaries.
Human agency is, of course, not always as easy to detect as the noise of trail bike riders, and Kinsella is greatly concerned with its subtleties. He frequently represents the landscape as parched and ready to burn, although cause and effect are sometimes difficult to determine. An ambiguity surrounds the wheatbelt's dryness and the degree to which that is a natural state in the place that the poet Dorothea McKellar labelled a "sunburnt country." European pastoralism (which involved the burning of scrub to create paddocks), overfarming, and carbon emissions are all invisible contributors to the land's aridity, making climatic alteration an omnipresent shadow, looming over this poem in which it is never explicitly mentioned. The "hand of man" is always there, although in some instances it is more recognizable than others. While we may anticipate the fire that is to come, there are limits to the breadth of our vision and it is not always so easy to envision a continuum of fire. Massumi's ontology of threat is bound up with questions of individual survival and, as a consequence, the "smoke of future fires" ordinarily presages an event which, while traumatic, may be overcome, even as it threatens to efface. Kinsella asks us to read the bushfire differently: to understand it as a single symptom of a widespread issue, rather than as a standalone "incident." The effect is overwhelming, in that the interludes between blazes will diminish and fires will become the norm, a state that Kinsella anticipates when he asks in the poem's final section, "Plagiarism?," neatly implying that fires mimic and replicate each other. What he presents, through this single word, is an anticipated disaster so big that it defies the scope of representation, and the imagination.
Massumi's work on catastrophe sheds light on the process of proliferation (or as Kinsella would have it, "plagiarism"), its connection to changing weather patterns and natural disasters, and the fear of what the future has in store. He notes at the beginning of his essay, "We live in times when what is yet to occur not only climbs to the top of the news but periodically takes blaring precedence over what has actually happened." (35) This assertion is, and is not, true when it comes to climate change, whose effects are visible everywhere, but which are elided by reports of natural disasters as disconnected anomalous events. As Matthew Griffiths expresses it,
[A]lthough we are spatially implicated in the processes of the changing climate, we are also implicated historically thanks to our species-long contribution to the greenhouse effect ... We cannot reject the spatial for the historical: but neither can we subordinate historical context to environment. Climate change is not something happening only now, but something whose "now" manifests the tradition of our interaction with the environment, compromising the conditions that enable life on earth. (36)
When it comes to climate change, there will always be another disaster on the horizon--just as a bushfire is always approaching. Yet in the case of climate change, we lack the capacity to allow the premonition of the threat to proliferate: possibly because it is too big to be imagined, possibly because the idea of taking responsibility for it is too great. Kinsellas poem does not seek to assign direct blame, but rather more subtly shows the immediate effects of abusing "country" alongside his own connectedness to the environment. The poem's speaker inevitably fears the fire, but also understands it as, paradoxically, a natural force accelerated by anthropogenic interference. The fire has more right to sweep across the land than he does.
Kinsella may be able to make the imaginative leap that allows him a vision of his miraculously preserved dead body (a tongue-in-cheek death of the author), but our collective Massumian anticipation stops short when it comes to mass extinction. The poem's final section begins with a statement of the "Alert Level" in which the words of an official urge, '"stay alert and monitor your surroundings.'" These words might almost be an instruction to bush dwellers, not just in relation to fire, but more broadly applied to take in the witnessing of change that Kinsella sees as his responsibility. There is, however, a futility to merely witnessing, and the man who stands helpless in the face of the fire's caprice is representative of a greater sense of impotence that pertains to recording the effects of climate change in the face of mass indifference. "Bushfire Approaching" is thus a study of the limits of individual agency when nature begins to fight back. As a poem, it is sensitive to the reduction of world into word, as it shows us the emergence of an emergency--the poem representing a state of hypervigilance in the face of a more widespread negligence. Like the fire, which acts as a synecdoche for the broader concern, climate change is both here and not yet here. Ad a recorder of its effects, Kinsella is alert, but not alarmed, even though he understands the future of fear and anxiety that the fire portends.
University of Melbourne
This research was conducted by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (project number CE110001011).
(1) Tony Hughes-d'Aeth, "Salt Scars: John Kinsella's Wheatbelt," Australian Literary Studies 27:2 (June 2012): 18-31. Hughes-d'Aeth offers an extremely useful account of Kinsella deep, emotional connection to the wheatbelt.
(2) See the poet's interview with Tracy Ryan for a full account of Kinsella's anarchism and his approach to the international in Overland 60 (Nov. 24, 2008). https://overland.org. au/feature-john-kinsella-and-tracy-ryan/.
(3) Hughes-d'Aeth, "Salt Scars," 19.
(4) Helen Cleugh, Mark Stafford Smith, Michael Battaglia, and Paul Graham, eds., Climate Change: Science and Solutions for Australia (Collingwood: CSIRO Publishing, 2011), 45. This is not to suggest that scientists are alone in their observations of the damage to the Australian ecosystem. Perhaps the most internationally recognizable consequence of climate change in Australia is the continued destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and its surrounding marine life. See Iain McCalman, The Reef: A Passionate History (London: Viking, 2013) for an engaging account of the emotions surrounding the iconic coral formation.
(5) See Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011) for an in-depth study of indigenous fire practices.
(6) Cleugh, Smith, Battaglia, and Graham, Climate Change, 48, outline a quite terrifying future, based on scientific models of the consequences of global warming: "[T]he simulated annual-average number of days with 'Extreme' fire danger increases by 5-25% by 2020 relative to 1990, for a 0.4[degrees]C global warming. For a 1[degrees]C global warming, the number of 'Extreme' days increases by 15-65% by 2020. By 2050, the number of 'Extreme' days increases by 10-50% for 0.7[degrees]C global warming and by 100-300% for 2.9[degrees]C global warming."
(7) John Kinsella, "Bushfire Approaching" in Lisa Gorton, ed., The Best Australian Poems, 2013 (Collingwood: Black Inc., 2013), 21-24.
(8) Brian Massumi, "The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat," in Melissa Gregg, Gregory J. Seigworth, and Sara Ahmed, eds., The Affect Theory Reader (Duke U. Press, 2012), 52-70, deals very specifically with experiences reported by survivors of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City. His argument, however, that surviving one catastrophic event can lead to a heightened state of anticipation of future disasters lends itself to a broader application, particularly for an issue like climate change, where natural disasters can no longer considered to be isolated incidents.
For a discussion of some of the scholarly concerns associated with applying a theory formulated around a very specific event to consider an ecological disaster on another continent, please see Grace Moore, "(Ab)using Brian Massumi," History of Emotions Blog, http://historiesofemotion.com/2014/ll/21/abusing-brian-massumi/.
(9) John Kinsella, Spatial Relations: Volume One: Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Chorography (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013), 357.
(10) Luis Fernandez-Galiano, Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy, trans. Gina Carino (MIT Press, 2000), 22.
(11) Massumi, "The Future Birth of the Affective Fact," 56.
(12) Christine Hansen and Tom Griffiths, Living with Fire (Canberra: CSIRO Publishing, 2012), 161. Robert Kenny, Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir (Perth: UWA Press, 2013), 242.
(13) Massumi, "The Future Birth of the Affective Fact," 62.
(14) John Kinsella, "Rural Diary," Overland 204 (spring 2011): 35-38, http://overland.org.au/ previous-issues/issue-204/feature-john-kinsella/.
(15) John Kinsella, Contrary Rhetoric (Perth: Freemantle Press, 2008), 174.
(16) Deborah Bird Rose, Nourishing Terrains: Australia Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness (Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 1996), 7.
(17) John Kinsella, "Agoras," Poetry, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2014/02/ agoras/.
(18) David McCooey, "Australian Poetry, 1970-2005," in Nicholas Birns and Rebecca McNeer, eds., A Companion to Australian Literature since 1900 (Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2007), 191-206, 199. For Kinsella's literary critical output, see John Kinsella, Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism (Manchester U. Press, 2008); Contrary Rhetoric: Lectures on Landscape and Language, ed. Glen Phillips and Andrew Taylor (South Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Press, 2008); Spatial Relations: Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, Chorography, 2 vols., ed. Gordon Collier (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013).
(19) Whether "Remember me in this light" is a plea from the speaker, facing the flames, or his brother, imagining a voracious shark, remains wonderfully ambiguous, as does the "light" itself. Are we being asked to recall the speaker doing something that he loves, or are we to remember him in the brightness of the fire that seems set to consume him? The melodrama of this final crie de coeur suggests the latter, but as in so many other instances in this cleverly playful poem, nothing is certain.
(20) Hughes-d'Aeth, "Salt Scars," 22.
(21) Kinsella, Spatial Relations, 357.
(22) Having been struck by lightning as a child, Kinsella's engagement with fire is highly affective, to the point of embodiment. Describing the incident (which involves family members fighting storm fires) in Disclosed Poetics, Kinsella recalls, "I see a fork of white light come up from my feet and rise up through me to heaven as if I'm a conduit from Hell and pyrographed into a purgatory and always welded to that spot not like some immortal recollection or recollection intimating immortality but an incendiary reminder of the suffering of mortality ..."(211). Fire is such a central concern for Kinsella that his adaptation of Richard Wagner's Gotterdammerung dosed with scenes of bushfire and flood (Contrary Rhetoric, 101).
(23) The question of whether to "stay and defend" or leave a property has traditionally been an important one for Australians during fire season. As fires become more frequent and widespread, official advice has leaned towards leaving for safety during times of extreme heat. Kinsella's lines, however, are indeterminate and while his reference seems to be about a defense of the home, it might also refer to the poem that he later discards.
(24) Massumi, "The Future Birth of the Affective Fact," 60.
(25) Andy Grace, "On John Kinsella's Divine Comedy," The Kenyon Review (winter 2010), http://www.kenyonreview.org/wp-content/uploads/grace-kinsella.pdf.
(26) John Kinsella, The Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography (New York: Norton, 2008).
(27) John Kinsella, Jam Tree Gully (New York: Norton), 2012.
(28) "Black Saturday" is the label given to 7 February 2009, when extreme heat (and in some cases, arson) led to the ignition of a number of bushfires across the state of Victoria. Almost 200 lives were lost in fires that generated more fatalities than any others since records began in Australia.
(29) Kenney, Gardens of Fire, 242.
(30) Hansen and Griffiths, Living with Fire, 162. Stretton's report, produced in the wake of the 1939 fires (which culminated in the day of destruction known as "Black Friday"), is famed in Australia for its remarkable readability and two oft-quoted phrases. One, "These fires were lit by the hand of man" (5, italics ours), with its chilling note of reproval, has given its name to both a film and a book. The second, "we have still not yet lived long enough" is frequently cited to highlight settler culture's need to better understand and engage with the role of fire in the Southern hemisphere. Stretton's report may be viewed in its entirety here: http://www.voltscommissar.net/docs/Leonard_Stretton-1939_Bush_ Fires_Royal_Commission_Report.pdf.
(31) Massumi, "The Future Birth of the Affective Fact," 64, 65.
(32) For an application of Massumi's work to the dangers of bush life during the summer, see Grace Moore, '"The Heavens Were on Fire": Incendiarism and the Defence of the Settler Home," in Tamara S. Wagner, ed., Antipodal Homes: Domestic Fiction in Colonial Australia and New Zealand (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014), 63-75.
(33) Hansen and Griffiths, Living with Fire, 162.
(34) Hansen and Griffiths, Living with Fire, 162.
(35) Massumi, "The Future Birth of the Affective Fact," 52.
(36) Matthew Griffiths, "Climate Change and the Individual Talent: Eliotic Ecopoetics," symploke 21.1 (December 2013): 83-95, 87.
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|Author:||Moore, Grace; Bristow, Tom|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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