John Kinsella is a poet from Western Australia born in 1963 who has been included in the major anthologies of modern Australian poetry. At one level, his collection Visitants can be read as lampooning the Australian pastoral lyric, still being turned out after two centuries. So here are the mallee, paperbark, the banksias, egrets, jackeroos, the Nullabor, the wheat, the red soil, the paddocks, even the Wandjina figures and places where "evenings / brooded bruised and red." But also GE labs, uranium mines, high-voltage lines, land deeds, corporations, salt-soured land, memories of old massacres of Aborigines, Pauline Hanson, dance drugs. Worse, there are crop circles, inexplicable lights, reports of alien abductions, and the Director sending disciples off to the space ship pursuing Hale-Bopp.
But a glance at the cover picture's space-fabric-clad figures wearing Ned Kelly-style helmets standing beside what might be Ayers Rock in the Outback reveals all: the aliens are us, people who not only are, in the long-standing tradition of Australasian writing, never at home within their palpably non-European landscapes, but also not at home with their Global Market technology or with their thoroughly citizens-of-the-world perennially discontenting selves. At the core of these poems is something reminiscent of the energy, the clear-sighted, at times bleak view of what we -- because in this book Australians figure as Everyman and Everywoman -- are making of ourselves found in Ted Hughes's Crow or in the Eliot of The Waste Land.
Kinsella moves easily from one style to another. His most effective device is the metaphor crowding upon metaphor in which diction drawn from science-technology babble jostles with classical or artistic references or a myriad of other wide-ranging allusions and which, while touching earth base, reaches out to other imaginings.
we call it Thursday, harvesting lust in the public of trees, investigating the drop into the black hole of verdure in Italy and Upper Palatine: Nider, Fruili, Kemnnat: Ember day souls in purgatory on display ... ("Aspects of the Pagan")
Lines may be short, nervy, laden with apparent information, or relaxingly languorous, or the confiding voice of the Ocker bloke and sheila.
A few poems are close to the contemporary or even the neo-Georgian lyric, whereas others are (successfully) language poetry or something in between, tinged by the surreal. Only once or twice does Kinsella's craft slip. The section "Body Snatching" ends with a group of weak or somewhat histrionic poems, two of which are noted in the acknowledgments as being lifted from his own play, Crop Circles, a reminder that performance and print are utterly diverse media, while a longer poem, "nature morte: Oh Rhetoric!," reads as an overextended piece of self-parody.
As a whole, however, Visitants is an enjoyable, very readable, and strong collection, well sustained about its focusing device of alien visitants and produced by a writer taking his place as one of Australia's and the English language's most interesting and skilled poets.
Bernard Gadd Auckland