Poetry book of the month: Insomnia by John Kinsella - review

The relationship between art and our beleaguered ecosystem fires the Australian poet’s new collection

Insomnia, John Kinsella’s latest collection in what has been, over 30 years, a remarkable writing career, is a work of eco-activism. The Bulldozer Poem, its opening rallying cry, was written in response to the attempt to run a road through wetlands in Perth, Western Australia, and has been recited in the path of bulldozers. But is it a flimsy hope to think of poetry as a force in an ecological battle? What gives this important book its edge is that Kinsella worries at – and about – the relationship between art and an endangered world. He knows imagination might not be enough and asks forgiveness for “our inarticulateness, our scrabbling for words as you crush/ us”. Reading The Bulldozer Poem, the machine is at once real and symbolic, noisy and, we fear, as it advances, deaf: “But you don’t see the exquisite colour of the world, bulldozer –/ green is your irritant.” The character sketch might amuse were there any reason to smile.

Kinsella is a celebrator of the natural world, a poet of wide horizons. There is, even when what it describes is precarious or despoiled, an Australian spaciousness to the writing (also evident in the fine poems set in Ireland and elsewhere). They are characterised by tormented conscience and by resilience. Some titles have a gawkily translated feel, such as the last: In the watery zone the trees speak life-force. But this seems fitting – at least to the non-Australian, the poem is exotic: “Fruits of marri trees stock the skies…” And if “quenda” and “wodjalok” are animals threatened with extinction, there is, for the English reader, an extra frisson about making their acquaintance first in poetry.

Kinsella is at his most powerful when his protests are clearest. His least successful poems involve too much riddling and the employment of uncommon words where common ones would have served him more faithfully (see “collocates” in Reprieve). The lines that end this collection are moving because they take a plain stand about how we live: “We all need somewhere to land, to eat to deliberate and envision lives,/ but not where the cockatoos eat and sleep, not where the carnivorous plants thrive.” It is a truth too important to fudge.

Here is someone who would take poetic pride in making a mountain out of a molehill whenever a molehill needed preserving. His observations are keen. There is a marvellous and intriguing poem about the way sheep occupy space in a field, a beguiling close study of bats (“Skim is not/ a truly accurate description of its movement/ which is terse, jerky, but fluid”) and a lovely poem about a charolais cow mourning a calf that has been taken from her: “but now she is calling/ up an echo that rattles bones,/ would add words to dictionaries.”

The more you read, the deeper the challenge of reading (one suspects the process of writing to have been the same). The insomnia that gives the collection its title is, one guesses, not fabricated and the poetry has a wakeful vigilance – Kinsella never lets himself off the hook. The title poem, about the responsibility of seeing, is at once open and oppressed. And there is a startling and unexpectedly successful rant, Graphology Endgame 100: I am a dickhead, in which he puts himself in the dock and lets self‑doubt do its worst and best.

The love of wildness is everywhere – in a literary sense, too. In particular, he borrows light from Emily Brontë, especially in the poem written in January 2018 that quivers between foreboding and fresh resolve to conserve.

Insomnia by John Kinsella is published by Picador (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Emily Brontë Storm Poem: Jam Tree Gully, January 2018

The storm isn’t here.
It isn’t predicted. And yet
the barometer’s
needle has cast its lot –

down past the leaf, even,
down to the floor –
all is stagnant, no, a tremble of door
& window, ants moving in –

I am withdrawn & extrovert,
making sure things are
secure. Nature is life, & a bout
of high wind and sparks stirs

us to friction – what can
be destroyed needs following
up with acts of conservation.
The storm is approaching –

no, it is always here,
building above & below us,
though skies remain clear.
No, the blue slightly feathers.


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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