No. 8-9


John Kinsella  

From “Purgatorio“

Author’s Preface

I had always wanted to write a work over a period of time about one small section of land. The idea behind the “up close” aspect of my version or interpretation or “take” or maybe “distraction” of Dante’s central canticle of his Divine Comedy, Purgatory, came when I had the chance to spend a considerable period of time back in the wheatbelt region of Western Australia, the place I am most familiar with. Though I spent over a decade largely outside Australia, I reflected both during visits home, and from a distance, on this specific location. It struck me that for a poet really to come to grips with place, the best thing might be complete immersion — say, for example, writing about one small space consistently over the period of a year. I chose the five-and-a-half acres my mother’s house is on, a house that is really two houses connected together — my partner and children, along with me, occupy one of the halves when we are in Australia.

This five-and-a-half-acre block is remarkable because it abuts large paddocks, is wooded with York gum and jam trees, also has neighbours relatively close (for a rural area), and uniquely is at the base of the tallest hill/mountain in the wheatbelt — Walwalinj, or Mount Bakewell, as the British Ensign Dale renamed it in 1830 on one of his explorations of discovery and claiming. This mountain is about 470 metres above sea level at its summit, and up there is some of the rarest bush in the world. Two priority species of plant (one priority-1: exceedingly rare and endangered) grow up there, as well as other miracles of survival in a land largely cleared for farming. The bush there faces two threats: degradation through farming along its edges, a sickness affecting the eucalypt canopy (maybe caused by spray-drift), and the leisure-use of space on private land (with contested intrusions onto crown land) by paragliding and hang-gliding recreationalists, who put the delicate ecosystem constantly at risk — the mountain, an earthly paradise if ever there was one, is also a place of purgatory in which slipping when wandering at night (damaging it through neglect and disrespect, especially of its significance to the indigenous people of the area) could take us far down the mountain with a long way to go before redemption.

Anthony Esolen has noted that one should think of Purgatory as an infirmary rather than a prison, as a soul (already saved) works its way to earthly paradise and then to Paradise proper — a process of restoration (as he notes). “My” purgatory doesn’t allow such attainment of grace. For me, the world is a purgatory, with hell close at hand, and we can only hope to move constantly towards the light. That the light might be there for us at the end has to be enough — hope rather than certainty. I like to think of it as a positive movement, despite the truisms of global warming, of war and conflict, of betrayal. One persists.

The five-and-a-half acres at the base of the mountain, and the surrounding paddocks, right down the roads into the town, are the terraces of purgatory proper. Each day, small distances are achieved, and punishments accepted.
Sometimes they are rebelled against, but the process of attainment, of rectification for sins done, begins again. So we see the first snakes awake from hibernation, we see birds come and go, we see the rubbish along the side of the shed, we see the arc welder at work, we see summer rain and drought, autumn and winter. The trivia of everyday life in this space become magnified in the telling. Personal narratives blend with observation of the immediate; outside information floods in as news and memory.

For me, and for many others, the most telling thing about Walwalinj is its significance to Ballardong Nyungar people who call it the “hill that cries” — for its people, always calling them back. I have often repeated the dreaming story that is strongly associated with it, and think it is highly relevant here. A young warrior who eloped with a girl from a neighbouring tribe was warned by the elders not to do so and was struck down and turned into the mountain. The girl was turned into Wongborel, or Mt Brown, as it is called by the colonisers and those disconnected from the import and power of the story, across the valley — across the River Avon which flows through my distraction of Purgatorio. The dreaming story completes itself by saying that the warrior and girl will not see each other again till the mountains come together.

York is a place of fault-lines and earthquakes. The tremor/earthquake in Canto 20 of Purgatorio takes on a particular significance in my local version. As I wrote my version, probably hundreds of tremors occurred, most undetectable by anything but machines, but still, the house we live in has been “earthquakeproofed”. Earthquakes are taken seriously. Phenomena and phenomenology are major variables around “our place”. The stars are bright, and astronomy and astrological matters are at the core of Dante’s work. As they are of mine. The five acres and its extensions are a cosmology. Wind, rain, lightning (especially), tremors, and all other natural events fuse with the imagined, the constructed. The smaller the space examined — the bark of a tree, for example — the more intense these associations and juxtapositions become. Dante’s work is allegorical, and so is this version.

Dante is guided through Purgatory, with Virgil remaining his prime mentor and guide until he can go no further in the Earthly Paradise. And so I have my guide through the work, though the nature of this figure shifts and shape-changes, and is textual as much as real. However, Beatrice is no virtual figure for me, and my partner Tracy (also a poet) lures me on upwards, though she is no divine — she’s in the muck of the walk as much as being at the end of it. She’s a Virgil and a Beatrice rolled into one.

The divisions of purgatory from the arrival on the beach through ante-purgatory (negligent rules/the unabsolved/the lethargic/the excommunicate) up through the terraces of purgatory proper (the proud/the envious/the wrathful/the slothful/the avaricious/the gluttonous/the lascivious) through to The Earthly Paradise at the summit, seem as relevant to the obsessive categorizing of modern life as they do to Dante’s (original) take on the mechanisms of penance. The propelling force is that each soul is saved, and though some must suffer more than others (from bearing heavy burdens to passing through purifying fire), they will eventually reach Paradise. In a much-damaged space, where poison and over-clearing are a daily fact of un-life, it seems to me that we have made our own purgatory and have to unmake it to survive. We simply have to move towards a Paradise — one can’t countenance Inferno, which is why I’ve started where I have. Next, I am working on the Paradiso. I hope I don’t have to get to Inferno too soon.

It struck me a short way into the work that this could only ever really work as a collaborative investigation. I had already had some interaction with the
composer Gordon Kerry, and after hearing a range of music he sent to me on CD as I drove through wandoo forest on the way down to the city — at night with a high wind buffeting the car — I knew that he was the composer who could best connect, to my mind, with the movement of local and broader environments. I see this work as an example of international regionalism: so regional, it’s a few acres, but so large that it allows diversion into all other histories and places it is respectful to go. I began sending Gordon cantos, which he would react to with written email responses. A political banter went on, as well as an environmental one, anchoring the creative and largely unspoken interpretations of language and emotion/spiritual nuances. From there, Gordon has departed on his own journey of composition.

Translations of The Divine Comedy often come equipped with illustrations or
artwork. Gustave Doré's magnificent plates are probably the best known and most widely used, and I certainly utilised them as a largely unspoken visual backdrop. But writing about a place I look at closely most days is its own illustration as well. Wanting a very different kind of visual interpretation, I began sending Cantos to Urs Jaeggi, Swiss writer and sculptor, whom I have collaborated with on text-visual work before. With no explanation other than that he does not do “illustrations”, he provided “drawings”: psychological portraits that cascade through layers of the self. Freud’s take on the uncanny resonates through my work, so these drawings have compelled me, as much as my words them. They are echoes and shimmerings of the ego sublime, the narcissism of poetry coming unstuck, and a desire for wholeness. They are drawings of penance unrealisable. The certainty of eventual “elevation” to Paradise is destabilised.

Written on a day-by day basis, the work utilises both Dante’s canto structure as a guide and my own system of sub cantos, “dream cantos” (literally inspired by dreams), doubled layers (Dante cast a shadow because of the sun where the dead souls did and could not — I extend that idea to “shadow texts”... light is extremely important) and invisible terraces (shadowless: “unsolid” texts). I used a number of bilingual versions, from Anthony Esolen’s wonderful Modern Library version (New York, 2004), through to the Jean Hollander and Robert Hollander edition (New York: Doubleday, 2003), and Allen Mandelbaum’s Bantam (New York, 1984) edition. The Princeton online bilingual Divine Comedy is also superb and highly interactive, with access to a wide range of commentary. This is not the first Dante I have tackled; the inspiration behind my small autobiographical work, Auto, was in fact Dante’s La vita nuova.

The cantos themselves work in small and larger chunks; some of the sub sections have particular lengths. All are in the traditional three-line stanzas, though I have generally not used terza rima. Some cantos respond to particular lines of correlating cantos, but allowing for slippage (literally and figuratively), some of the orders of penance shift around or mix. Basically, however, the structure remains loyal, at least on the subtextual level. The poem is certainly meant to be paralleled with and read against Dante’s structure.

Canto (cont sub B.)*

“Afghans assured of release from Guantanamo Bay purgatory”
                                                    Daily Times, Pakistan

The route we took to the summit, eyes wide open,
interleaved: avoiding the shooters,
avoiding the crevice where we’d be trapped,

dragging our souls out of the valley,
out of the ballot-box placebo buy-off,
seeing as far offshore as the Timor Gap,
as far as Pacific island processing camps,
atmosphere heating up like safe-cook Teflon,
out to the chilled orbital rose bed of satellites.

In crashing upwards, as volatile
as explosive mood disorder, glitches
in the ironed-out fabric of Sydney

where in the 1830s the southerly buster
was the southerly brickbuster, spreading
dust from brickworks over the brooding

colonial city. Three suicides at Guantanamo
will attract attention detract from detention
deficit in senior military activity.

That’s the place we saw the magnesium flash.
That’s the place where developers sized
up the town, that’s the place where horses

were lured — thinking over what we’d left
behind: crows at their reflections,
tearing flyscreens, the maximum

minimum thermometer stuck at extremes,
reset magnet lost or weakened,
silvers markers out there with no way back,

mercury sloshing in the u-tube; that silver
flash so bright the sun jolted and in the binoculars
we could see it settling down to min-min-light-

status: in other words, we caught its origins
amidst the parrot bush... serrated, rebarbative,
but visible from layers down the track:

barely time to glimpse it passing by,
always heading up, leaving aside those who struggle:
it’s competitive, like wild cats and choral birds,

the wetting quality of soil when a rain event
won’t click, upward shimmer of corrugated iron,
attention spans of warders, of prisoners,
labile geographies where places aren’t there.

Canto (Interpolation 3)

Closed off on their properties, satisfied
they’ve deleted language of prior ownerships,
they listen to the Queen’s Christmas broadcast,

wired through to the mains, connected
to broadband, spraying with GPS precision
when the rains come after Easter.

Behind the shire horse, in the wagon
with huge iron-banded wheels, they make
their way to school. They hear, on the tracks,

their future laments: Gladys, next to her
brother holding the reins, sees her shearer husband
struck down by lightning, and then her

second husband, town’s bank manager,
jailed for embezzlement. She wishes she could
have gone into the paddocks back when

stookers and their kids were doing the hay,
black kids who didn’t go to her school,
stuck out there on the reserve. She wishes

the joey taken from the pouch of the red roo
shot beside the rainwater tank, had lived,
suckled on powdered milk. “Pray for us,” she says.

Canto (cont sub B.) first appeared in the Griffith Review 14: The Trouble with Paradise  
(ABC Books, www.griffithreview.com).



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