Central to the book, to Kinsella’s life, is Jam Tree Gully, a former horse agistment in Western Australia. It is a hard-won refuge, his version of Thoreau’s Walden, that with his wife, poet and novelist Tracy Ryan, he has spent years trying to bring back to “nature” – and he is perfectly aware what a loaded, conflicted term that is. They are determined to live as frugally as possible, to “own” as little as possible, and to tread as lightly as they can on the land. Kinsella would never say it is “his” land. He is, almost literally, an “unsettler”.
He writes eloquently about the wildlife, while outside the boundaries, near and far, Western Australia presses and lurks, like every Australian gothic movie you ever watched mashed into one terrifying trailer. Spraying, poisoning, burning. Wildlife annihilated with untold tonnes of lead shot that pollutes the ground it falls on. Racism and violence, a kind of werewolf Nazi underground, armadas of recklessly driven cars.
Their refuge, though you can feel how it restores them, also feels so contingent and hard-won that you wonder at the sheer bloody mindedness it takes to maintain it. It’s also no wonder that they have spent so much time away, while he taught in Cambridge, in Ohio, in Ireland, both missing and resting from their home, but always returning.
When he writes of his youth, as a misplaced/displaced bookish teenage boy in a WA country town, it becomes clearer as he describes being beaten to a pulp by a gang who call him “Dictionary”. It feels almost too obvious, and he apologises for telling the story so often, as he has, but the scene resounds through the book.
Anger, foolhardiness, determination not to give in even when utterly defeated, all surface over and over again, sometimes in surprising ways. He writes an astonishing poem immediately after he has been bitten by a redback, and while he is waiting for the poison to take effect, as “a way of recording the onset but also to understand the figurative nature of invasive forces”.
But just as often there’s a doggedly boyish determination, like a cub scout who wants all the badges. As a teenager he is a deadly serious philatelist. His wild years feel more like conscientious application than real dissolution. This side of him is as appealing as the moral hair shirt side of him is exasperating. He is hard to see, as are the other people in the book with the exception of his mother, who is finely and lovingly rendered. He does such a good job of making the book about the world and not him that, even though he is on every page, he doesn’t quite arrive.
There’s a doggedly boyish determination, like a cub scout who wants all the badges.
Kinsella’s avatars are most often from older times: Dante, Blake, Odysseus, and he is always ahead of you in knowing when they are at work. Long sober after years of excess and alcoholism, it’s impossible not to see him as a reformed sinner, and Jam Tree Gully as like one of those quixotic religious or political communes that have sprouted and failed so often over the centuries.
After about 50 pages he already feels uncannily like Gerrard Winstanley on St George’s Hill in 1649, leading the Diggers to “make the earth a common treasury for all”: and then just like that Kinsella mentions “a world turned upside down” and lets you know that he has the English Civil War in his locker, and brings all its ferments to bear as needed.
But though he never mentions him, the other voice that whispered to me throughout this fiercely, unashamedly committed work is Brecht’s, from To Those Born Later: “The man who laughs has simply not yet heard the terrible news.”
In comparison, Kinsella is an innocent and it’s hard to imagine Brecht writing anything like “I walk around the block with my journal and vegan pastels”, but Kinsella spends this entire book saying, as Brecht did, “However, they won’t say: the times were dark/ Rather: why were their poets silent?” They won’t say that after these dark times, if Kinsella can help it.