a schoolboy on holidays, resting in the still shade, / confident within the granary of empire, wealth / that keeps home secure (John Kinsella, ”After 94 degrees in the shade’ by Lawrence Alma-Tadema’
In the edifice of his text, the poet keeps them separated in different poems, like two prisoners who don’t know that each other is locked in cells along the same corridor. It’s a big place – more than fifty poems, although some of them are simply facades – like the doors in display homes which suggest egress to an en suite bathroom or a walk-in closet, but turn out to be fake. Two inches deep in the magnolia gyprock. The more elaborate the façade, the more likely it is to be churned out by some Chinese poetry factory. They take the measurements of better poems and do a good job at imitation, but there’s always a comical error, something in the title that gives the ersatz-marble/genuine stucco away – take ‘Seventh Essay on Linguistic Disobedience: Rejection of Landscape through Body-Map’, for example. The poetic equivalent of hotel instructions from Google translate: ‘Please make full use of Maid on Bed.’
It’s such a big place, this poetic mansion, that we can’t visit all the rooms. We get the guidebook and choose a few: the word ‘finches’ tends to make us move on. You like people; I like wheat (well, bread, which is almost as good), so we agree to stop at poems which have people and wheat in them. After some explaining, you drag me into ‘After Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s 94° in the Shade (1876)’ and agree to look at the cheerfully-named ‘Drowning in Wheat’ and ‘Anathalamion’, if I’ll see ‘Hockney’s Doll Boy at the Local Country Women’s Association Annual Musical: Wheatbelt, Western Australia’.
It’s pretty clear from the start that this is a house you could only love if you were brought up in it, though that could be said for most houses. Still, people aren’t invited into most houses. So you can make more of it than I can, because you were born hereabouts – me, I’m from far away. I’m not even from this continent, and the poet’s dislike of people like me becomes pretty clear on our very first stop.
Modern readers as we are, we have information at our fingertips – we look at a picture of Alma-Tadema’s ‘94° in the Shade’ as we enter the poem. It’s a kind of ekphrastic response to the painting, Alma-Tadema’s work is featured, but the essence is all Kinsella. It feels like a feminist response to the Mona Lisa – it rages at how contained she is in this male frame, grinds its teeth at the annoying smile.
Anyway. In this room we have: youth lying on his front, cheek in hand, reading a book on butterflies (there’s a butterfly-shaped smudge on the page). His weapon (it’s a weapon because the poet is heavily pro-nature) is a butterfly net, cast to the side. He wears a horribly hot-looking suit, buttoned up over a shirt and tie and heavy black shoes. A pith sun cap, of the sort young Winston Churchill might have worn as he escaped the Boers, sits on his undeniably British head. And perhaps it’s because of its English setting – which the painting confirms with its messy golden haystooks, the gentle, soaring sky of light cornflower blue and the low, near horizon that means small fields, a small country, aged and settled – the poet doesn’t like the boy at all. He loads him down with that most Australian term of opprobrium: He’s confident. Maybe // overconfident. There’s absolutely nothing in the boy’s manner (since we can’t see his face, we can hardly tell from that) to suggest this. The ‘schoolboy on holidays, resting in the still shade, / confident within the granary of empire, wealth / that keeps home secure’ is cast as a self-satisfied pommy twit, indulging his Fauntleroyian leisure before heading out to keep down the colonies. I stand in the middle of the piece, feeling very uncomfortable.
You protest that I’m being unkind; what’s the point of me mooning over the clean sky that I understand, and fields growing a grain whose mysteries I know and revere? You sigh and grumble that I’m getting maudlin at the very beginning. I say that I’m disappointed to be confronted by such unjustified dislike. Arrogance is a foolish thing of which to accuse someone – especially a talentless teenage lepidopterist. But the worst thing you can be in a determinedly pedestrian country is arrogant. And the builder of this poetic edifice, this bungalow-on-steroids, has levelled the deadly charge at an English boy, minding his own business a half-century and 12,000 miles away from Wheatbelt. He’s still an overconfident son of empire, whose wealth and bookish leisure (arrogance!) clearly come from bleeding the colonies dry.
Now I’m uncomfortable. You drag me off, tell me we’re going to look at ‘Anathalamion’. It’s got people and wheat, you say. It’s got to be good. I’m uncomfortable now; the blatant antagonism of the last poem feels like a reminder that the place wasn’t built for me; that I won’t understand what I’m seeing. It’s like low lintels – tall visitors feel as though it’s a subtle message of hostility to them.
We pass some cheerless reflections on cemetries, dead birds, storms, a tiger hunt, and reach ‘Anathalamion’ by a back stair. I’m concerned that we’re missing a vital element of sequence or story, but you point out that as long as we notice the repeated motifs, we’ve got the gist of the place. Salt, neglect, fallow fields, cutters, bullocks, various native bits of vocabulary, a place-name or two. Like curtain swags, they add gravitas to poetry reconstituted from an NRMA guidebook. Upcycled shabby-chic touches to personalise a poetic McMansion.
‘Anathalamion’ is a squeeze cage of rural frustration, quarantined from the teenage butterfly-hunter by thirteen poems. Feral kids, poisoned sheep, silos of wheat, angry, inarticulate parents and a man obsessed with a blue heron which he has too few words to describe.
The intellectual landscape is like Hieronymus Bosch – I think of the ‘Haywain (circa 1516)’. A burning horizon terminates the familiar flat plain of damnation where weird, creeping things carry out unspeakable tortures in front of a ruined tower – is it a silo? It’s a choice between the heron-mad old man and some feral kids (Kinsella’s words) who kill the sheep, trap snakes, and steal dirt bikes. Remind me, I ask, why these little bastards, locusts in the fields, are regarded with affection, but the butterfly boy is ‘overconfident’? You reply that it’s because we’re looking at family photos; the bungalow-builder is one of the feral kids; this room’s part-photo essay, part temple to nostalgia.
I still think it looks like Bosch’s Haywain, mostly because none of the kids regard this fearful world of burning brutality as abnormal. It can get no worse than Wheatbelt, a monotony of grain without legend. You need imagination to fear. The topography here is one of voids, blanks where things should be but are not. Ideas, revolutions, castles, creeds, exiles and exoduses, plans. Just the creeping things up and down the slow high street of their own madness, beneath the strangled, hanging birds.
You get frustrated; there’re people here, you say – interesting people; look at that guy, holding the mangled stump of his arm! What more do you want – even the bloody auger’s personified! Oh, I say, I thought that was a misprint. I thought it was an augur, crazy with his blood. That’d have been more interesting. But in a choice between augury and power-tools, I suppose Wheatbelt would go with the latter.
You’re about to go and wait for me in the gift shop.
Look, you say, why don’t we have a bit of fun. Let’s mix the two together. Bring the pith-helmeted boy into Wheatbelt. Introduce him to the sheep-poisoning feral kids. It happens, you know, still. I know, I say acidly, it happened to me, remember?
But, intrigued in spite of myself, I think about it. Like switching things in a stately home, putting Queen Victoria’s knickers in the Prince Regent’s bedroom. Just for fun. Just to strike a spark of contingency – isn’t that what fuels stories?
But I remind you that bringing folk from one work to another doesn’t always end well. Remember the time we made Ferdinand see Caliban first, not Miranda? Love at first sight became distinctly uncomfortable.
You snigger. I say Rebellious, migratory flights don’t end up where they’re supposed to, and water runs through the vista. And tartly, you reply Sometimes we coincide now more than ever. See? you say, the poet wants to put the butterfly boy in that squeeze cage of sun-stunned colonial kids. He wants to see the arrogance of empire get ripped to shreds. I ask, on what earthly basis do you think that? You say, who knows – maybe the poet was bullied at school. He’s barely present in his own house.
So we bring them together: ding-ding – in the blue corner, we have Butterfly Boy, in the red corner we have Feral Kids. There they are, coinciding now. Coinciding hard, in the heavy chiaroscuro landscape around Kinsella’s bungaloid world. Lyrical disobedience? Unlikely. The feral kids, who watched a sheep die but didn’t mean any harm and lined the high street to watch the palsied misery of two old folk whom they’d driven to madness – what would they have done with Alma-Tadema’s butterfly boy? What would he have done to them?
You point out that it’s gotta be one-on-one. OK, I say, so Butterfly finds Feral ringleader. The close cousin of Hockney, who will play Doll Boy at the Local CWA annual musical to thigh-slapping homophobia from rough-voiced good old boys. The ringleader is the natural taunter of Butterfly Boy, who just wants to be left with his net and book, to watch and wander a wholesome field, and pay in private ecstasy his reverences to the old gods of field and brook.
Butterfly and Feral meet one night up among the silo mouths, potrait and landscape hang languidly about each other. Feral accuses him of being an arrogant, poofter pommy bastard. Butterfly stares out at the wheatfields, listens to them rattling in the wind, and knows that the rattle is the air playing in the wheat’s armour of petrified silicic acid. He knows that this sound terrified the wild Germans when they stormed into the Roman Empire and heard the static of wind in a wheatfield for the first time. And he knows that Feral and all his tribe would hate him for knowing this, for finding it in a book, and for saying it. But it offends him, that they live so well in a land of which they know nothing, from a crop they do not acknowledge. That they bleat and twitch the curtains of their matchbox minds, beat and cajole him into being ‘nice’, being ‘a good bloke’.
He resents us, mischievous visitors in Kinsella Mansion, for transporting him from a corner of an English field, to a salt-soiled footnote of the ex-empire.
Feral, maddened by Butterfly’s solitary, independent, literate, restrained, self, rushes at him. Butterfly, helps him over his ivory-suited hip, neatly pitching him through the dark mouth of the silo. Hoop-la! Feral hits the wheat with the sound of dry rice on a pavement.
No one can help him. Kinsella can’t help him. He’s busy in Solitary Activities, competing with others who overcame their origins. Butterfly peers over the edge; a glyphosphate stink wafts up. Fluttering, frail, uncertain, Feral sinks beneath the waves of wheat. Rats scamper around him, more agile than the solid-limbed country boy. He struggles in a burden of plenty that he cannot understand or master, and drowns.
Happy now? you ask.
I suppose I am, I say, heading for the exit. Poetry arrogates to itself the power to unbalance us, even if it’s by petty means, like hanging out signs which say ‘Poms unwelcome’; ‘Aussie poems for Aussie readers’. And when the reader invents a way of righting that balance, by mixing it up a little, by reading inventively, well – the poems must accept that, too. I won’t ask for my money back, but I won’t visit again.
Leave a Reply