Review of ARMOUR by Sophie Mayer

De-inventing the Wheel: Circles Within Circles in John Kinsella’s Armour

1. 'Through form, we can undo.'

...we will acquire
books and tickets to the theatre,
and sack galleries for their spiritual

worth, but keep social standing
out of discussions. We will visit Saint Paul's
and wonder over Donne's sermons,
but no hint of Apostolic Nuncios
will haunt our office.

('The Ambassadors,' from 'Two Poems for Peter Porter,' Armour)

John Kinsella did visit Saint Paul's, although not with Peter Porter, his fellow ambassador for an unAustralian poetry without borders but alive with place. I heard him read from 2011’s Armour and other collections in Tent City University at Occupy London outside the Cathedral. No hint of Apostolic Nuncios in this embassy: as an ambassador, Kinsella is, in his own words, ‘disobedient’. Yet Armour reveals—if not vocation, then an office (‘haunted’ by its own impossibility), in its ecclesiastical sense: order and form of the liturgy, the point at which the duty of tradition and the liveness of the embodied voice meet. The blurb proclaims the collection ‘spiritual’, and it’s true; or rather, it reclaims that word from its New Age euphemism as it rethinks the complex relations of ‘spirit’ to poetry: the genius loci, spirit of place, that ‘haunt[s]’ the European pastoral and thus the anti-pastoral; spirit as, etymologically, breath, the lifeforce; and, metaphorically, as the trace of life that remains after death.

In Disclosed Poetics, Kinsella asserts that the genre in which he writes, ‘radicalised pastoral[,] is about suggesting the only closure there is is uncomfortable, and very likely death. Where the pastoral is a model of fetishised nature, radical pastoral is identifying the nature of these fetishes’ (6). Among those fetishes is death (or, as in Donne, God/sex/death), and among the sub-genres of pastoral in English is elegy, beginning with Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’. Armour is not only a radicalised pastoral but also a radicalised elegy or anti-elegy: refusing the dual operations of fetishisation and nostalgia, Armour is the poetic contemporary—or, given the longevity and rigour of Kinsella’s ‘variorum’ poetics, the forerunner—of salvagepunk; not shoring but swimming among the fragments. The collection sounds out the concentric, endlessly-displacing rings of John Donne’s death knell that ‘tolls for thee’, minutely examining its toll in both senses, aural and economic: the sonisphere of late capital, the sometimes deathly cost of speaking/hearing language in the post-industrial, globalised world. As Donne’s bell suggests, in life death surrounds us with its sonority, a constant reminder of the price of living: note the clanging ‘n’s throughout the second stanza quoted above, rippling out from ‘standing’ to ‘haunt’ via ‘Saint’ and ‘sermons’, from the ridiculous minutiae of society to the finality [nunc echoing in ‘Nuncio’] of death.

But Kinsella, drawn as he says to ‘contradictory symbols’ (Disclosed Poetics, 26), imagines also (rather than instead) the ways in which life surrounds death: anti-elegy refuses both sentimentality and finality, tracing instead cyclicity. In ‘Write-off’ (whose title suggests a courtly poetic contest, de facto won pen-over-sword, as much as the life-or-death car crash and confrontation the poem narrates), night hunters

... rev their engines
in triumph, ignoring roo hearts – small, mediumsized,
and large – beating rapidly about us, about them;
louder and brighter than engines, than spotlights.

As well as circling about the speaker and his daughter (‘us’) and the hunters (‘them’) in their aliveness (despite the threat of guns, cars and spotlights), it is the roo hearts that are, in their beating, narrating (or at least scoring, ‘louder and brighter’) this poem about the incident. The bell continues to ring, and ‘dying’ tones mark the movement of sound waves beyond hearing; so death, too, might be the continuation of a wave beyond our limited perception.

The ambassadors ‘will visit Saint Paul’s’, a willed simple future tense also suggests such continuation, even though the poem was initially published in The Guardian to mark Porter’s death in November 2011. The poem shifts from future to present tense when the poet-ambassadors shift from ‘admir[ing]’ the (stolen) wealth of the Old Country to speaking of Australian skies ‘so wide and so shining.’ Italicised, it’s a poised invective (Kinsella is never afraid to be unsubtle when addressing cultural idiocy), worn like a sword in its bitter politesse; made the more bitter when ‘the skull / we bring with us shines through canvas // our skin.’ The poem has sacked the National Gallery for Hans Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ (1533), but also ransacked British poetry for T.S. Eliot’s description of John Webster as a poet who ‘saw the skull beneath the skin’, and détourned it. Skin and skull and skies alliteratively surface and sink each other here, as in Holbein’s optical illusion whereby the viewer needs to take two different stances to the painting in order to see the ambassadors in the background and the skull in the foreground in perspective. Rather than conform to the demands of Renaissance perspective, Kinsella’s poems insist on the distortion: not the sphere but the ellipsis it is seen as in representation.

Circles eccentrically within circles are the formal signature of the collection. ‘Form is not about line, it is about shape. The relationship between shapes is the key to opening subtextual dialogues.’ (Disclosed Poetics, 58). The only poem in Armour to break away from the left margin in the tellingly-titled ‘The Decay of Hemispheres: a Defence of Mathematics’, a poem about the decay of a sphere (a skull) into an ellipse (its flattened, shattered circumference). The poem begins with (and resembles on the page) a ‘pocked surface where small boulders / have been lifted’, a pattern of circular traces, ‘the impression of volume’ that moves from soil to skull (belonging to a brush-tailed possum): they are not three-dimensional objects presented illusionistically, but marked surface, marks that insist on surface-as-surface, mark-as-mark. The possum’s skull has not just ‘decay[ed]’: it has been struck by a mower, and has itself ‘shattered’ the mower’s blades. As the form (sphere) is undone, so the form of the poem is undone, too, and the euphemistic distance that pastoral maintains from the materiality of both life and death.

The poems may proceed down the page in stanzas but speak insistently of the in-curve and the concave depression, opening a ‘subtextual dialogue’ in which the wheel of poetics is necessarily de-invented. If, as Kinsella says, ‘to utilise the form is to open a conversation with inheritance’, these concave formations are a reconfiguration—an attrition and inversion, not erasure—of the ‘existing monuments’ of tradition that Eliot describes in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, which have always appeared to me as Mount Rushmore carved with the faces of the canon (Disclosed Poetics, 50). Kinsella’s poems do not occupy or lay claim to shape or concrete poetry (monumentalising forms), because the poetic line cannot be formed into a circle as reading and comprehension proceed linearly. Instead, the apparent formal legibility is simultaneously encircled, and pivoted, by something unwriteably round that détourns the linear progress of syntax and idea, sight and time.

2. ‘the circle broken and opened out’

‘The Inversion of Simonides’ Line about the Sun’, whose title suggests a relation of line and circle, is both a gloss on the schooldays of Simonides’ Geryon as reimagined by Anne Carson in Autobiography of Red, and an anti-elegy for education-as-death; a poem about a shattering less dramatic than the meeting of mower blades and possum skull, but a shattering nonetheless. The young student at his desk has left behind the work of

maintaining: each year upturning
more relic-like granite,
more history. His reality.
The teacher approaches
and he chokes on his sobbing.
The family have sent him out,
away from sheep-trails
and furrows, dry winds
and drought: a boarder, home
only on holidays, socialising
with kids his own age,
to confront a language
he neither reads nor writes.

The short lines, plangent present tense, prose syntax, and vernacular vocabulary of this section address the reader immediately, emerging from a dense opening of references to ‘Isoglosses… / … mallee, / caprock’, academic and agricultural discourses meeting as jaggedly as ‘his reality’, however granite, and the attritive language and society he has been sent out to at school. The rhyme of ‘out’ and ‘drought’ at once suggests the rationale for sending the boy away, and draws attention to ‘ought’: a settler family’s sense of duty to the colonial culture, to erase ‘smudges of dialect’ through the schooling that gives the poet the Latinate word ‘Isoglosses’ to describe them.

He/his is a ‘boarder: home’, an alienation that has created an awareness of the very idea of line, of boundary itself— both concerning and encircling one of the central poetic tropes of visuality, the sun. Its circle, mirror of the eye, is broken by the poem’s final sentence: ‘The sun / is never alone in the sky,’ a powerful rebuke to ‘Isoglosses: smudges of dialect’ that isolate the student (lonely sun/son) from the ‘language / he neither reads nor writes’, (that is, standard English). It also reaches back to undo other map-lines, like those that mark the ‘title deeds to land his grandfather / collated’, where the enjambment of ‘collated’ is a stark and stinging reminder of the textual operations of ownership and colonialism. The written order into which the student is being interpellated, that ‘explains who you are, / where you come from’ enacts a series of dispossessions by putting pen to paper, so that the ‘line’ (of poetry, of property, and of the relation between them) must be inverted, the wheel de-invented. The inversion of a line is its erasure, and thus the sun is never alone because it is unboundaried: the disc that we imagine we see is in fact a gaseous sphere constantly emitting waves of particles, amorphous and—as its particles reach us—limited only by the speed of light.

In Disclosed Poetics, Kinsella also suggests the limits of human vision (both proprioceptive in terms of field of vision, and receptive in terms of light waves):

I saw a circle on the horizon – a close horizon yesterday. I think it will persist for a while. It is upright – vertical. Like the mouth of a cylinder lying on its side, but just a circle, a disc even. It has another side, but it might be a reflection of this side, as we can’t see it. I have become fixated on it. It is the poem. The circle might be the lens of the eye. What is on this side might be projected upside down against its back surface, but the same is happening within us, we see it ‘the right way up.’

(Disclosed Poetics, 140.)

The circle might be the lens of the eye, which is a non-spherical disc of variable volume and thickness, whose indeterminate and mutable shape is what enables the mammalian eye to focus on objects at various distances. But, not being spherical, it also has ‘side[s]’, as of an argument, and a circumference that limits its range. Here, Kinsella is implicitly deinventing the wheel of the Romantic sublime, given famous expression by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball – I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me – I am part or particle of God.

Emerson goes on to herald his Godlike view of the ‘wilderness’ near Concord, which had been continuously inhabited by the Pennacook Confederacy for millennia before English slave raiders brought a deadly sickness to the Micmac, who were at war with the Pennacook, resulting in at least a 75% mortality rate between 1614 and 1620, when contact between the Pennacook and the English formally began. Kinsella’s lens may be partial, fragmented, distorted, edged, but in making visible its own limits, it looks directly at the way in which Emerson’s sense of omniscience depends on and exacerbates his blind spot. It is the ‘circle broken and opened out’ that makes a new way of seeing possible. Speaking of a cave-in caused by severe storms near his home, Kinsella notes, with regard to the gradually infilling cave mouth as observed from his window, it is ‘Euclidean broken down by distortion. Inside out’ (Disclosed Poetics, 150). Neither centre nor circumference can hold. Both the curve and its erasure, as in the inversion of Simonides.

These shifting rings—both circle markings and the circular or cyclical nature of ‘cause and affect’ (Disclosed Poetics, 65) recur with deadly force as markings that entrance, attract and poison (linking sight and bodily affect) in ‘Blue- Ringed Octopi’, part of ‘Sea Shanties’. The sequence also includes ‘What I Saw off Cheynes Beach’, which opens, ‘Seeing the black eyes of white pointers / some people want to poke them.’ The relation between sight and (violent) touch, sight as violation, as against the possibility of sight as exchange, runs throughout the collection. Eyes, as the poetic organ of both Enlightenment empiricism and Romantic sublime, take on an extraordinary significance throughout, not least as spheres rendered as circular or elliptical lenses, but also querying the romanticisation of the eye as organ of communion across difference. Armour is full of eyes, and reminder that ‘sight’ is not only a sense but part of a rifle, and that the observing eye of the poet cannot be innocent or sublime given that it co-exists with the hunters.

The collection opens with the fiercely reciprocal (yet not mutual) un-gaze of ‘Burning Eyes’, a poem as compelling of attention as its title suggests. The eyes belong not to the poet but to a ‘fox, cat, a rare marsupial / frozen between rows, magnetized by the car’s approach.’ ‘Twin sparks’, they have the ‘fearful symmetry’ of Blake’s tyger, albeit in the tinder-dry fields of the night that are the deliberate obverse of the forest. The poem suggests that the speaker, behind the car’s wheel, does not have the ‘immortal hand or eye’ to assay a ‘frame’, even in that ‘frozen’ moment, as its repetition causes ‘a pall / of doubt’, a question about the blurring of ‘afterimage’ and event in a cyclical temporality, ‘same point every night.’ The ecstatic questions that Blake poses of his tyger (whose connection to the real Indian tigers being captured and killed by aristocracy and civil servants of the British empire is the subject of an excellent essay, ‘Paper Tigers’, by Eliot Weinberger) are not possible in this dry season: the poem ends ‘It’s the eclipse of content where compulsion stops.’ Although the night-active mammal (traditional animalian content of English lyric, dating back at least to ‘Pangúr Ban’) with its reflective ocular lenses provides the poem with its title, any possibility of a mutual encounter with Otherness is ‘eclipsed’ by the human optic that has brought agriculture, and then drought, to the mammal’s home ground.

What is it the unnamed mammal(s) see(s)? The speaker as death. Driving (using fossil fuels) is part of the cause of climate change and habitat deterioration. The (repetition) compulsion—to drive the same route every night in order to both see and remember seeing the burning eyes—‘stops’: the intransitive verb stops us to re-read it as transitive; compulsion stops (us doing) (everything). And yet the collection, like Molloy, goes on from that emergency stop to engage in the necessary deinvention of the wheel and our vehicular sublime, which reaches its most abrupt stop in ‘Write-off’, whose title suggests that conventional lyric poetry might be part of the same compulsion as driving, a narcissistic defensive aggression against the human place in the natural.

3. ‘the looking-out-at as might be imagined’

Emerson’s sublime at once proposes authority of human sight over the natural world (what Lacanian psychoanalysis refers to as the infant’s illusion of ‘mastery of vision’: that everything we see is all there is, and by seeing it, we control it) and the authority of the transcendent writer, ‘all mean egotism vanishe[d]’, over ordinary folk, perspectival illusions that persist in contemporary poetry. Like Jacques Derrida in The Animal that Therefore I Am (and the fantastic discussion of it in Jenny Diski’s What I Don’t Know about Animals), Kinsella rethinks the subjectivity of the lyric speaker through encounters with animals. Cognizant of the metal box on wheels that makes him not-animal as well as the body that makes him animal, Kinsella terms these encounters ‘Reverse Anthropomorphism’, where the reversal works much as the inversion of Simonides’ line did: a rewriting and an erasure. At first, the speaker imagines the western flyeaters in the poem of that title:

making me within their own image,
moi-même, at least for the purpose of hunting.
Through glass I watch them target their prey,
insects in the temporal zone of the verandah:

one flyeater darts out to seize an insect flyer,
then returns to watch his companion do the same.
The whole time they both keep an eye on me. Moi-même.
I connect with them in no way. No displacement

to fill the page

The driving pattern of half-rhyme and internal rhyme seems Plathlike: a comparison perhaps echoed in the line ‘no female pushing a pram // full of letters’: the female bird is not subservient to the male, and the birds will not play the feminised role of Muse to the male poet. It is, Plathlike, a borderline attempt to push (out of the confines of reflexive identity and) into the Other way of seeing of the flyeater, from the eye in, as the speaker is reduced to less than an insect, the proper target of the hunt.

The poem ends with an echo of ‘Pangúr Ban’, a suggestion that both flyeaters and poet are hunting ‘rich pickings / … by the glass window’, the sense of sight that enables both food and image to be captured. Ever scrupulously honest, the speaker concludes: ‘Moi-même. Role-play.’ There is only the self-identified reflexive self, trapped behind the glass window of its lens, role-playing at being a flyeater. Yet this scrupulousness is saved from solipsism by the ways in which the poem, through repetition, has broken open the incurve of moi-même: first of all, that self is a gleam of reflection in the flyeater’s eye, the impossible position of looking at oneself (as another); then it follows the rhetorical gesture of self-doubt ‘Who am I to say?’ and finally precedes ‘Role-play’. (It is also a prefigurative quotation from Paul Valéry’s epigraph to the later poem ‘The Dead’: ‘Amour, peut-être, ou de moi-même haine?’)

The self is no ever-fixèd mark, not even self-identical. Instead, in repetition, it’s a meme; perhaps the meme, individuation and concomitant self-awareness the defining evolutionary trait that (we believe) is the final borderline between humans and other animals. As a meme, therefore, the self is not self-identical, but repeated across all who share the illusion of individuation. The self is at once ‘[r]ole-play’, a performance in the moment rather than sustained core being, and newly apparent in the mutuality across species of looking and ‘rich picking’ (m-m-m sounding out a personified bird delectation). Anthropomorphism is impossible if there’s nothing distinct about humans but our denial (voiced in the use of language) of our place in nature; in its place, something other than displacement to fill the page.

‘Dog-Shape Elegy’, as its title suggests, offers a similar precision in refusing a poem of displacement, where grief takes the place of the grieved one. It examines the (im)possibilities of writing animal being (in that, to paraphrase Kinsella’s explanation of Russell’s paradox in set theory in Disclosed Poetics, as soon as animal being is included in the set of writing, which marks ownership and the human denial of nature, that being is no longer part of the set animal, and therefore cannot be written). The dog’s name is Shep, a subvocalic echo of ‘shape’ as well as an abbreviation of shepherd, the role (of drawing a line) he did not undertake actively, but rather inevitably: ‘his presence was [the] exclusion’ of other animals from the territory he marked, as the poet’s human consciousness and use of language excludes pre-linguistic animal being from the poem. But that exclusion creates its own subject position: ‘he [Shep] let them [roos, foxes, rabbits] be at the edges’, and the animal being in this poem, as in ‘Burning Eyes’, through its intelligence and liveness, summons the poet-witness to ‘the edges… where shape changed.’ Yet even this marginal edgeland as a site of writing/witness is characterized as ‘selfishly gathering / the harsh and the sharp’ in ‘Easterlies’, a short sequence. Speaking two lines earlier of ‘gleaning sensation’, the poem suggests a way of re-reading selfish as self-ish (moi-même as the self-meme), a precarious and partial individuation whose boundaries are blurred by the communal, humble, belated act of gleaning.

To be a poet-gleaner is to write in the ‘fourth person singular’, a term originated by the French critic Jean-Michel Maulpoix. Maulpoix’s description of the poetic subjectivity, the location of poetic speech, sounds initially like Emerson’s disembodied and sublime eyeball in its dissociation, but in its insistence on limit—in optical terms, the struggle to see what’s beyond the limits of proprioception; in psychoanalytic, between the self and the reflection of the self in the Other—is similar to the lens. Kinsella quotes Antoine Cazé’s account:

it occupies the empty place, the place to which each of us aspires, that is to say, the very place of voice itself as it constitutes an invisible link with the other, a coming out of oneself, as it signs and signals the most singular but remains however impossible to pin down, evanescent as long as it is not put down in writing (quoted Disclosed Poetics, 160).

No displacement to fill the page: not even the displacement of moi-même, or its displacement in sensory or textual gleanings.

A conclusion: ‘the intimacy is outside’

His family call him cyborg, but lack imagination;
He’s all metal until an enemy punctures

His undercoating. Chain mail is satisfying


Detailed, custom-lined, in his own image – moreover,
Performance enhancing, product placement:

Chivalry! He’s the complete package.
(He’s thrown down the gauntlet.)
He removes his cuisses and faulds,
And enamours us with his tenderness:

(‘Knight’s Armour at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge’ in ‘Three Poems on Armour’)

Instead, there is a rage that is a rage for as much as against, and in its passionate humour, ‘rich pickings’ for the reader-gleaner: an ongoing engagement with the crafting of language and its relation to other crafts, tasks, ways of being in the world (‘he marvels over rivets… mirrors of his joinery’). The way in which it enfolds ‘amour’ within ‘armour’, and can unfold it with ‘tenderness’. Few poets are so willing to show themselves reflected in a suit of armour, and to remove it, as John Kinsella. Which other male poet would call the ‘unfamiliar vestigial horn’ of ‘Dürer’s Rhinoceros’ ‘clitoral’? He throws down the gauntlet to the critic and laughs with us at doing so. This honesty, at once bracing and funny, disarm(our)s criticism in its flow and centrifugality (not thrown out from a centre, but throwing out the idea of a centre), in its concentric building of un-patterns (‘That’s / religious: to legislate a pattern’ says ‘Habitat’, speaking equally to close readers as to hunters: don’t put the poem in your sights). These poems ask a tender reading, in both senses: one warm and intimate, and one bruised and sore. To be the former, argue poems such as ‘Write-off’, means being the latter. Lyric cannot speak spirit—the ongoing of life, the sustenance of the spark— without being alive to violence. ‘(Impact of mace on plate shatters peace.)’ ends ‘Knight’s Armour’. Exactly iconoclastic, almost painfully aware of both the complexity of all that can be seen and (of making space in the poem for) the equal significance of all that cannot—which may be the best definition I can offer of how these poems are ‘spiritual’. Alive to the necessary ironies of using language to say what cannot be encompassed in any isogloss, ‘so willing’, as ‘The Ambassadors’ ends, ‘to trade across [the] harrowed oceans’ between self and Other.

Sophie Mayer


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