John Kinsella, America
Reviewed by Abena Sutherland
John Kinsella's America (A Poem) is a sixty-eight page sequence written in short, clipped lines. It is an over-long polemic or sermon becoming quite excitingly angry at the end but allowing itself to be baggy in the middle. Its strength is a turning of memorable phrase, which occurs frequently enough to maintain overall interest. "If Juvenal hadn't been so conservative. . ." If John Kinsella had found a more audacious form. . .
A typical segment is this on American public-private healthcare:
Medical facilities are second to noneTwo not uncommon observations written flatly and cut into a block. If the idea of capitalism tracked in this poem seems under-determined, perhaps a slim book filled with the obvious but salutary might not be invaluable. "obvious is as obvious does." The opportunity to investigate the ways in which language is a field for power (for order) is passed over; a more complicated tracking of the operations of restless capital is evaporated into what is styled as an assembled index of the real. The proposition is: the operations of capital, the aggregates of power, can be condensed to this. There are, however, more compressed sections, intaglio on population:
so you'd rather be here for treatment
though not for the bill. Oncologically,
a dictator who's been friendly
can get good return on living cells:
there's that in common with the French.
add military hoodoo,
social security moon.
A stronger segment addresses a "geo-theosophy of the body", a warrior-culture,
The Nevada prophet emergedMore than any other "America" text, Kinsella's seems closest to Baudrillard, a roaming polemic alighting on particulars which become aligned within an over-arching idea, even if one segment is a long quotation, "Baudrillard says", followed by this line: "It's something to do with being French."
from a bunkered holocaust, a nihilist
with a cape, denomination – even religion –
indecipherable, though clearly
hell-bent like the general in therapy –
fine combat soldier –
who pointing out,
for point to the fun,
how much fun
it is for fun-lovers
like him and others,
to shoot someone,
a geo-theosophy of the body,
a self-fulfilling eschatology
that's the man as warrior in his house.
The cover is a cardboard-colour brown with a red horizon slashed across. The brown suggests a pamphlet, readies us for the blunt propositions within. The red line could be a cut, a red ribbon to keep loose leaves together, or it could be some sort of red horizon of awareness.
John Kinsella has written similar poems before, of course, though in condensed forms. An earlier text such as 'On Warhol's Camouflage Statue of Liberty & Being Refused Entry into the United States by US Immigration' shows what he can do with humour, grace and concision:
'les hons biscuits', ah, FABIS, the greatest
of gifts, the blood of/and as freedom,
Libertarian – if you look closely
she might tap dance, God forbid the can-can –
they suffered the strong fragrance but didn't
inhale the brand name: Liberty (luck):
'Have Gun/Will Shoot'; Repent AND SIN NO
MORE! And these untitled? No decay
& the ancien régime is 'trendy'
(which is a frozen & suitably bor-
ing word when not in constant use.) Solar-
isation a pissy example – in some States
you'd hold no record & Immigration
wouldn't give a shit. Paul Hogan is THERE!
In the much longer penultimate segment, 'Capo dot com', Kinsella really lets off steam, seemingly goaded by cross-cutting quotations from "Capitalism Magazine: Individual Rights", copyright Ayn Rand Institute, a typical line being "They call themselves environmentalists but a more accurate term would be green bigots."
Lust property rights to steel-plate individual plightFor Kinsella, capitalism is "the maker of racism, misogyny, hatred, destruction", and the USA "collapsed star absorbing all cultures / to iron out and make good the houses on the Hudson". The eating of meat creates "slaughterhouses annulling animal souls / in slick machinery". The segment is frenetic and a pretty effective tirade siply because of its sustained anger, and that's not to be underestimated. A list or litany of the names of small-scale indigenous American societies is incorporated half-way through, a sincere gesture.
economy hicks who would kill all environmentalists,
Such a bare howl of discontent gains force simply because of its rough breaking of understatement, its direct lack of formal complexity. American foreign policy? "watch out or we'll super-size our right / to freedom". (We, they, who are these people?)
This same penultimate segment also provides America's subtitle, "or Glow", again with an idea also to be found in Baudrillard:
[. . .] it's a law
to bind as land binds and war annuls contracts
fought for compensations as a drop
in oceans so clean, so free of heavy metals,
so replete with body-stuffing and promises
of eternal life they glow, glow
in the Sargasso of our depression,
and refrain: I'd die fighting for their right
to believe that!. . . liars! You are hacking up
all outside your system [. . .]
There is a constant and entertaining referencing to music – Lou Reed "appropriately bitter", Destiny's Child a "freedom-fighting non-compliant franchise", Rage Against the Machine have left "politically bereft ashes", Tom Wait's "gravel-voiced mesmerism" – especially hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash paraphrased ("don't push me, / I'm close, so close, close to the edge" – a nod to the seminal 'The Message', a track which politicised hip-hop; Kinsella's final rant is, in its plain and angry naivety, as moving as 'Beat Street'), The Last Poets name-checked, the poem's last breath containing this testament:
[. . .] O Chuck D,
Motown halycon avenging angel, as living color
speaks out: cumulatively, dialect dignity
minstrel counter-play to overturn stereotypes.
As Grandmaster Flash says, "you've got to make something out of nothing at all"
[Paperback ▲ 72 pages ▲ December 2005 ▲ ISBN 1-901614-28-0 ▲ Arc Publications]