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Review: The Wound, by John Kinsella

Kinsella has mastered a politically fearless language that 'tries to stop the nightmare / in its tracks', a language that uses a cumulative rhetoric and powerful modes of address, that operates with satiric empathy as it captures unthinking or self-centred complicity, that conjures the natural world into visceral existence, and that calls out enemies with a dynamic force of loathing: a democratically vibrant language that involves 'common speech and a touch // of craziness - idiosyncrasy - thrown in' as he says in one poem. At the same time, and in this he harks backs to the greatest radical political poet in the language, Percy Bysshe Shelley, for whom 'Didactic poetry' was his 'abhorrence', he has 'learnt not to proselytise' in a poem that claims 'this / song is not a commandment'. The enjambment there subtly contrives the mild surprise of 'song'.

For it is 'song', not tub-thumping, that Kinsella delivers. His book artfully organises itself into two halves, each based on his original response to a precursor work: the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne and the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. The Sweeney poems adopt a persona who cannot simply be identified with the poet; though there are moments when they coincide, Sweeney, in Kinsella's words, 'is many-beaked and becomes many people and animals ... a bestiary entire in himself'. He is a trickster figure, able on occasions, as in 'Sweeney's Last Will and Testament', to sound as though he's flirted with the enemy, even if the driving tercets of the poem carry him far from his 'having killed holiness'. More usually, he is a witness, who has seen eco-destruction and seeks, having sung his 'song of living flesh', 'to help stitch the wound' in poems that fuse anger and grim playfulness.


[T]he riffs and variations on Hölderlin in the second section (after a one-poem 'Interlude') are, for this reader, the most fascinating pieces in a compelling collection. The poems have a dual existence: they have their own life, yet they depends for this life on their intertextual relations with the great German Romantic, with his abiding themes of the holiness of life, and of humanity's tragic separation from the nearness of blessing and joy. Kinsella sends one back to Hölderlin's poems, as translated, in particular, by Michael Hamburger, often to discover that the modern poet is writing, elegiacally and sardonically, both against the grain and in the slipstream of his predecessor.


The Wound, with timely and urgent precision, leads the reader to value its activist energy and depth of insight into the 'ambiguities' of the human condition, in which intuitions of dwelling in peace are at war with an impulse - always a repulsive one from Kinsella's perspective - to conquer and master.