At the heart of John Kinsella’s Jam Tree Gully is anxiety, its sources and its consolations. Not anxiety at the mere fact of existence as such, but anxiety in the face of a very concrete threat: the tenuous and ambiguous relationship of humans and nature. It is anxiety felt upon seeing destruction (or hearing it, in the distance). It is anxiety felt in the face of the threat of fire.
In a poem that is the key to the collection, “Calm,” Kinsella reflects on a day without anxiety, and promises, “I won’t sully this picture with anxieties I keep at bay.” But this promise is self-undermining, and the poem is bookended by anxiety and the threat of anxiety. The brief escape from anxiety is remarkable only because anxiety is so inescapable.
There is a delicate economy built around this anxiety, as Kinsella details what provokes it and what provides consolation. In “Eagle Affirmation,” Kinsella writes,
You’ve got to understand that sighting the pair
of eagles over the block, right over our house,
not more than twenty feet above the roof,
so massive their wings pull at the corrugated
tin sheeting even with the gentlest tilt, counteracts
bitterness against all the damage I see and hear
around me on an exclusively crisp blue morning, […]
These eagles, or others, return elsewhere. In “Calm,” we see an eagle that shadow of whose wings “seemed untroubled.” But in “The Immolation of Imagination,” where the threat of fire eliminates the nuance of existence, reduces us until we no longer exist “beyond / the drowned and the burnt,” the eagle we see does little to erase the anxiety: “I grip my chest / which convulses: / there are so many / ambiguous ways to die.”
When Kinsella is at his best in Jam Tree Gully, this ambiguity is inescapable. In the local context of that poem, Kinsella is surely thinking of the ambiguity of fire in particular: as destructive as it is to what life stands in its path, there is a complex ecology of fire. It cannot be reduced to pure destruction, and even the terror it evokes is, not exactly tempered by, but mixed with an appreciation. It is something like Schopenhauer’s sublime, though not exactly. It is not an appreciation of beauty even when the source of that beauty is threatening, but an appreciation of necessity even where what is necessary is threatening.
This sublime ambiguity runs throughout the work. Kinsella is at his most compelling when he gives full voice to the coexisting sides of this ambiguity, when he captures the full tension and complexity of the human-nature interface. Nowhere does he better accomplish this than in “Leak,” in which he lovingly describes the awkward integration into nature of his concrete rainwater tank. It is out of place, and yet thornbills “grip this formwork and drink / as if from a slowly dripping tap.” In the end the tank even takes on an element of life, perspiration: “concrete perspiring / in the volatile and oily air.”
Such are the virtues of the work. It weaves an intricate picture of life at Jam Tree Gully that spans three distinct but intertwined levels: the raw, physical details of the landscape; the possibilities (usually threats) which may or may not be realized, but inhere in the locale; and the phenomenology of being a human living there, of dealing with the complicated economy of anxiety that such a life entails.
Yet I can think only a small handful of poems in the work that I would like to read again outside of the context of the whole work. Nearly every poem contains some passage that frustrates its movement and makes it fail as a poem. Usually this occurs where Kinsella fails in presenting the experience that underlies his environmentalism and so is reduced to simply presenting that environmentalism as a finished opinion. In such passages the poems become lifeless.
Nonetheless, the book succeeds on the whole, and succeeds precisely because the individual poems come together to form an interlocking meshwork. Whereas a short poem can tolerate little to no error, the larger work sustains itself sufficiently through these interconnections that the weaker moments become less relevant, are more readily overcome by the overarching movement of the book.