Siobhan Hodge reviews Renga by John Kinsella and Paul Kane

Renga: 100 Poems

by John Kinsella and Paul Kane




Renga: 100 Poems is a collection over ten years in the making. Paul Kane and John Kinsella, writing in exchange via the Japanese renga form, have compiled a long-running poetic dialogue – unlike traditional renga, each poem is individually written and a response then followed by the other poet. In his foreword, Kane states:

We each had a long history with the other’s country and we both wrote out of a sense of being firmly placed in our respective locales. Moreover, many of our interests coincided, particularly in aesthetic and environmental concerns. Why not continue an hour’s conversation over an extended period – and in verse? (iv)

Despite this light-hearted opening, consistently at the forefront of these exchanges is a deep concern for the environment, documenting anxieties and innate senses of responsibility to the world. For example, one pair features a biting criticism of mining in Pennsylvania and Western Australia:        

Atop one ridge in
central Pennsylvania
geologic waves
roll steeply, starkly away.
Coal country, that first black gold.

        Miners digging graves.
Here, not meth but methane kills,
as an oil rig.
Hard country, anthracite black,
with pastel clouds, slate blue sky… (Kane, “Renga 27”)

Kinsella’s reply situates similar concerns in Western Australia:

There’s a fair chance
that one of our neighbours
is furtively mining away
the valley wall: the scraping
and hammering, back and forth
of a front-end loader. His trucks
that weigh heavy on axles,
frequent departures.

…When the valley wall gives
way, the shockwaves will spread
for acres. We’ll all hear The Fall.
But hearing is selective still:
what we hear to the point of pain
others cancel out with paeans
of praise. Who’d refuse God
in God’s own country? (Kinsella, “Renga 28”)

For both poets, the collection is a means of consolidating frustrations regarding destruction of the natural world, but the text is not exclusively eco-critical. Rather, this is an organic discussion – political and philosophical – in a revised form of epistolary poetics. This is also a collection preoccupied (in the most playful sense of the word) with the many meanings of “home”. The poetic dialogue, labelled a contribution to the pastoral eclogue genre by Chris Wallace-Crabbe in his blurb for the book, Kane and Kinsella engage in a rhythmic dialogue that doesn’t stray far from the importance of situatedness in the natural and human-impacted world. In “Renga 3”, Kane introduces some of these ruminations:

So the poet asks
“Where do we find ourselves?” as
if seeking a place
of knowing could conjugate
“to be.” I am is future
tense when now recedes.
Yet think of the paperbarks
along the Murray
wetlands, how they need an ebb
in spring floods to grow young trees:
alternation rules.
That’s why now is moment by
moment, and why I
find myself in your country
each year, like a second home.

By the time the collection reaches “Renga 78”, notions of home have become saturated, as shown in Kinsella’s response:

Homecoming homebound homebody homebred.
Homeland homemaker homeomorphic homeless.
Homebuilt homeowner homesteader homeostatic.
Homeschooled homework homer homeland.
Homespun homemade homebrewed homeopathic.
Whatever the case, the changing light.
Whatever the case, homewardbound.

Each poem is a means of traversing geographic and philosophical distance, but connection is also multi-faceted, growing and evolving, and linked with the speakers’ abilities to traverse these spaces. Experiences of others, including Aboriginal people, are highlighted but not co-opted. Renga is an accumulation of acknowledgements of outrages – against people and the environment – accompanied by ruminations on the personal experiences of both poets, but the focus is primarily on the voices and experiences of the poets themselves. Within these layers of observation neither thought nor experience are being colonised. This is a deeply critical collection, concerned with the impacts of pollution, environmental destruction and decay.

Why select the renga form for a collection of this nature? There is no detailed discussion of why this traditional collaborative Japanese poetic form has been selected, beyond Kane’s definition: “a single entity built by accretion, like limestone, and a virtual fossil record of the multiple procedures used to construct it” (a more comprehensive and generous assessment of the form than his earlier description of it as “the little brute”!) (vi).  Renga are constructed by several poets working together. Kane adheres more firmly to the form than Kinsella, who splices in a lyrical approach. Stanzas are traditionally written by alternating poets, inspired by the one preceding, but Kane and Kinsella opt instead to present individual, entire renga. A discussion of motivations for this style of adaptation, as well as poems that reflected on the impact of the renga on their dialogue and the environments they discuss, would have been welcome, particularly in this collection’s depictions of emblems of colonialism and environmental exploitation. The decision to select a traditional Japanese poetic form is situated firmly in the opportunities offered by the form, regrettably missed is the opportunity to open discussion of the historical and cultural significances of the form itself, as well as the opportunity to reflect on the implications of this act of cross-cultural world literature, a contribution which would have well suited the thematic focus of the collection. Timothy Clark observes that:

In Japan, a renga was a collective poem written according to a great number of apparently arbitrary rules, which each participant adopted from his predecessor… Renga is not primarily a poem or a theory of poetry, neither is it quite criticism; it is a situation, an experiment with the nature of poetry and language (32).

Clark surmises that the poetic form is an incorporation of Buddhist conceptions of the dissolution of the ego, reflected in “the subversion that Renga brings to any thought of property in relation to a poet’s voice” (33). However, in Renga: 100 Poems, the author of each piece is acknowledged via initials in each piece’s title. There is no subsuming of authorial agency or identity, despite what the traditional form would typically entail.

For a collection preoccupied with communicating over distance, acknowledging room for empathy without complete mirroring of experience, the renga is an ideal means of conveyance, but the form gives room to both what can and cannot be shared. In “Renga 61-67” Kane and Kinsella highlight on-going issues of Aboriginal disenfranchisement in Australia, both poets employing a series of black-white binaries deeply critical of colonialism’s “…roll call / of slavery and land claims” (Renga 66, Kinsella). However, there are no directly Aboriginal voices in this collection; Kane and Kinsella acknowledge but cannot speak for these experiences. Rather, this is a vital discussion saved for another 2018 publication, False Claims of Colonial Thieves, a superb poetic treatise and dialogue between Charmaine Papertalk-Green and John Kinsella. In Renga, Kane and Kinsella echo an earlier non-Japanese interpretation of the renga as a form that constructs layers of tension and selves, demonstrated in the 1971 collection Renga: A Chain of Poems,  a multi-lingual exercise by Octazio Paz, Edoardo Sanguineti, Charles Tomlinson and Jacques Roubaud. In this renga collection, Paz, Sanguineti, Tomlinson and Rombaud presented “multiple voices, multiple selves”, embodying Paz’s notion of “the transient, unstable, relativistic self” (Starrs, 280). Despite adhering to the conventions of the collective, communal form, both texts do not render authors’ voices anonymous. Unlike the 1971 Renga however, Kane and Kinsella’s Renga moves to thematically bridge gaps, rather than emphasise them, while also strictly avoiding any appropriation of voice.

Kane and Kinsella’s poetic responses conversationally engage with the preceding piece before taking the introduced theme in a new direction. Among the shared concerns are mortality, environmental destruction, war, shifting between and intricately connecting the personal, political and philosophical. One recurring image is fire, as in Paul Kane’s “Renga 49”:

For two days we lived
in a stinging haze of smoke
as the Gippsland fires
far away burned beyond reach.
Smoke puts everyone on edge.

The plan: fight or flight? –
that atavistic question.
The Ararat fires
ended on our mountain,
the one house given to flames.

Our Warwick neighbor,
Burning off the adjacent
field one autumn, lost
control of the blaze in wind:
we were blackened fighting it.

In Victoria,
it’s different: fire is fiercer,
and we’d likely flee.
A house I can rebuild, but
a life? I want my own death.

And yet, we’ve ceded
so much to indifferency,
slowly poisoning
our world – no, the world – ourselves,
blackening the days ahead.

Wounded in his den,
the baited badger will kill
a dog. The snarling,
the cries, are all we’ll hear when
we, in turn, are run to ground.

Kinsella’s “Renga 50” compounds anecdotes, voices and shared experiences, coupled with grim warning. For both poets, the role of preserving place is a constant and communal threat:

The restart of the fire season:
a mushroom cloud on the first
horizon – the penultimate –
an edge not far enough for
comfort. From his fire-tower

my great-grandfather scanned
the sea of trees for that wisp:
that leader, sign you can never
over-read. I went there
as a child and did the same.

I barely remember. Maybe
he was already dead. I’ve been
talking fire all day long: poets
writing it, neighbours discussing
        the risks, all our preparedness.

The firebreaks are done.
Scraped and scraped again,
looking for that second layer,
that second safer layer.
It never reveals itself.

Mostly, it’s the smell: weird
Signs of noses cocked to the air,
like some unwholesome fetish.
It’s so dry that ‘dust to dust’
would seem our mantra.

But it’s not. ‘Fire to fire’,
‘fire to fire’ is all we utter
when the water-tanks are low
and flood (should we be smitten)
could only fill the valley

enough to lap at the foot
of our place.

Urgency and threat to human life, paired with suspicion of both method and motivation, permeates both works. The two poems are emblematic of the complex relationship Kane and Kinsella have adopted with the renga form; this is a collaborative poetics in politics, embracing the traditional symbolic theory of no distinct hierarchy of voice, communal assumption of responsibility by the two speakers, rather than perfect mirroring of traditional syllabic structure. But this is also a form that intrinsically excludes voices and control; the lead poet sets the tone and theme, and the later poets must follow. Absent voices  – the colonised people of the countries flagged in the collection, lands, animals – are excluded from this hierarchy by nature of the form, but not with intent to oppress. However, moves are taken ensure that these experiences are not excluded, as in Kinsella’s “Renga 64”:

… Today, the sky is wheatbelt blue.
The still leafless trees shimmer a silver-green

Of what’s to come. Premonitions.
Though it’s all black and white.

I grew up with black and white television.
We don’t watch television now

Which is said to be in colour. As is Nature.
I’ve contributed to this knowledge. This rumour.

A sense of personal culpability is incorporated into this reflection of marginalised binaries, though no direct voice is given to those oppressed groups. Throughout the collection there is pressure to revise oppressive angles, recognising destruction and destructive tendencies wherever they may appear.   

In “Echolocations: An Afterword”, Kinsella addresses the thematic concerns of place, mutual concern, co-writing, and the ethics of belonging. This is a collection of “commonality amidst the difference” as “Words crosstalk, lines subscript, and yet each line is ‘intact’, a moment in a place sent across a vast distance” but not without anxieties (115). Selection of the renga style for this long-running dialogue across continents brings to the forefront the importance of shared experience rather than subsumed voice, and the need to make meaningful connection.

Timothy Clark, “”Renga”: Multi-Lingual Poetry and Questions of Place”, SubStance
Vol. 21, No. 2, Issue 68 (1992), pp. 32-45.
Roy Starrs, “Renga: A European Poem and its Japanese Model”, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2 (2017), pp. 275-304.
SIOBHAN HODGE has a Ph.D. in English literature, her thesis focused on feminist traditions in translating Sappho’s poetry. She had critical and creative works published in a range of places, including The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, Westerly, Southerly, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, and Peril. She has won several poetry awards, including the Kalang Eco-Poetry Award in 2017, 2015 Patricia Hackett Award for poetry. Her new chapbook, Justice for Romeo, is available through Cordite Books.