Brevity and depth in a lyrical landscape
Crow’s Breath By John Kinsella Transit Lounge, 208pp, $25.95 The stories that make up John Kinsella’s Crow’s Breath are remarkable for their brevity or, more specifically, for their ability to condense whole worlds — the social lives of small towns, complex family relationships, histories and hauntings — into a few short pages. Few of the stories are more than five pages long, yet they are dense enough, and allusive enough, to resonate much further and conjure narratives that extend beyond the limits of the text.
This is, perhaps, to be expected from a writer such as Kinsella, who is most prominent as a
June 20-21, 2015 poet. There is certainly something poetic in the economy and intensity of the language in these stories. Many of them, furthermore, are structured around a central metaphor or pun: a play on the two meanings of the word ‘‘refuse’’ underscores The Tip, for example, and Monitor is about both lizards and the act of watching.
At times, however, this can feel a little heavyhanded — such as in the opening story, The Eagle. Here, a mother directly refers to her son as ‘‘my little lamb’’ three times in quick succession; it is this pet name that has caused the boy to fear being taken — as a newborn lamb might be — by a wedge-tailed eagle. But the multiple repetition feels forced and so undermines the otherwise delicate and nuanced portrayal of the young boy. Similarly, a later story follows a recovering drug addict learning to plough on a friend’s family farm, who refers to having dropped out of university, leaving an unfinished thesis on ‘‘Satan and Redemption in Paradise Lost’’ and this detail is jarring because it so obviously echoes his own trajectory within the tale.
But despite this occasional clunkiness in some of the structuring devices, the stories in Crow’s Breath are lyrical, and especially powerful in their evocations of landscapes and of the lives lived within them. These landscapes are diverse — and include small-town America, coastal villages in Ireland and the island Reunion, near Madagascar — but more often the stories are centred on Perth, Carnarvon and the West Australian wheat belt that is the setting for so much of Kinsella’s other work.
Landscape is, unsurprisingly, most important in these wheat-belt stories. Many are short portraits of life on the land and follow characters whose experiences and personalities are all shaped by the country they live on. There are farmers fighting to make a living on land ruined by rising salinity; a pair of country doctors struggling to service the ‘‘hundreds and hundreds of square kilometres’’ under their remit; and a water carrier who takes advantage of these very distances to conduct an illicit affair.
At times, too, these traces of the landscape are marked on or in the very bodies of these characters, such as the reclusive Mary in Monitor, who has had so many skin cancers burned from her pale skin that she no longer ventures outside without covering herself entirely, or the elderly engineer in The Sleeper, who has suffered chronic insomnia since traversing the wheat belt on a train as a child. Landscape here is not so much a character in the stories as the elemental force that propels them.