Angelaki 26 (2):92-103 (2021)

Life writing is ubiquitous in John Kinsella’s vast oeuvre. Kinsella’s employment of the diversity of modes collected under the rubric of “life writing” is underpinned by a “poetics of dirt.” Such a poetics is visible in the central role that material dirt plays in Kinsella’s work, as well as the more general concept of impurity, as seen in Kinsella’s poetic trafficking in ideas concerning transgression, liminality, hybridity, and danger. In Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas famously defined dirt as “matter out of place.” In the poem “Dirt”, dirt remains understandable as matter out of place, but it also becomes radically mobile, its material and symbolic weight subject to unexpected transformations. The eponymous dirt in Kinsella’s poem is being carted from one place to another by the poet’s near neighbour for “purposes unknown.” This “shitload of dirt,” dumped onto the dirt of the valley’s floor, makes its way into the disturbingly porous bodies – both human and non-human – around it. It is “something you sense in arteries” and “the haze / that lights and encompasses us all.” This poem can be taken as a metonym for Kinsella’s entire literary oeuvre. Employing his “poetics of dirt,” Kinsella attends to the dispossessed dirt of a post/colonial nation; the dirt of contemporary farming practices; the dirt of official and vernacular languages; and the dirt of personal secrets. This essay argues that Kinsella’s “poetics of dirt” cannot be disambiguated from his activist poetics, and the profoundly auto/biographical nature of his writing. Attending to postcolonial theory and life-writing studies, this essay analyses how Kinsella thematises dirt as central to both life writing and a life of writing. In doing so, it considers dirt as something not simply “out of place,” but – in a postcolonial, post-sacred, and late-capitalist world – endlessly mobile, unstable, and transformative, moving between material and discursive realities in newly complex ways. By attending to dirt within the context of his various auto/biographical projects, Kinsella conspicuously draws attention to the relationship between the human and the material, profoundly questioning – in a way akin to a “new materialist” perspective – the consequences of a human-centred ontology. At its most radical, the “poetics of dirt” found in Kinsella’s life writing posits a world in which human subjectivity is not the only agental force in the material world.
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DOI 10.1080/0969725x.2021.1892391
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