There were to be four collections of the dialogue in poems between Kwame Dawes in Nebraska (via Ghana and Jamaica) and John Kinsella in Western Australia, but both the demands of the times and the sense of there being much more to say resulted in a fifth: unHistory. And what work of contemporary history would be complete without a Codicil, a Coda, Footnotes and a poetic Index? unHistory takes on the world-wide rise in authoritarian governments; the Trumpite attempt to overthrow democracy in the USA; the battle between alarm and the cynicism of fossil fuel interests in confronting climate change; the light that Covid-19 threw on the fissures between poverty and wealth within countries and across the world order; the resurgence of Black demands for social justice after the murder of George Floyd (and many others) ; and conservative white nationalist attempts to close down the re-examination of colonial and imperial history’s shaping of racism and inequality in the present. But if unHistory is an essential record of our times by two world-leading poets, it is much more than that. It is an exploration of history’s undertones, its personal, familial and institutional resonances and of the relationship between public events and the literary imagination. How do you respond to the white man who politely asks Dawes why his poems seem so angry? How, as a poet, do you respond to the English literary tradition, rooted as it is in empire and colonialism? Index ends these four volumes in one with a sequence of poems in Spenserian stanzas, written with a sharp awareness of the divergence between the beauty of language and form in Spenser’s work, and Spenser’s English advocacy of the most brutal forms of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Ireland? For Kinsella, looking back at his forebears’ escape from famine in colonial Ireland, how is one to discuss and address white Australia’s brutal history of settler colonialism in its treatment of indigenous peoples?
As in previous volumes, the marvel is poetry that has all the fluidity of spontaneous response, and the shapeliness and finesse of the most deeply considered work.