October 2006

Arts & Letters

‘Fast, Loose Beginnings: A Memoir of Intoxications’ By John Kinsella

By Chris Womersley

The advance publicity for John Kinsella's memoir - which included restraining orders taken out against fellow poets Robert Adamson and Anthony Lawrence, and threats of defamation suits from that pair - promised an entertaining ride, but it is a promise unfulfilled by this disappointing and baffling work. Reading it is akin to being cornered by a dishevelled fellow at a party who insists on regaling you with stories about his wild and crazy days, involving people you barely know.

Kinsella claims to have been struck by lightning - twice. He tells of being driven around Helsinki by the Finnish secret police, of beatings and of a drug dealer holding a gun to his head. "My defining characteristic ... is enthusiasm," he declares, as if we couldn't tell from the exclamation marks littering the text. Unfortunately, enthusiasm doesn't compensate for lumpy prose and lightweight observations. These adventures are simply not very interesting.

There are encounters with the famous and the highly regarded, but they are merely springboards for stories featuring Kinsella: a meeting with Frieda Plath becomes The Tale of How I Confessed My Drug Overdose to Ted and Sylvia's Daughter; a dinner to honour Dorothy Hewett becomes The Time I Went Drinking with Carmen Lawrence. An exception is the touching image of Les Murray beside a salt plain, "thinking poems" as he bats flies from his back.

Fast, Loose Beginnings is also a memoir of missed opportunities in other ways. Kinsella hints at the challenge which perhaps confronts all artists, that of living in the world and apart from it, but the idea is taken no further; the question of why one should pursue poetry at all, especially with such ferocity and at the expense of everything else, is left unanswered. Towards the end, he admits that he took the commission because he needed the money, and - though he says his feelings changed as he wrote the book - it shows.

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