Tangling with the Epic by John Kinsella and Kwame Dawes
PBS Winter Recommendation 2019
In writing 110 single or double Spenserian stanzas in dialogue with each other, Kwame Dawes and John Kinsella thoroughly deconstruct and recompose ideas about the epic.
At times, the “stern constraints / of syllable and rhyme” construct the satisfying rigour of a lacerating Swiftian satire – almost as means of preventing a collapse into the incoherence of prophetic rage; at other times rhyme creates the beauty of form and the shapeliness of thought.
Various epics of empire, past and present are sternly demolished: from the deceitful myths of the virtuous enterprise of the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, to the Caribbean “where battles/ for tiny rocks were waged”, to Australian narratives of white nationhood, or the bloated Trumpian lies of MAGA. There is also, inevitably, a sense of caution about each writer’s own epic enterprise, for Kinsella “this desire I have that marries/ the north to the south”, or for Dawes the “hopes of grand mercy” we are constantly forced to abort.
In response there is the comfort to be drawn from “pilfering small graces” of moments of epiphany, but in the very construction of the dialogue there is the metaphor of “the entangled webbing/ we spin” – as if one cannot not be part of some vaster human network, what Kinsella names later as the “slow unfolding/ of an epic that can’t really locate itself in time or place…”
For the reader, there is much pleasure to be had in tracing the ways in which images, ideas and words migrate between poems, commented on, turned on their heads, or mined for meanings other than those seemingly intended. As the third of this sequence, distinctive personas, biographies, approaches to poetic form and language take the poetry in in the direction of the dramatic.