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Jan 21, 2014

Turning: John Kinsella’s poetic take on those seeking asylum

Award-winning poet John Kinsella offers a unique take on the asylum seeker situation befuddling politicians and the public. Crikey publishes his new poem Turning.

We don’t normally feature poetry in Crikey. But we don’t normally get pitched poetry by such a celebrated poet.

John Kinsella has published more than 30 books and is the winner of numerous prizes, including the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards poetry category for his collection Jam Tree Gully. Judges noted at the time his work had:

“… great technical virtuosity and variation, exploring traditional verse forms and freer, experimental modes of language. They capture the continual unexpectedness of the world, its violent weather, the proximate lives of animals, the depredations of settlement, the demands of the seasons. This is a poetic voice finely tuned to the shocks and delight of country life.”

Kinsella’s work has long been concerned about the environment, humanity and an “international regionalism”. In that spirit, he has turned his attention to the people who seek political asylum in Australia.

“I think we’ve reached a low with the ‘turn back boats’ stuff,” he said. “The situation is deplorable, and poets should be speaking out on the issue.”


In fighting the sea, pinging

Neptune hidden deep with his heavy

trident, the emperor Caligula had his men

use whatever means necessary, tearing

up the waves, rending still water

with swords. The emperor knew

Neptune wouldn’t give up easily:

take no prisoners, he said. Turn

back the Nereids and their offspring,

they’ll share no food at our

table. In his human form Caligula

was the iron man, chief worshipper

of his own cult, his priests

of industry heaping wealth

at his feet. He grew giddy

with success. Turn them back!

Turn them back! And the empire

jumped, caught up in his fury.

Alone with his thoughts, his immensity,

Caligula said to himself: the sea

can throw up such nasty surprises,

there’s room for only one god

on the high seas. I will guarantee

safe passage for those who take

the test, who kiss the bootstraps

of my troops, who worship me.

When Neptune sent his boats

Caligula scrambled his forces,

put the empire on war footing,

bunkered down in Canberra,

said he was doing it for love

of humanity, love of his people.

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3 thoughts on “Turning: John Kinsella’s poetic take on those seeking asylum

  1. Dez Paul

    Brilliant. More poetry in Crikey, please.

  2. Jan Forrester

    Yeay, more poetry like this!

  3. Carol Sugden

    How true and how beautifully put. Surely this deplorable state of affairs cannot continue.