Poetry Parnassus: The Ambassadors (Australia)

Poetry Parnassus is a project of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, hosted at the Southbank Centre in London. It ran from June 26 to July 1, featuring 145 poets from around the world. Here is the Guardian’s interactive map, where you can click on a country and read its poem. I will be posting them on a semi-regular basis until they’re done.

The Ambassadors, by John Kinsella (Australia)

In cold weather we are as large
as our clothes make us, warding
off failure with diplomatic immunity,
exploring limits of the plenipotent.

We describe for our hosts the place
we come from: it’s large and many
weathers threaten its coastlines. Inland
is an entirety inside an entirety,

an infinitum. An island, yet it is endless.
Yes, there is a great heat that underlies
all extremes. Yes, we retain red dust
under our fingernails years after

arriving in the Great City. Our
tastes are not lavish – we will acquire
books and tickets to the theatre,
and sack galleries for their spiritual

worth, but keep social standing
out of discussions. We will visit Saint Paul’s
and wonder over Donne’s sermons,
but no hint of Apostolic Nuncios

will haunt our office. We will offer
up raw materials, generations
of the well-fed. We will admire
the Old Country’s astrologers

gazing up through smog,
bringing heaven uncomfortably
close to earth. Back home, our
skies are so wide and so shining…

we remind our hosts at moments
of triumph – ‘Water Music’
on the Royal Barge, the Sex Pistols’
performance of ‘God Save the Queen’ –

our skies are so wide and so shining.
The embassy ends before it’s begun
and yet is never complete – the skull
we bring with us shines through canvas,

our skin, and as we ascend the stairway
to hand in our resignation, the skull
comes into focus – so wide, so shining,
so willing to trade across harrowed oceans.

• ‘The Ambassadors’ from Armour (Picador, 2011) by permission of Macmillan Publishers Ltd

This poem takes off from Holbein’s 1533 painting of The Ambassadors, with Australian tourists doing the Old Country. They are confident in their young nationhood:

Inland
is an entirety inside an entirety,
an infinitum. An island, yet it is endless.

And they will acquire

books and tickets to the theatre,
and sack galleries for their spiritual
worth, but keep social standing
out of discussions.

Yet there’s a touch of cultural cringe in reminding their hosts at their “moments of triumph” that “our skies are so wide and so shining.”

Ultimately, though, we all have to deal with the mortality of people and nations, and the poem lands back in the painting, where

the skull
we bring with us shines through canvas,
our skin.

Here’s the painting for reference.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s