That many celebrated fiction-writers began their careers rather humbly as poets is perhaps one of the literary world’s worst kept secrets. And although it is generally acknowledged that behind renowned novels by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Angela Carter and David Malouf lurk often-ignored early small press and/or self-published poetry books and chapbooks, the connection between an author’s poetry and her fiction is often viewed as a trivial thing, e.g., as a testimony to the writer’s supposed versatility.
A more curious reader, however, would instead see the relationship between the different forms of writing by the same author as a more intricate and dynamic movement among – to use philosopher Michel Foucault’s famous phrase – ‘discursive formations’. In other words, it would be more apposite to see an author’s work across forms and genres as an attempt to explore and explicate an argument or worldview using a variety of literary forms and techniques, instead of mere playfulness or textual promiscuity. It is this awareness that informs my reading of the latest poetry collection by one of Australia’s leading contemporary fiction writers, Cate Kennedy.
The success of Kennedy’s prose over the recent years requires no elaboration here. Suffice it to say that her 2006 short-story collection Dark Roots, after confirming her as one of Australia’s most talented fiction writers, went on to be published in the US by the legendary Grove Press, and to receive overwhelmingly positive reviews in The New York Times, the Guardian and Oprah Magazine. She has also written an award-winning novel, a work of creative non-fiction, and two other collections of poetry: Signs of Other Fires, as part of Five Islands Press’s (now discontinued) New Poets Series in 2001; and Joyflight, published by Interactive Press in 2004.
Such a variegated output over the last ten years may be seen as a sign of Kennedy’s wavering interest in a particular type of creative writing. But, as clearly demonstrated in her new collection of poems The Taste of River Water, far from spreading her considerable literary talents too thin by covering wildly disparate themes and styles, Kennedy’s work over the years has maintained a more or less coherent aesthetic and discursive trajectory, one that strikes this reviewer as highly engaging and, yet, also limiting.
The most pertinent observation one could make about the poems in The Taste of River Water is perhaps the most obvious. Kennedy’s poems are guided by what I’m tempted to call – after the title of a fiction-writing manual – a passion for narrative. Kennedy has an exceptional skill for embedding the elements of narrative (most effectively, in her case, plot and linear structure, as well as techniques such as the historical present) in writing about a range of subjects in her poetry. Her ability to plan and execute the course of her text’s semantic development – to create surprise, drama, twists, mystery, comedy, and so on – has been one of the key strengths of her fiction, and has also fomented a number of highly readable and gripping narrative poems in The Taste of River Water.
The short poem ‘Binaries’ from the book’s first section exemplifies Kennedy’s knack for employing elements of storytelling in the construction of a poem. The poem begins with the terse establishment of setting and point of view – ‘In my parents’ lounge room, after Christmas lunch, / I am listening to my brother’ – before rapid characterisations of the narrator’s brother and her mother. But, as with some of Kennedy’s acclaimed short stories, it is her deft use of plot that turns the piece from a plausible dramatic scenario into a memorable narrative. The narrator’s mother, after hearing her son enthuse about computer programming and its ‘system of binaries’ – in which ‘data / may be stored as, say, zero zero one one one, zero zero one’ – provides the brief tale with an ironic twist and a genuinely humorous ending:
My mother sighs, next to us on the couch.
She is knitting a cable-knit cardigan.
‘You kids,’ she says.
‘I’ll never understand how you get your brains around it.
It’s beyond me.’
And she turns back to her knitting,
purl purl plain plain plain, purl purl plain.
Kennedy’s use of plot and narrative structure is equally effective in her less comical poems. In ‘Swimming class’, from the book’s second section, a mother’s narration of a day with her daughter at a baby swimming class is interrupted by ‘half-formed words, lost calls, whale songs’ from the ‘the other end of the hydro pool’ where ‘the Special Needs Adults’ are having a supervised swimming session. What happens next is a moment of subtle dramatic tension leading to a whimsical yet insightful conclusion. As the narrator and her baby join a circle of other parents and their children to sing ‘Old MacDonald’, one of the special needs swimmers
… paddles over
and waits humbly outside the circle,
and her carer guides her back;
no, Susan, over here, back here Susan
but at the chorus, hesitant, remembering,
one by one they join in:
The poem could have ended with this rather quirky image. As a practised storyteller, however, Kennedy realises that in a narrative an image, no matter how vivid, has no life of its own outside of the plot; and that its efficacy comes not only from what it evokes on its own but also from its ability to affect and connect with the sequence of events depicted in the story. ‘Swimming class’ continues for another two stanzas – stanzas which, in their precise and programmatic nature, strongly resemble paragraphs of a short story – in which the children respond favourably to the special needs swimmers’ ‘chorus’, resulting in the narrator and other parents joining in the singing and realising that there is something sacred (‘like a benediction’) about such incidents of immersion in a people’s common humanity.
Poems such as these bring me to see Kennedy’s overall discourse as what the thinker Walter Benjamin described in his seminal essay ‘The Storyteller’ as ‘[a]n orientation toward practical interests [which] is characteristic of many born storytellers’. Kennedy’s commitment to a causal progression of events and perceptions makes for a tight and unified text – be it in prose or in poetry – but in Kennedy’s writing plot is not an end in itself and strikes me as a means for conveying, in Benjamin’s words, ‘something useful’. Her poems are driven by, and almost always succeed in delivering, at times humanistic, at times moralistic, messages of hope, compassion and endurance.
In the case of ‘Binaries’, for example, the clever twist at the end serves as an indeed useful reminder that a seemingly simplistic (feminine) hobby such as knitting is effectively, if not self-consciously, as systematic and sophisticated as a (masculine) profession such as computer programming. In the case of ‘Swimming class’, the story serves as a vehicle for challenging the divisions that cause disunity and segregation within society. A poem evoking an Anzac Day dawn service in a domestic setting shifts the reader’s attention from images of ‘men coming over battlements’ and ‘a glint of bayonets over the cliff’ to the a baby’s ‘slow but determined breathing’, resulting in the poem’s last line ‘calling for peace’.
And yet, precisely due to their commitment to functioning as efficient and in many cases thoroughly useful down-to-earth narratives (or, in the words of one commentary on the book, their constituting a ‘no-frills poetry’) Kennedy’s poems are at times enmeshed in an overly instrumentalist and prosaic linguistic condition. The poems’ naturalist, mimetic style, whilst perhaps suitable for telling a prose story, falls short of rising above conventional, at times predictable, phrases and constructions. It is a source of disappointment that many carefully plotted and genuinely sincere poems (many of them clearly based on the poet’s personal experiences) suffer from a lack of attention to the meaning and formation of individual lines and sentences.
The first line of the second stanza of ‘Swimming class’, for example – ‘We mothers nurse our sturdy, solid-fleshed toddlers’ – creates a number of problems for the more attentive reader. Why has the author used both ‘sturdy’ and ‘solid-fleshed’, since the two have rather similar meanings? Why, at any rate, is she running the risk of overstatement by using two adjectives? And, finally, isn’t it universally accepted that most toddlers are indeed ‘sturdy’/‘solid-fleshed’, hence the title of a very popular book on parenting, The Mighty Toddler? Stating the obvious, tautology, and a degree of hyperbole bedevil many poems in this collection. In ‘Mud wasps’ one comes across wasps that build, as one would expect, a ‘bulbous nest;’ in ‘How to play Marineboy’ a ‘two-foot-six backyard swimming pool’ is described at the end of the poem as a ‘small blue oasis;’ in the title poem, a river’s ‘deep spots’ are described later in the poem as ‘dark shadowed holes;’ and so on.
I’m confident that such a criticism can be dismissed as nitpicking and/or unnecessary faultfinding, and I would have desisted from including this concern had some of the poems’ rather blasé attitude toward language not prompted me to perceive what I believe to be a key limitation at the heart of this book’s discourse. The poems in this book, as with their often matter-of-fact, real life themes and subject matters, are intended for no-nonsense, practical readers who don’t fuss over unnecessary adjectives and unsurprising phrases. These are, in other words, poems written and, more precisely, published for readers of fast-paced prose (popular novels, autobiographies, magazines, etc.). In short, it seems The Taste of River Water has not really been conceived and produced for readers of contemporary poetry. (This observation can be supported by the fact that the book’s publishers, Scribe, despite being one of the country’s most successful independent publishers, have – to the best of my understanding – published only two books of poetry in their illustrious 35-year history.)
While one does not doubt Kennedy’s skills as ‘a born storyteller’, one cannot help but wonder about the level of workshopping and editing that may have gone into The Taste of River Water, a suspicion compounded by the absence of an acknowledgment to a poetry editor anywhere in the book. As such, and considering that only nine out of the book’s 41 poems have been previously published, would it be too unwarranted to question the readiness of this collection for publication, and to wonder if this book does indeed do justice to Kennedy’s talents and to her standing as a major literary figure?
I am not suggesting that The Taste of River Water is a failure, or that it won’t appeal to many an intelligent reader. (The book was recently awarded a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.) As illustrated by a number of truly outstanding poems included from Kennedy’s earlier (more carefully edited?) collections – most notably ‘Joy flight’ and ‘Picasso’s portrait of a young woman’ – her voice is well capable of achieving truly poetic levels of precision, complexity and resonance. In ‘Joy flight’, for example, she presents a story related by her father as a tangible yet mysterious object with spiritual powers that compel her to, rather intriguingly, aspire to write something other than a poem:
I hold this, and yearn to write fiction
in the face of these deaths and losses,
in the face of all that is forgotten
and revealed by the stark shift of pain and surprise.
I want to carry this talisman carved like a rune
for my father, for my uncle, for my grandfather
and for that pilot;
for that pure torn-open moment
where they each slipped free of the earth.
It is hoped that Kennedy and her publishers, irrespective of her success as a fiction writer (or perhaps in defiance of her success as a fiction writer), will be able to ‘slip free of’ what I would term, however problematically, the discourse of the down-to-earth prose narrative, and that they will provide us with more poems such as the above-quoted piece. Or as poet Kate Fagan has noted in her review of the book in the Australian, it would be good to encourage Kennedy’s ‘poetic lines to depart further from their prose underpinnings.’