Kate Jennings, Come to Me My Melancholy Baby (Outback Press 1975)
I’ve mentioned Kate Jennings once or twice in my blogs, mainly because her New York based writing has given me much pleasure. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that she won a place in my heart nearly (gasp!) forty years ago with a speech she gave at a Vietnam Moratorium meeting on the Front Lawn at Sydney University. On that day, after a number of rousing speeches from various anti-war organisations, a number of women, perhaps there were ten of them, came to the front of the speaking area and fanned out across its full width, standing with legs apart and arms folded. I was off at one side near the front of the thousand-strong crowd, and was impressed by the deliberate drama of the moment. I noticed that the woman closest to me was trembling, and realised that they were doing something that terrified them. Kate stepped to the microphone – the painfully thin designated speaker – and delivered her speech in a voice that shook but didn’t break. The speech was intemperate, overblown, bitter, profane and inelegant. It changed my life.
The speech was printed five years later as ‘Moratorium: Front Lawn: 1970’ in Kate’s first book, Come to Me My Melancholy Baby. It’s a slim vol of poetry, plus the speech and one other short prose piece. I lost my copy decades ago, and was delighted when a slightly battered arrived in the mail last week from a friend who was culling her bookshelves. The poems, it turns out, haven’t generally aged well, though the pain in some of them fairly leaps off the page. When Kate was interviewed on the ABC by Julie McCrossin a couple of years ago (published in Hecate Vol 14 Nº 1), Julie asked her about this book, and in particular about that speech. Here’s a relevant bit:
KJ: I think you’d call that speech ‘in your face’. They were wild, rackety outrageous days and we were not getting the attention of the men at that point. We were a very small group that started meeting and that was the speech I gave. I’m not sure that we can actually say it out loud on radio. It was that outrageous.
JM: But what was the core content, the cry from the heart?
KJ: The cry from the heart was that we were all Vietnam activists and the men were all gung-ho about fighting that cause, and nobody cared about women, and at that stage women could not have legal abortions.
JM: And when you look back are you amazed at the courage you had, that was a new voice then, the voice of women saying: ‘Look out over here, something’s happening, or not happening?’
KJ: When I look back at all my life I am amazed, I do keep walking a plank. I thought those days were terrific.
KJ: We were very inventive. We weren’t as earnest as people are making us out to be now. I don’t think of course those tactics are necessary now.
The bit of the speech that made me sit up and listen wasn’t the vile man-hating rhetoric. What made it possible to listen to that and hear what was being said was the opening lines, printed in the book as an epigraph:
you’ll say I’m a manhating braburning
lesbian member of the castration
penisenvy brigade, which I am
I’d remembered the last three words as ‘Well, I am.’ The thing that so affected me was that Kate and the women who flanked her were proclaiming that they would no longer be silenced or kept in their places by even the most vicious putdowns anyone could throw at them. If need be they would claim the putdowns as badges of honour. It made my young, impressionable, male heart sing.
The poems that precede and follow the speech recount some of the personal cost behind that stand:
If it’s not booze, it’s drugs
if it’s not drugs, it’s poetry,
if it’s not poetry, it’s feminism,
if it’s not feminism, it’s love
if it’s not love,
well, you’re just plain crazy.
When you are crying like that
how long before you stop?
Part of the pleasure of her more recent books is in their sheer urbane poise, a great relief to the reader who followed her through the derangement, rage and ‘racketiness’ of this book.