Cate Kennedy, The Taste of River Water (Scribe 2011)
When Cate Kennedy read, marvellously, from this book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, she talked her poems as meditations through narrative, and that’s a nice description. Her poems generally have a narrative thread, whether it’s the story of the woman who wins second prize in a photography competition in ‘8 x 10 colour enlargements $16.50‘ or the moving hand of a baby at the breast in ‘Dawn service’.
Mostly this is no-frills poetry: very little by way of formal rhyme schemes, and even less prosodic adventure – no clever enjambement, uncanny syntax, esoteric allusion. Almost universally, the cadences and imagery are those of conversation, sometimes intensely intimate but always intelligent, generous and emotionally engaged. There’s an attention to fleeting moments, to things easily overlooked: a tight smile, a gesture accidentally caught on camera, a detail from a larger narrative, a parent’s childhood memory, a tiny act of wanton cruelty. These become the subject for meditation, their meanings explored. Many of the poems can be read as reflections on art and communication, though the immediate subjects range from the laying of a brick path to being caught in a rip, and include a locust plague coming to the city, a little girl dancing in a square of sunlight, or the auction of the contents of a deconsecrated church.
What I wasn’t prepared for was that the sixteen poems in the second section of this book constitute what Frank Moorhouse used to call a discontinuous narrative: each poem stands alone, but there are lines, even words (a throat-tightening ‘again’ in ‘Thank you’, for instance) that gain tremendous force from their place in the sequence. Although it’s in many ways a very different beast, I was reminded of Sarah Gibson’s wonderful short lyric film The Hundredth Room.
Cate Kennedy read some of the poems and chatted with Ramona Koval on the Book Show on 19 May. It’s worth a listen, but be warned that the conversation reveals quite a lot about Section 2. Not that there’s a twist to the tale or anything of the sort – but there’s something to be said for letting a narrative reveal itself to you rather than approaching it with foreknowledge.