Tag Archives: Kate Jennings

Narkiness and trouble

Kate Jennings, Trouble: Evolution of a radical: selected writings 1970–2010 (Black Inc 2010)

I was looking forward to this book. Kate Jennings and I have a lot in common. We both hail from rural Australia, had diffident but dependable fathers, were skinny when young (she still is), did Arts at Sydney University in the 1960s. We both hate alcohol culture. We’ve both had people with Alzheimer’s in our lives. We were never part of the same set, but had friends in common. We met at least once, when one of those friends had us both to dinner, possibly with ill-conceived match-making intent. (I have only the vaguest memories of that meal, not much more than being pleasantly surprised to find that the formidable Kate was a country girl.) As I’ve mentioned before, I was there for her famous speech to a Vietnam Moratorium crowd on Sydney Uni’s front lawn in 1970, I also vividly recall her tremulous presence at Balmain Poetry Readings in the 70s. Both the front lawn speech and the poem I remember most clearly, ‘Couples‘ (‘couples make me guilty of loneliness, insecurity, or worse still, lack of ambition’), are included in this volume.

Apart from one essay, perhaps in The New Yorker, I didn’t read anything more of Kate’s writing until her 2002 novel about Alzheimer’s and Wall Street, Moral Hazard, her 2008 book about her dogs, Stanley and Sophie, and her recent essays in The Monthly, all of which I enjoyed. Trouble, a selection in lieu of memoir, looked like an opportunity to fill the gaps: how did the rage-filled, nervy radical feminist of the 70s become the consummately urbane, confident New Yorker?

If you’re looking for a review, stop reading now, because I gave up just after the halfway point. Jennings describes herself as prickly and graciously acknowledges that Chris Feik of The Monthly and Quarterly Essay ‘gently moderates [her] frequent immoderation’. But it wasn’t lack of moderation or prickliness that got me down. I diagnose at least a mild case of expat syndrome: I’ve grown older and regret my youthful foolishness, you’ve grown older and have mended your immoral ways, expats have grown older and think they were once foolish and immoral because of the immutable culture of their native land. The essays and interstitial pieces pour scorn on Australian feminists (so trapped in ‘theory’ and waffle), on Australian drunks (so representative of all Australians and so unregenerate), on Australian poets (so caught up in ‘infinitely ridiculous poetry wars’, and while she’s on the subject, one side of those wars is historically ignorant and engages in ‘appallingly damaging’ games of Chinese whispers) and, with no obvious sense of the irony, on the Australian proclivity to pour scorn (her word is derision).

She complains that an essay making sweeping statements about what’s wrong with Australian feminism was ignored (‘Clever tactic to silence criticism’), but since the essay names no names, quotes no quotes, and seems to be broadly ignorant of Australian socialist feminism, the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Women Behind Bars and lord knows how much else, I suspect the silence was embarrassed rather than clever.  She complains that her poem about Martin Johnston led to disapprobation being heaped on her, and that unnamed persons (a weaselly passive voice implies that it was the entire corpus of Australian poets) referred to her as the ‘execrable Jennings’, but an angry response shouldn’t have surprised her given that the poem virtually accuses unnamed people of taking ghoulish delight in Martin’s slow suicide by alcohol,  and if anyone used the phrase ‘execrable Jennings’ in public they managed to keep it hidden from Google. A former lover once threatened to sue her for a portrayal of him which she claims was a caricature that no ordinary readers would give a fig about identifying with any actual person. The story in question, included in this book, seemed to me a nasty piece of work that might as well have conte à clef as a subtitle: you don’t have to be a member of any in crowd to recognise Helen Garner (incidentally one of the people who don’t exist in Jennings’s version of Australian feminism). Poor Kate, always being misunderstood.

I could multiply examples of annoying moments:

The chief characteristic of Australian feminism is a proud  combativeness, best illustrated by the refrain of a song popular in the first days of the movement: ‘I’m a shameless hussy and I don’t give a damn.’

It may be nitpicking, but the song, as I remember it and confirmed by 30 seconds of research, goes like this:

We’re shameless hussies and we don’t give a damn
We’re loud, we’re raucous and we’re fighting for our rights
for our sex
and for fun
and we’ll win.

”Proud combativeness’? I would have thought the tone was more like  rowdy optimism. And KJ’s slip from plural to singular is surely indicative of something.

By the time I reached page 174 I realised the book wasn’t fun any more. On that page Jennings says a friend ‘complained that he had to keep backtracking to figure out what was going on’ in a detective novel she  is enthusiastic about, and I caught myself reading that as a sneer at her friend’s philistinism. Almost certainly it was nothing of the sort, but my cumulative annoyance had reached a level where I was reading with half my mind on the lookout for the next annoying thing. I even started cavilling at an occasional turn of phrase, and that had to be me not Kate, because she writes beautiful, concise prose. This book and I needed some space from each other. I may go back to it, but for now I’m going to read Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing. Sorry.

Pam Brown in the 70s: notes from a naïve reader

Pamela Brown, Selected Poems 1971–1982 (Women’s Redress Press, Wild & Woolley 1984)

Just call me angel of the morning angel
Just brush my teeth before you leave me baby

That’s a mondegreen, and if it doesn’t make you smile you don’t know the song ‘Angel of the Morning’. Retitled  ‘Radiopoem 1968’ and given a page to itself in a poetry book (as, for example, page 67 in this book), it’s still a mondegreen and still funny, but it has now become a poem, and so invites a different kind of attention. You might read it as a satiric jibe at pop romance, an oblique reflection on the nature of intimacy, an implied confession that the poet worries about her morning breath, a surrealist squib, but we read it differently here than if we had stumbled across it in, say, a ‘Kids say the darnedest things’ column in the Reader’s Digest.

In a lot of Pam Brown’s work, the poetry is in the selection, and there’s a mystery at work. Mondegreen as poem is one example. There are plenty of others. Take, one of many possibilities from the early parts of this book, this untitled poem:

HEY SHIT,
SHE SAID TO
NOBODY,
GRAVE DIGGERS
ARE CONCEPTUAL
ARTISTS.

Or ‘The Leaps’ on the next page:

MYOPIC POSSUMS
MYOPIC POSSUMS
MYOPIC POSSUMS
Coked off my stoop

A snatch of absurd conversation, some stoned nonsense … transformed into poetry pretty much by being excised from their original context and put on these pages. Not so much cut-up as cut and paste. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying they’re terrible poems. On the contrary. For some of them, though, it feels as if you had to be there. That is, to really understand a lot of the earlier poems you probably have to have been around, when Pam Brown was performing in cabaret, making movies, hanging out with a particular creative crowd. (I wasn’t.) Kate Jennings’s introduction tells us that this volume is, ‘a fever chart, an ecg of the times when the new feminism demolished the geography in our heads, blew up the bridges of retreat, and mined the way forward.’ If so, the instrument recording the chart is no mechanical transcriber. The poetry is in the selection, in choosing which fragments of  those times to record, which will retain their fragrance when replanted.

By the end of the decade, possibly because there’s less coke on the stoop, things are much more intelligible. There are some intensely personal pieces about / growing out of / feeding into relationships, but there are still those oddly banal moments, there for no obvious reason, but catching something, some whiff of the times, like the end of ‘Drought’:

so i drank
oomineral water
ooootried two
ooooooredhead
oooooooomatch tricks
solved them both

There’s much more to these poems than this, of course, but it’s a feature of PB’s work that has persisted over the decades. There’s an excellent conversation between her and John Kinsella in Jacket 22, where she talks very interestingly about her practice. This book is out of print (well, what do you expect, it’s poetry and published 26 years ago?), but her 2003 book Dear Deliria includes a handful of the same poems.

The Book Group’s Race of a Lifetime

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Race of a Lifetime: How Obama won the White House (Penguin 2010)

Before the Book Group meeting:

This book’s US title is Game Change, with the subtitle Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. This is snappy and gives a fair idea of the book’s contents. So why the change to a lame and inaccurate title for this British edition? Maybe it was revenge on the US for renaming J K Rowling’s first book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

The authors say in their introduction that they set out to give ‘an intimate portrait of the candidates and spouses who (in our judgement) stood a reasonable chance of occupying the White House’ after the 2008 election. They conducted more than 300 interviews with more than 200 people between July 2008 and September 2009, while memories of the election campaign were still fresh, and produced a book bristling with direct quotes from behind the scenes. I wouldn’t describe much of it as intimate in any real sense, but it’s got a kind of gossipy fascination. The Obamas, the McCains, the Edwardses and especially the Clintons are all big characters, and all have marriages that have had to withstand unbelievable strain. Todd Palin gets mentioned quite a bit, but doesn’t become a character in his own right, and not a lot of ink is spent on Sarah Palin herself – though what there is of her is even more bizarre than the press suggested at the time.

I don’t know that the book does much to deepen the reader’s understanding of the US political system in general or the 2007–8 election campaign in particular. The main take-home message seems to be that you don’t have to be some kind of sociopath to run for President or Vice-President of the United States, but it helps. Miraculously, Barack Obama doesn’t seem to be one. One does weep for US-style democracy, at least as seen through the lens of political journalism. I found myself empathising with the widespread fear of democracy in mid nineteenth century Australia, expressed in 1853 by John Plunkett, Attorney General of the colony of New South Wales:

All serious convulsions are carried out by demagogues; as a boiling cauldron throws its scum to the top, so in all social convulsions unworthy persons will be sure to get to the top, and betray the people for their own selfish purposes. The people left to themselves, and uncontrolled, will be hurled on to ruin by the ruffians who make them their dupes.

(Quoted in Peter Cochrane, Colonial Ambition, MUP 2006, p 379)

Not that ruffians and demagogues prevailed in 2008, but one gets the impression that without ruffianly behaviour and demagoguery, and certainly not without being able to deal with lashings of both, no one could ever become Potus.

Kate Jennings’s Quarterly Essay, American revolution: The fall of Wall Street and the rise of Barack Obama, though not an insider’s account, probably casts more light on the issues at stake in the campaign and is almost as thrilling a ride. I do feel an itch to read an account as candid and thorough, and occasionally lurid, as this about an Australian election. Sadly, I doubt if even Tony Abbott, for all his lycra and chest pounding and people skills, could equal any one of a score of moments in this rip-roarer.

After the meeting:

Tonight we were five, then six and eventually seven, the last arrival being delayed by an argumentative accountant and a locked car park. The conversation folded back on itself a number of times, with recaps and revisitings. Most of us, I think, had found the book interesting, though a number hadn’t been able to finish it – the apparent weighting of the scales towards Obama was a factor (either the Clintons are actually really weird or the journalist/authors decided it was good ‘narrative’ to portray them that way), an absence of politics-tragicality on the part of the non-finishers was another: do we really care about advice from yet another aide that was disregarded by yet another candidate? As an innovation tonight was also discussed an article – on climate change – and though none of us was ardent about the article, the juxtaposition emphasised the way the book favours personality above policy and implies that the US democratic process does likewise. I think its true to say we were all shocked and awed by the sheer amount of money spent on presidential campaigns.

The fact that the ABC had been reporting a leadership challenge in Canberra meant the book’s holding power was tested. Once the conversation veered – even lunged – towards a debate about Rudd and the intense stupidity of the NSW Right of the ALP, who are largely responsible for Rudd’s losses in the polls and now (I’ve learned since coming home) have decided to dump him, none of us was wildly enthusiastic to get back to the book.

Melancholy derangement

Kate Jennings, Come to Me My Melancholy Baby (Outback Press 1975)

jennings coverI’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.
JM
: Why?
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?
I’ve stopped.

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.