Review | Wednesday 27 April 2011
In an introduction to American poet Robert Hass’s poetry, Stanley Kunitz likened the effect of a Hass poem to stepping into water from air that is almost the same temperature, hardly noticing one is at the will of the sea, suddenly. Cate Kennedy – also regarded for her novel The World Beneath, and her short fiction – is a different poet to Hass, less an experimentalist or stylist, but she relies on getting the reader comfortable before providing something like this change in the atmosphere by the time the poem is out. A twist might be the appropriate word to describe this affect, too, as the poems in The Taste of River Water, Kennedy’s new and selected poems, favour narrative.
In the longer poem ‘Last Man Standing’ about a wounded and dying war veteran, she – with her novelist’s eye – pieces together a past, using photographs and his scribbled death bed messages. Poetry enters when she shifts things, quickly and with line breaks, for the benefit of surprise: ‘After they'd taken out part of his jaw and cheekbone/he shuffled, face caved and disfigured, into the backyard,/thinking to move the sprinklers.’ In a direct and careful poem about the complicated feelings of loss surrounding a still birth, Kennedy turns suddenly and pithily at the end of the poem: ‘Soon I will rise/pen and paper/envelopes/spade/the unbearable sight/of turned earth.’ In many poems the act of creation – of writing – is never far from these everyday observations, offering deeper layers.
The Taste of River Water contains more densely lyrical poems, too, like the sensual, unpunctuated ‘How to Eat Guava’: ‘that curved yellow moon surface/eat it’. Many of the poems, though, consider moments of epiphany that pierce or – for a more appropriate verb – seep through to the daily and are passed emotively over, in this process, to a sensitive reader.
Luke Beesley’s latest poetry collection is Lemon Shark. He runs a series of poetry nights for Readings.