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The Taste of River Water

July 29, 2011

Cate Kennedy, The Taste of River Water

If poetry is about expressing the ineffable, does it need to be difficult? Should we dismiss poetry that is too “accessible”?

The poems in Cate Kennedy’s new book have been described as accessible but it would be a mistake to dismiss them. When I first heard her read her poems on the Book Show (link here), the stories they told pulled me in, accumulating detail and feeling with striking images and precise language, taking me into the heart of the experience being portrayed.

American poet Claudia Emerson thinks in terms of clarity rather than accessibility and complexity rather than difficulty. Poets try to communicate complex experiences –  feelings, thoughts, epiphanies – so the poem needs to contain that complexity, but to do so with as much clarity as possible, respecting both the reader and the intangible nature of the experience. There is no point in being difficult for its own sake. (See Robert Peake here for more on accessibility.)

Because of her art, Cate Kennedy is able to respect both her subject matter and the reader. Many of her poems concisely and precisely convey strong feeling through the details and images of condensed story telling. If you would like a taste of these, listen to the poems she reads on the Book Show program. My favourite is 8 x 10 colour enlargements $16.50.

The poems in the middle section are about the death of a child, the chaos of grief and the subsequent birth and growing up of a daughter. Each poem needs to be read as a whole (especially The Zen Master, which I think is the best mother-child poem I have read), but the extracts below show how she communicates these difficult experiences with clarity and without sentimentality. After the stillbirth:

I am eating dirt, drinking it.
Dusty water swills my clenching mouth,
tongue-tied by this new language,
beside this sundered shore
of silt, salt, mica,

and inside this traitorous skin
appearing so benignly whole
concealing such treacherous, eroded gullies.

After the birth of her daughter:

I have everything I need
I want nothing except a crystal vial
to save
every tear wept with joy.

With her daughter in swimming class:

Our children’s hands reach for us
like a benediction,
showing us the way
into the deep water.

Cate Kennedy shows us the way into deep water indeed, deep river water, rich in the tastes of life.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2012 7:30 am

    I enjoyed this review … And as I said responding to your comment on my blog I like this way of looking at accessibility … I think it’s what Melinda Smith was trying to get at, particularly in the full interview, when she talks about open wide doors and windows, but said using less “judgemental” terminology perhaps.

    • Bryce permalink*
      December 19, 2012 5:41 pm

      Watching the Melinda Smith interview, reading Suzanne Edgar and the comments of Pykk and yourself, I’m feeling that all styles (genres?) are valid, including both complex/clear and clever/difficult. But perhaps the latter only provides intellectual pleasure while, as Melinda Smith suggests, poetry that leaves windows and doors open can give real joy.

      • December 20, 2012 7:05 am

        Yes, that’s a good way of saying it. As I said to, agreed with DKS/Pykk, the poet’s job, really, is to express themselves poetically. Who they want to reach is up to them, but the poets who, as you say, give you real joy, move you, are those which invite you in and then encourage you to think and feel behind the words.

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