Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Taste of River Water

The Taste of River Water

I have just savoured the most moving book of poems, The Taste of River Water, by Cate Kennedy. Kennedy writes with gentle and accessible voice about the most mundane events: a joyride, a locust plague, a country woman coming second in a photography competition. Each poem feels like a story, a glimpse of another life seen through kind eyes.

Kennedy has a remarkable ability to notice the small things: the humility of a mother listening to her adult children talk, the largely invisible acts of grace which dot family life, the effect of a painting on a young girl. She uses no poetic mumbo-jumbo, no fancy frills, just clear plain words telling the story, usually in blank verse.

The risk of blank verse is that it can, at times, read like little more than a thoughtful paragraph broken up into a poem shape; and one or two of her poems do seem to fall into that trap. Usually, however, she manages more than that, much more, so that words and rhythm work together to great effect. I particularly loved 'Binaries', which highlights the resonances between binary notation and a knitting pattern – and a mother who shakes her head at her clever kids who understand the former.

Kennedy occasionally uses a more formal structure. In her poem 'Love and work', which addresses the inevitability of grief, the words are complemented by the structure of the poem. The metre and rhyme scheme work together to convey a sense of inevitability and inescapability even as the words remind us just how unavoidable the work of grief is. It is a masterful use of form.

I usually flick back and forth through books of poetry, reading here and there, then filling in the gaps; but Section II of this book deserves reading in order. Although each poem may be read alone, together the poems tell the story of a journey – from the loss of a baby, the desolation of grief, the difficulty of conception, and the experience of birth. Kennedy's plain language keeps this story unsentimental as she charts the ravages of grief, brittleness between marriage partners, and the stillness of joy. Small phrases are echoed between the poems, weaving the section into a quietly magnificent whole.

What really makes Kennedy's poems luminescent, however, more than her observance of small things or her careful crafting of language, is her recognition of the sacred in the everyday. A lost ring becomes a blessing; an apparently empty room holds an unexpected gift; laying a brick path becomes an exercise in daily forgiveness, and the reader is reminded that thankfulness, forgiveness and grace are woven into the smallest of things. I read a poem a day, to draw out the pleasure of this slender book, and found myself moved, stirred, and ultimately restored. The Taste of River Water is a gift to all who read it; and this reader, for one, is filled with gratitude.

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