Dominique Hecq Reviews Julie Chevalier and Cath Kenneally

22 October 2013

Julie Chevalier and Cath Kenneally

Linen Tough as History by Julie Chevalier
Puncher and Wattmann, 2011

thirty days’ notice by Cath Kenneally
Wakefield Press, 2011

Often we are immersed in our world as in body-temperature water, treading along effortlessly, unaware of distinction between self and medium. We have to thank poets for splashing water in our faces, for reminding us of the distinction. The splash may also refresh – perhaps move us to stop treading and begin noticing the bubbly and at times murky stream of language in which we are immersed. I thank both Julie Chevalier and Cath Kenneally for their vigorous splash. Take a big breath. We are under water.

Apart from their exhilarating delight in language and pace, what Chevalier’s Linen Tough as History and Kenneally’s thirty days’ notice have in common is their striving outward for meaning by shifting from image to image. In doing so, both collections create inventive patterns and metaphors, invite us to share in a speculative process of discovery and offer huge variation in tone as they investigate their subjects. Yet, both also display a sureness of control in exploration of place, time, memory, identity, relationships and textures of ‘the everyday’ that solicit your trust as a reader. I read thirty days’ notice first and thoroughly enjoyed the dance. I was then ready to take Linen Tough as History in stride. This is poetry that risks.

The poems in these two collections range from short lyrics to monologues, portrait poems and longer sequences such as Kenneally’s playful ‘staples’ and Chevalier’s much more adventurous ‘Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey 1967’. While attentive to form and style, neither Kenneally nor Chevalier resort to any regular patterning in order to make their texts cohere. Instead, they both employ a range of eclectic devices such as alliteration, internal rhyme, eye-rhyme and assonance, often incorporating colloquial speech or slang to great effect. Kenneally dances with gusto steps of her own devising, while Chevalier swaggers along, winking at you as she invents new tricks. Take, for example, the opening of Kenneally’s ‘Ambush’:

Head floating in mid-air, an aura surrounds
you as you step, new-minted, into the garden, where
greens ambush you, sharp, critic nibs of Geraldton Wax,
spearlets, yellower green, of bamboo, comforting
blue-green of gum leaves, dark moss-green creeper
fronds, tough all-purpose bougainvillea green
there’s a sense that everyone’s gone to the moon

Now compare it with Chevalier’s ‘Corner of Glebe Point Road and Broadway’, a fierce response to Gwen Harwood’s ‘Suburban Sonnet’:

I practice my craft, of course it matters
if dudes’ windscreens gleam or not.
Behind me at the lights rosellas chatter
then wheel and shit. They’re on the payroll, not.
And I’m not wasted. Smack’s the best stone;
the rest is fall-back; habit overpowers
common sense. A hand reaches out, Ta, luv!
Coins click with keys inside my pocket, scour
the lining where a toke is nagging
at my mind. The trouble with this caper’s
crap weather, dirty water, and lead
feet. Must refill the bucket. I’m not afraid
of laws in Saturday’s newspaper.
Default position: selling dope or giving head.

It is this inventive patterning which is so engaging – while Kenneally may become a little predictable as we attune to her voice, Chevalier never is.
Kenneally has a painter’s eye, an incredible gift to take in and reproduce as poetry the minutest details of domestic life, landscapes and gardens, especially flowers. In a single poem, sometimes a single stanza, she can be a cook, botanist, landscape gardener, painter and poet. Take this stanza from ‘a little rain’:

I bake pecan bread, cosset the rebel oven
the loaves look fine. Bougainvillea scales the front wall
making a saffron backdrop for birds, a shrill type—wattle?

Kenneally begins with an image, vision or description of a scene in many of her poems. She then elaborates an idea by accretion, translating the seen into meaning, using one or several of the five senses to bring her point home. This translation is made metaphor, list and pun, devices that Kenneally applies with inventiveness. One technique used to striking effect is a type of catachresis in which an anticipated piece of the poetic intent appears in a syntactically unexpected position. In ‘a little rain’, not only does the rain ‘lift the spirits’, it also ‘germinates/resolutions: baking, planting, travelling’ – three main themes in this collection. In a similar vein in ‘cypress of lebanon’, Kenneally has ‘Two little girls… rebuking my prejudice’, while in ‘detail’ she concludes with ‘holding out the hope/of catching up’, punning on the word ‘retarded’. In both examples, a subjective impression is convincingly conveyed.

Outstanding in thirty days’ notice are the poems that deal with family and friends, poems that are marked by deep affection, and at times an intense sense of loss and longing. In the first poem of the collection, for example, Kenneally describes what is likely to be a difficult day by juxtaposing past and present, dream and reality, but words are not enough to save her from the moment of truth. She admits ‘all this bluff/outfoxing my demons, burbling-spring/technique, one musn’t pause’, which anticipates the triumphant last line: ‘come on, Monday, let’s have ya’. This poem heralds the strong intimacy between visual and written imagery – the hallmark of the collection – prompted as it is by postcards and garden scenes that resonate with the author’s emotions.

Inaccomplishment is played out in most of Kenneally’s poems to avoid sentimentality or nostalgia. With few exceptions, the resistance to dramatic climax is precisely the concluding drama of her poems. The concern with interrupting a narrative strand, without abruptly changing or undercutting it, is one of the techniques (anacoluthon) she favours, which means that the expectations of lines, sentences or stanzas are interrupted with something completely unexpected. The break with the syntactical patterns aims not at closure, but the obverse, an opening to what can be a realm of possibilities. This purposive transition without an ending is what often brings a poem to rest and ring sonorously, thereby redirecting the emotional force of the poem in. Kenneally achieves this by changing tack, as it were, at the end of a piece, mimicking her subject as she does kookaburra-like in ‘A Doctor Calls’, interpellating her subject with an order (‘landline’ and ‘praxis’), a greeting (‘Red Wellingtons’ and ‘revenu’), a prediction (‘Maleficent’), a question (‘How was your life?’, she asks the late Dave in ‘If a winter’s night’), an exclamation (‘Hear, Hear’), or a dismissal (‘Go, I think, go now, go’), from ‘all change’. This is earthy, grounded poetry. It exudes joie de vivre, even in the anxiety-infused poems that speak of academic work – the thesis one is whipped ‘to the finish’ (‘on your mark’). The closest you get to nostalgia is ‘milk glass’, a playful yet poignant poem which ends with the living standing with the dead at a kitchen sink.

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About Dominique Hecq

Dominique Hecq is a Belgian-born poet, fiction writer and scholar living in Melbourne. Her published works include a novel, three collections of stories, and eight books of poetry. After Cage (2019) is her latest poetry collection in English. Kaosmos is forthcoming. She has been awarded the Martha Richardson Medal for Poetry, the New England Poetry Prize, the inaugural AALITRA Prize for literary translation for poetry (Spanish to English), and the 2018 International Best Poets Prize.

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