Joyflight is Cate Kennedy's second collection
following on from Signs of Other Fires published by Five Islands Press,
2001. This lyrical work touches on the personal, family biography, and
Irish history. Kennedy's poems all share a concern for lived experience,
and convey the social mores and fabric of rural life, whether at home
or abroad, stylized or imagined. Her poems have a unique metaphysical
quality, where landscapes offer different perspectives. Many poems convey
the motif of flight, allowing the reader to go beyond rooms, the flat
landscape, 'beyond gravity', to more interesting and lofty observations.
What is joyful about these poems is that a reader's knowledge is extended
when grave stones of history are revealed, when world powers are again
Apollo-Soyuz linked, and New York's Metropolitan Museum is visited. Kennedy's
exposé of a mock-up 'Authentic Irish Pub' is a blarney-styled
satire on video-camera tourists, where even the driver can't wait 'to
get the taste of them out of his mouth with a Guinness'. ('Irish Singing
Here Every Friday Night')
Expansive is a word that comes to mind in these well-crafted, narrative poems in two parts. Part 1, 'That Pure Torn-Open Moment', observes personal moments and small events on the family farm. In 'Minotaur', Kennedy shares a precarious moment when the family has to contend with noisy bulls in the mating season:
It takes dogs and a vehicle to separate them;
the old bull bruised and limping, enraged and abusive
forced back to his lonely paddock
his usurper – younger, a weight advantage on top of his form
better at disguising his damage
calls back any time, old man
and shoulders his way back to prime position under a tree.
Like the human world, animals, too, have their own frustrations. The old bull's exasperation, and comical engagement with the fence are vividly drawn:
All day the old bull moans unspeakable injustice
reinstates his case
screams up and down the boundary
limping on his bleeding hoof
making a show of resenting the fence.
The title poem 'Joy Flight' conveys a father's story. As the poet states, 'provoked from him/by some landslide of sorrow'. Through Kennedy's synchronicity and storytelling we are drawn into the event of three boys wanting to fly in 'that silver machine/ that sky'. The cover photograph reveals it was 1937, Yorktown, SA, where a Tiger Moth rests its tail in the long grass, a single-propeller engine nosed towards the fields, pointing skyward. As with many stories that look back through time, there are often pent-up secrets looking for their own catharsis. Kennedy handles the dichotomy of the boys' triumph over their father's disgruntled manner with sensitivity and skill. The re-telling of a boy's joyful experience and youthful defiance is worthy of admiration, allowing the reader to wonder about the highs and lows of a troubled moment. Beyond the literal there are deeper cultural meanings, family tension, fear, hard times, and a frivolous expense pinching a man's face and his pocket. The wider implications deal with the family's misery of poverty, the Depression years, aircraft that symbolise World War I, and young men dying in the sky. However, redemption comes within the poem when parents succumb to the wishes of 'boys taut with longing':
Disaster could have struck, and sent my grandmother mad with grief.
My grandfather would have been condemned
to watch that, from the ground, forever.
But nothing went wrong.
They flew, and returned safely to the earth, transformed,
an awestruck moment in a poor childhood,
desire made real, a stern father hiding his smile on the home run.
While this is a minor criticism, I felt the poem finished on Page 8 with the strong thematic line, 'astonished by joy and flight'. Had the poem ended before the last stanza it would have had more impact. Instead, a father's story segues into the narrator's own conscious desire to share further talismanic and hidden familial fictions/stories. I found myself formulating these words: 'Yes, but don't tell, show!' This could have been another poem, perhaps, still incorporating the first section's excellent line: 'That pure torn-open moment'.
Kennedy establishes an explicit link between poetry and the landscape. Her concrete images are inventive and fresh. In 'Wormwood', the land is epitomised for its harshness and failings: 'Nothing native ever finds a hold again/ bramble and gorse sprawl snarling over the clay/ glinting pale like a scar through hair'.
'Thinking The Room Empty' brings us face to face with outback Alice Springs, a harsh environment, and the possibilities of losing one's way:
A friend, losing her way in the desert
walks out of a dry, Alice Springs riverbed into thirty thousand miles
of flat ruled horizon, blazing heat, waterless saltbush.
This is an engaging poem, allowing readers into that private moment when we see a poet working at her best. Yet, this is someone else's dilemma and challenge: 'She is thirsty, and she trespasses/ climbs through the fence/ walks expecting rifle fire'. The poem works on various planes, both meditative and transcendental. Firstly, the skilled artificer transports us beyond the page, the room and airlifts us to a rooftop, where we 'catch sight/ of a low mountain range/ elevated over the line of the horizon/ the direction back to town'. The experience of being saved is felt, made universal.
The last two stanzas are rich with insight. Kennedy's inward observations go beyond the narrative, and are hauntingly philosophical:
I wonder how many times I have broken some lock
searched hastily and withdrawn
thinking the room empty,
overlooked the disguised and waiting gift
missed the mountain.
I wonder what my stunted sightline
has failed to notice
what path home
I have abandoned.
In 2002, Cate Kennedy won the Vincent Buckley Poetry Award making it possible for her to travel to Ireland. Part 2, 'Burning the World's Almanac', includes poems that were written during her sojourn, and is a dedication to Irish history and tradition. The poem 'Poor Commissioners' exposes the monstrous sufferance by a group of 150 famine victims in 1849 who were denied food and shelter at a poorhouse in County Mayo, Ireland. Kennedy's sympathetic narrative of the plight of these famine victims is dramatic and justified. We sense the bureaucracy of the times, and recognise the polarities of poverty and class. These visual effects of discomfort share a confluence of empathy, and the injustice of lives lost (ancestors, perhaps?): 'your father there, huddled, vanishing/ so that the snow at last/ a misjudged enemy/ invited you down to rest/ muffling each voice/ and a faint half-dreamed comfort'. The imagination works here to make a fragment of history durable and singular, but certainly it is only one of many, horrific Irish events of the past.
Readers will be well rewarded with this book of thirty-four poems. There's an intimacy and truth, imaginative transitory moments, old wounds re-told and healed. Lovers of narrative poems will discover Kennedy's precision with language, metaphor, irony and humour that are all strikingly pictorial. At times, the book requires several readings for its long line lengths, but in the re-reading images like: 'green blooms of translucent aphids/ unhurriedly drinking a rose to death', are memorable.
— Helen Hagemann, JAS
Cate Kennedy’s Joyflight is distilled memory. It is a manifestation of time, place and history, both intensely personal and instantly recognisable. Joyflight is a book divided. It begins with ‘that pure torn-open moment’: A collection of small epiphanies in which the individual is forever altered.The title piece ‘Joy Flight’ is precisely this experience. In the first stanza Kennedy extracts from the stoic, mountainous image of her father, a precious childhood memory of hopeful anticipation. The impact of sorrow releasing a small fragment of hidden emotion, long buried:
My father’s stories
must be provoked from him
by some landslide of sorrow;
a lost city’s foundation revealed by shifting earth.
Only after the death of two brothers
does he relate some childhood moment
of a Sunday after Mass, when a Tiger Moth
touched down on a patch of ground
offering joy flights.
This is Kennedy’s tribute to those ‘three blond boys taut with longing’, whose joyful experience is shared by all those who read the poem. This poem is an offering. A gift, passed directly from the poet to the reader:
from hand to cupped hand,
carried warm next to the skin,
recited for courage.
Kennedy thoughtfully examines this ‘small recovered legacy’, as a thematic thread that binds together this collection. In ‘Following the Game’, she reconstructs the complexity of adolescent emotions. The oscillations between boredom and desire set against the backdrop of the oppressive heat of the Australian summer.
lime cordial summers
the telly murmured three day tests
in the only room with a fan
we would end up there, collapsed
in cut-off jeans
with the white lethargy of school holidays
Later in the poem Kennedy reveals the mounting tension and impatience which underlies this apparent stasis:
we wanted the burning vinyl of bench seats
boys who smelled of petrol
a cool change, quickening pulses
wanted a roar, wickets flying, limbs
taut with anticipation
This collection of poems is refreshingly unpretentious. The language employed is lyrical and honest. Rather than toying with syntax, punctuation or grammar, the simple beauty of the language itself commends Kennedy’s talents as a wordsmith. She is an unabashed lover of language:
My mouth tastes each satisfying vowel and consonant,
delicious with something scarce made abundant:
there’s not one thing about that name I don't like.
Kennedy has dedicated this collection of poetry to her father. After reading the poems contained therein, it was of no surprise to me that in the dedication, Kennedy has quoted Pablo Neruda:
We have to disappear into the midst of those we don’t know, so they will suddenly pick up something of ours from the street, from the sand, from the leaves that have fallen for a thousand years in the same forest…and will take up gently the object we have made…In that object, poetry will live...
The above quotation perfectly describes
the poetry Kennedy produces. Every human experience creates a possibility
to explore, a story to tell. Everyday objects
whisper their secrets into her ear. Both Kennedy and Neruda expose and brilliantly
articulate the sublime nature of the environment, of time, of subject, and
of human experience.
Kennedy is fascinated with the concepts of time and permanency: In ‘This Is Summer’ she surrenders herself to the decadence of the Australian summer. The heat, the insects, the rampant desire to consume and multiply, this is a world of voracious hunger and an explosion of growth. Unlike the human world, this is a world where nothing is wasted. Where even the mightiest in the food chain become food when it comes time to ‘settle in the path of five billion consumers’:
… if you just lay there
you would be so efficiently dismantled,
broken down into salts and sugars
your glazed irises sipped delicately by ants
if you still stared, unblinking
flowering weeds would spurt through the sockets
your greenhouse ribs would be twined
with the voracious red tongues of blackberry vines…
Nothing here is permanent apart from the never-ending cycle of life and death. There is no sympathy in this organic orgy of life:
eyeless, ruthless, perfect
it is all perfect – it is stupefying
it is never finished.
The second half of the collection is entitled ‘burning of the world’s almanac’. Kennedy draws experience from her travels to Ireland to expose humanity in all its monstrous beauty. ‘The Poor Commissioners’, for example, is a poem written about 150 people who died in the 1849 famine after being denied sustenance at the poorhouse, County Mayo, Ireland. This is a poem of quiet outrage, a powerful statement about poverty, class, and bureaucracy:
And the men in the house, never dreaming
that this would be the moment seized by fate
to expose them
this, which was commonplace, no doubt;
they were Commissioners, only that, righteous with due process,
stamps and nibs put away for the day, and now
dealing with a nuisance, irritable,
pushing the last of the bread
around their plate.
This poem is a narrative for the voiceless. A narrative from which parallels can be drawn with today’s world, a world peopled with more refugees and dispossessed than ever before in history. It is Kennedy’s demand for recognition of the human face of suffering:
Tomorrow we will draw a red line in the ledger
pious and put-upon, holding this burden like a full plate
against our memory of the cold
A particularly striking element to Kennedy’s writing is her strong sense of irony, a highlight of several of the poems in this collection, such as ‘Irish Singing Here Every Night’ and ‘Potions’:
We fall for it every time, us second-wave women.
The mystique of the potions,
the idea that what we have inherited and absorbed can be foamed away
that a soothing astringent will cool our smothered rage
that there is a new surface, waiting to be revealed
beneath the old surface,
that our skin is starving
and must be fed.
It is difficult to know if I have done justice to Cate Kennedy’s Joyflight, as each poem deserves individual mention and critique. Each has a particular story to tell and a profoundly beautiful method of conveying the narrative. Kennedy has captured that ‘pure torn-open moment’ and has passed it to the reader, in the form of a book.
– Jess Star, Cordite
Kennedy’s poetry inhabits a
large world, both of geography and of humanity, in which her voice, imagery,
angle and insights are personal and individual. Approachable, subtle
and crafted, this work offers many different sorts of satisfaction.
– Aileen Kelly
These poems are driven by Kennedy’s instinct for story,
character, and place, but there’s a moment when the poems ‘suddenly open up, out of nowhere’ and we find we’re standing inside ourselves, in that pure, torn open moment.
– Bronwyn Lea
Joyflight is a collection of poems cleverly designed
to ‘shock a tiny gentleness from us’ (Five Encounters With Birds).
Cate Kennedy expresses endless sensitivity to the environment, to animals
of all sizes, and to the past.
Her poems portray a contemporary feminine outlook as in 'Potions' ('We fall for it every time, us second-wave women. The mystique of the potions.') counter-balanced by an earthy rural sensibility.
The collection is divided into two parts: Part 1, That Pure Torn-Open Moment, describes detailed observations of important personal moments; while Part 2, Burning The World’s Almanac, focuses more on the Irish heritage observed by the author in a 2002 overseas visit.
All Australians will love this poetry collection! It showcases an exceptionally skilled and original new voice. Though appealing to a broad audience, Part 1 will inspire extra affection from animal-lovers and rural residents. Part 2 is dedicated to Irish history and tradition, and will more than satisfy readers interested in Irish heritage.
Cate Kennedy creates such an easy intimacy between author and reader that
she could be mistaken for ‘the girl next door’. In some ways
she is, living on a farm on the Broken River in northeast Victoria. But
Cate is also a multi-award winning poet, writer and lecturer.
Her first published poetry collection Signs of Other Fires (Five Islands Press 2001) was Highly Commended in the Victorian Premier’s Awards.
In 2002, Cate won the Vincent Buckley Poetry Award making it possible for her to travel to Ireland where many of her Joyflight poems were conceived or written.