In my poetry class, we often come back to the question of what we think a poem should or could do. There are lots of answers, but one of my favourites is that a poem can show you something that you thought you knew about in a different and/or surprising way. To me, this is what Cate's poems do. While some might say they are too "prosey" or dwell too much on the ordinary, this is what gives her images such power. She sets the scene and then stuns the reader with imagery that you can see and feel and, at times, smell and touch.
Many of her poems, in fact, feel like narratives. When did we last read good narrative poetry? Some of Les Murray's do this, but many other Australian poets focus more on lyrical imagery and small moments in a landscape. Behind Cate's poems sit whole histories and what we see are not just glimpses but the bones of the stories within. She allows the reader to fill in the gaps, which is also what I think good poems do.
Not all of the poems are like narratives. Any collection benefits from variety, but I think what also underpins this one is a real sense of place. Some of you would be familiar with her poem, "8x10 colour enlargements $16.50" which tells of a farmer's wife, a talented amateur photographer, who enters a competition. The reader is invited into the poem: "Let me lay it out for you". We are in the local town hall with the poet, observing, commenting on the winning photo: "a massive sunset shot, the colours juiced with Photoshop" and the farmer's wife who said so little about the injustice that the poet felt compelled to show us what happened.
The collection is book-ended by two poems about writing poetry, an interesting touch given that I've heard Cate talk about her short stories and how often she tries to begin and end a story with images that mirror or connect in some way. As I said, I think this is where the strength of the poems lies, in the way an image will reach out from the page and hit you, make you pay closer attention to what is being created for you. For example, in "Windburn" after a day at the beach:
this rim of salt on my forearm
like unnoticed, evaporated tears,
as if I've spent today silent, unconsolable,
weeping into the crook of my elbow
My favourite poem in the collection is "Temporality". We don't need to know exactly what building this is, just that it's one with a secret history that the average museum visitor might well miss unless they looked more closely and used their imagination. This history is of ordinary working men, and the details tell us much more than you expect:
This four-inch nail banged in beside them to hold invoices
that they always meant to replace with a decent hook or clip;
see how it's holding fast
long after they have gone,
see how they were wrong
about what was temporary.
I could go on about this book of poetry all day, but I won't. However, I will recommend it very highly as one you should add to your bookshelf.
By the way, The Taste of River Water recently won the Victorian Premier's Award for Poetry.