Poetry

In Memoriam Kate Jennings: poet, novelist, feminist (1948–2021)

By Erik Jensen.

Black walnuts

Kate Jennings in a diner on the Upper West Side, New York, 2017.
Credit: Erik Jensen

Kate Jennings knew the taste of grief. She said it was walnuts gone black in their shell. She wrote it first in a poem, and then in what would become her final novel, Moral Hazard. This is how Kate worked: in ripples.

In the poem, she had woken from an attempt at suicide. It was years ago. She was still in Australia. Her father was at her bedside. She was in hospital robes and booties, worn thin with other people’s fear.

The linoleum was as cold as the sea in winter.
She held a paper bag containing a toothbrush
and a copy of Tribune, which a cleaner had given her.
The air tasted bitter, of walnuts gone black in the shell.

In the book, a decade later, the character that is her husband has just died. The character that is her has helped him. She has ground the pills with the back of a spoon and mixed them with his juice. “I don’t remember what I then said or did, how long I sat with him,” she wrote. “I probably kissed him, told him how much I loved him. This is how much I love you. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I just walked out of the room. Goodnight to the staff on duty, down the elevator into the street. The air tasted bitter, of walnuts gone black in their shell.”

Kate said writing those chapters was an agony. She started the book in 1999 soon after her husband, Bob Cato, died. He was a gifted designer, 25 years her senior. She nursed him through Alzheimer’s. He was the first person who encouraged her, who told her she was good.

“I had to tie myself to the chair to write the Bob parts,” she said. “I cried the whole way through, while I was writing. But it would have been for nought if I hadn’t got that story down. That’s all.”

A few years ago, she read the poem again for the first time. It’s called “Father and daughter”, from the collection Cats, dogs and pitchforks.

“Not a bad poem,” she said. “And the rush of memories that came back. Sensory ones. What it was like to be imprisoned in heavy-duty psych meds. I’d like to think that my dad loved me, but he probably had mixed emotions. And was unable to understand it all. Helpless. Hopeless.”

This is how Kate worked: running down words. Sometimes an abstract noun was a whole sentence. Sometimes she would gather her thoughts in three syllables: “Tedious.”

Her favourite story was of Christopher Potter, who edited her and Rachel Cusk and Hilary Mantel. “I remember him saying to me, kindly but exasperated as I refused to relinquish galleys because I needed to change something, ‘There won’t be any book left if you keep this up.’ ”

Kate was a poet and a radical. She was a novelist, a memoirist, an essayist, a speechwriter, a feminist. She was obstinate and fragile. She knew how to hurt. She knew what it felt like to be on fire.

She was a country girl, born in Temora. She wore long velvet dresses until she didn’t. She knew the black kelp of depression. She knew that the love of one person could make the world whole. She missed the sea and loved to swim.

Kate knew punchlines. She knew how to lean on a sentence so it turned down at one end. “He is generous and kind and funny and inventive – and an Australian male.” She had a joke she would tell when she was flirting, borrowed from Jonathan Lethem. Her version was shorter. Her version was always shorter.

An octopus walks into a bar with a set of bagpipes. The bartender asks if he can “play that thing”. The octopus says, “Play it? I’ll take off its pyjamas and fuck it.”

Kate never meant to give the Front Lawn Speech. Some think of it as the arrival of second-wave feminism in Australia. She wrote it but assumed someone else from the collective would read her words. They had fought for a spot at the Vietnam moratorium in front of Sydney University.

The speech ended: “and I say to every woman that every time you’re put down or fucked over, every time they kick you cunningly in the teeth, go stand on the street corner and tell every man that walks by, every one of them a male chauvinist by virtue of HIS birthright, tell them all to go suck their own cocks. and when they laugh, tell them that they’re getting bloody defensive, and that you know what size weapon to buy to kill the bodies that you’ve unfortunately laid under often enough. ALL POWER TO WOMEN.”

Kate always was going to leave. She thought of other lives for herself, thought of changing her name. She knew the waiting and the walls would be the same. For a short time she was living in Adelaide. She had taken money to write a thriller she never finished. She felt lost. She left for New York in 1979 and never came back.

She moved into a bedsit in Hell’s Kitchen. The floors were sloped and the bath you had to step into from one end. She thought of herself as a horse loose in traffic. She drank in fits and let the drink chase her. She worked at magazines. She craved days in bed with the lights off and pills to make her sleep. She was committed at the Bellevue.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, she started to tell the story that would become her finest novel, Snake. She talked about a father who was handsome and could dance. She talked about a mother who was beautiful but whom she knew as cruel. She talked about herself: bookish, awkward, gangly, freckled.

This is how Kate worked: close to life, but not too close. She rounded off the corners. The emotions were autobiographical, she said, but not necessarily the actions. Still, it hurt. Her mother never read Snake. Kate never knew if her father did.

More and more she talked about her father. “I miss my dad every day. I thought he would always be there.” She laboured over a plaque when he died. She worked on it with her brother, Dare. “Throughout a hard life in a hard century, Laurie kept his ready wit and innate decency.”

More recently, she stuck on her fridge a list of topics about which never to write poems. She thought of making one for Australia but never did. “Of course, dear one, you can write about everything in the poem, so long as you make it new.”

She thought of writing another novel: “A conversation with Richard Pryor. Heh heh heh.” She started the research, imagined them arguing about the world. “It’s a good idea, isn’t it?”

She shifted apartments. She looked for bookshelves. She fell and fell again. She was given a walker and a sticker that described her as a “risk”. She broke her pelvis and her ribs. She worried about money. “The trouble with my ditch is that I have been trying to get out of it since I broke my leg – years ago – and for the first time I don’t want even to try. Drowning, not waving. I am 72 and broke, as you know. And broken of spirit.”

She fussed over her dog, Agnes. She worried she might have to come home. She thought of this as the final indignity. “If I return to Oz, where will I live, a bedsit?”

Kate died last Saturday. It was a stroke. She already had written the perfect sentence for how it feels now she is gone: “I went home to blistering loneliness.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 8, 2021 as "Black walnuts".

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Erik Jensen is the editor-in-chief of Schwartz Media. He is the author of On Kate Jennings. His latest book is a collection of poems, I said the sea was folded.