In the 1950s Pablo Neruda turned his back on the high style of his earlier work and began the first of his three volumes of odas elementales. Exploiting the panegyric style of the ode to exalt the simple things of our daily existence – lemons, onions, salt, wine, laziness, and love (among other things and feelings) – he eschewed affectation and all pretences of the intellect. His odes, with their simple language and short irregular lines, are poetry at its most pure and elemental.
Similarly Kate Llewellyn’s poems, with their own straightforward celebration of ordinariness, are charming in their directness. They are simple without being simplistic. Direct without being artless. Plain, and yet sophisticated. Offering her own praise to the everyday, Llewellyn exalts, variously, the orange, the egg, potatoes, and even the Chilean oyster (a poem which ends with an admission of failure on the speaker’s behalf to channel the speech of the oyster – “only Neruda” could do that). But it is her “odes” to the objects and feelings that inhabit a woman’s world, including her own body, that really sing. In her most celebrated poem, “Breasts”, the speaker turns her attention to her breasts and finds they have agency and vision: to the men who stare at them, she writes, “the breast stares straight back”. They are the “body’s curious fruit / wanting to know everything”. Humour keeps the poem alive, but Llewellyn wrenches it from the category of light verse with its ominous last lines: “like life they are not glamourous / merely dangerous”.
Likewise humour and danger make good bedfellows in “The Bed” which, the speaker says with a wink, has “seen a lot of action”. But the double entendre quickly made is very quickly unmade, or at least complicated, in the next line. The personified bed, more than a lover, is a soldier or nurse, and the “action” it witnesses is not simply of the sexual kind but rather the trouble, toil, and sorrow to be found on a battlefield. If the speaker is unable to sustain her love for the men (and women) who at various times shared her bed, she will love the thing itself. It is the repository of her memories, literally and figuratively holding her life: she “got in young but came out old”.
In addition to a frankness about sexuality, Llewellyn writes with an invigorating braggadocio reminiscent of Anne Sexton, using the poem as a weapon to break up a polite society that would have a woman know, tidily, her place. Parallels to Sexton can also be drawn in Llewellyn’s commitment to retelling tales. In a similar way that Sexton, in Transformations, recast the Grimm fairytales, a good number of Llewellyn’s poems proffer alternative narratives – or “plans for another reality” as the speaker says in “Ghettos” – for female mythological characters: Ariadne and Dido, among others, but most successfully Eve, whom Llewellyn describes as “the bright one / bored witless by Adam”. Eve, in Llewellyn’s telling, was in no way tempted by the snake, neither was she “kicked out” of Eden. Hungering not for food but for knowledge, Eve had the simple gumption to walk out.
Llewellyn makes good use of the intimacy that is created with the use of first-person point of view. While some poems are addressed to particular people, her best are the ones in which she makes a pact of complicity with the reader, and writes, like Neruda, a poetry for the people. As her work matures, the idea of connections emerges as a major theme. Explicitly in “Curriculum Vitae”, the speaker recounts:
my interests are
the connectedness of things
and what lies behind –
But instead of exploring the intangible, Llewellyn continues with a characteristically earthly metaphor: “always picking up a cushion / peering and replacing it”. The poem ends with a reconciliation that serves as a statement of Llewellyn’s poetics: “Everything is interesting / I have glimpsed paradise / and work daily”.
The latest issue in University of Wollongong Press’s Poets and Perspectives series (the first issue being a study of John Fulcher’s poetry) is an eponymous selection of Kate Llewellyn’s poems (spanning seven books published over a period of almost thirty years), book-ended by three critical essays. David Gilby, in his essay “‘Love’s Plunder’: Desire, Performance, and Craft in Kate Llewellyn’s Poetry”, describes her poems as “raw, fresh and angry”; while Susan Sheridan teases out Llewellyn’s feminist politics in an essay that historicises Llewellyn as a poet writing against a male tradition and making art from the domestic scene. In “Playing with Water: Elements of the Sublime in the Domestic Domain”, Anne Collett focuses on Llewellyn’s prose (and poetry) memoir Playing with Water, considering Llewellyn within the Romantic tradition and drawing interesting parallels between Llewellyn and Dorothy Wordsworth (unfortunately, the essay opens with a poem not included in the collection).
Together the essays portray Llewellyn, convincingly, as a poet of enduring merit. It is a shame, however, that a final and overarching edit didn’t remove some of the over-lapping observations about Llewellyn’s lack of formal training as a poet and the small amount of critical attention her work has received. Repetition makes the case too strongly and gives an otherwise celebratory book a somewhat apologetic tone – which is not only unnecessary, given the impressive body of work on offer here, but it is also at odds, as far as the poems reveal, with the poet’s lone-wolf world view.
Originally published under the title ‘Curious Fruit’. Rev of Kate Llewellyn edited by Paul Sharrad. Australian Book Review 324 (Sept 2010): 70