The Australian writer Kate Jennings died in New York on 1 May 2021. She was born in Temora in western NSW in 1948, and grew up in the Riverina. A detailed account of a country childhood in her novel ‘Snake’ draws on her own. Poet, essayist, and novelist, she published her first book of poetry, Come to Me My Melancholy Baby, with Outback Press, Melbourne, in 1975. In 1979 she went to New York, where she worked as a freelance writer, married, published another book of poetry, a book of short stories, two novels, three books of essays, a memoir and an extended essay on American politics.
In 1970 Kate Jennings read a poem to the Vietnam moratorium at Sydney University.
… I would like to speak.
I would like to give a tubthumpingtablebanging emotional
rap AND be listened to, not laughed at. You don’t laugh at
what your comrade brothers say. You wouldn’t laugh at the
negroes, the black panthers. Many women are beginning to
feel the necessity to speak for themselves, for their sisters.
I feel the necessity now. Moratorium: Front Lawn: 1970
Kate Jennings was not the first woman to talk about feminism in Sydney at that time. Already women were meeting and talking in their shared houses and some spoke publicly. But Kate was clear, articulate, and angry. The poem was published in Come to Me My Melancholy Baby, along with Couples, a poem that women taped on their bedroom walls at the time:
this is a song an epithalamium it is also
a requiem this is a poem about couples it
is called racked and ranked
These were poems of their time, with the power that Doris Lessing talked about to ‘name’ what women were feeling sometimes before they could articulate it. As Pam Brown would say later, this was our culture.
Already in 1970 Germaine Greer had published The Female Eunuch; Sexual Politics and Sisterhood is Powerful were published in New York. 1975 was International Women’s Year. Come to Me My Melancholy Baby and Mother I’m Rooted, the anthology of feminist poetry Kate Jennings edited with the help of Alison Lyssa, were published in 1975. The motivation behind this book is feminist, she wrote in the introduction to the anthology; the literary world is for the most part controlled by a small backslapping backbiting group of men. The book was to include published poets only, but Jennings persuaded the publisher, Outback Press, to allow her to advertise widely and be inclusive. 500 women replied. The anthology slowly metamorphosed into a political statement. It became a collective statement about the position of women in Australia. Judgements were challenged.
Some poems fall anyhow,
All of a heap anywhere, dishevelled,
Legs apart in loneliness and
And you talk about standards.
Rebecca Solnit says in ‘Call Them by Their Names’ the stories we tell about who we were and what we did shape what is possible. The 1970s and 80s were ‘when the new feminism demolished the geography in our heads, blew up the bridges of retreat, and mined the way forward’, Jennings wrote in the introduction to Pam Brown’s ‘Selected Poems 1971-1982’ (Redress/Wild and Woolley, 1984). Imagining new ways to live was a collective project and it was challenging. Erik Jensen says Kate J got entangled in what she called ‘the black kelp of depression’. There were suicide attempts, time in a psych ward, and times when friends visited regularly to see that she was ok. In Without Preamble: Martin Johnston 1947-1990, a poem about her relationship with the poet, son of Charmian Clift and George Johnston, she says, we became alcoholics. Later, she wrote that ‘I played the role of suffering female poet to the hilt. I swanned around smashed and dosed up with valium, dressed in thriftstore black velvet dresses’. (Catching a Man, Eating Him” in ‘Trouble).
In 1979 she went to New York. Her second book of poetry, Cats Dogs and Pitchforks, was published by Heinemann in Melbourne in 1993. She worked as a freelance writer and wrote two novels that brought her a wider audience and recognition, Snake (1996) and Moral Hazard (2002). Both novels were New York Times Notable Books of the year and Snake was considered for the Booker Prize shortlist. Snake was also published in Switzerland; Moral Hazard in Amsterdam, London and Paris. Moral Hazard was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award, the Los Angeles Times fiction award, and the Tasmania Pacific Region prize; it won the ALS gold medal, the Adelaide Festival Award, and the Christina Stead Award for Fiction in NSW. A book of short stories, Women Falling Down in the Street (1990) won the Steele Rudd Award. Three books of essays, Bad Manners (1993), Save Me Joe Louis (1998), and Trouble: evolution of a radical: selected writings 1970-2010’ (2010), were published in the US as well as in Australia. Her work was also published in the UK. A memoir about living in New York with her dogs, Stanley and Sophie, published in 2008, was later translated into French. That same year she wrote about US politics for the Australian Quarterly Essay series: American revolution: the fall of Wall Street and the rise of Barack Obama.
In 1983 Kate Jennings met Bob Cato, a photographer, graphic designer and artist. He was a Quaker, the son of a Cuban immigrant, best known for photographing musicians and for his award winning album cover art. He created or supervised the design of covers for musicians including Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan. Alive and newly sober, Kate J says in Catching a Man, Eating Him, ‘I met a man who surrounded me with warmth and married him’. They married in 1987; her brother Dare Jennings toasted her: ‘To my sister, whom I have seen through thick and thin. This is the thickest’. Bob Cato was 65, 25 years older. They had ten good years, she said. Money was a problem; they were freelance workers and neither managed money well. When he succumbed to Alzheimer’s she worked as a speechwriter for a merchant bank and supported him. He died in 1999. Moral Hazard is about a writer who gets a job in a merchant bank writing speeches to support her husband; she said ‘the narrator commutes between what she sees as two forms of dementia, that of her banker bosses and her husband’s Alzheimer’s’. In the novel, she gives him a lethal dose of tablets, as they had agreed, when he has lost any capacity for decision making. She said in an essay, Bad Manners, the dynamics of their marriage reminded her of sumo wrestling, or the struggle between two people in a pantomime horse costume over who would go first, but he was still the most interesting man she ever met.
Kate Jennings wrote with clarity, humour, honesty, and conviction; as Ken Bolton says (in an unpublished poem) her voice was ‘deft, casual, adamant’. Carmen Callil called her “a shaker of her fist at an unjust world”. Her favourite writers were Orwell and Randall Jarrell, for clarity, and Samuel Beckett for life-affirming nihilism. In the essay, High Horses, in ‘Bad Manners’, she says …’I remain as committed as ever to feminism and left wing causes, but not with the defoliating earnestness of my youth’. In the same essay she invokes William Strunk and clarity clarity clarity against the muddy sentences of feminist theory. The epigraph of the book is a quote from April Bernard, US poet: We need a revolution, but settle / for bad manners.
She wrote about New York with the affection and knowledge of a local: she made her life there. But she returned to visit Australia, dealt with the ambivalent status of an expat, and recalled Australia constantly in her writing. In ‘Stanley and Sophie’, she writes ‘A childhood on an Australian farm produces not only world class pragmatists but also world class pessimists’. Reporting on the Republican convention in ‘Trouble’, she jokes about skulking between two Republican supporters like a red-back spider under a toilet seat. In an interview with Shirley Hazzard in ‘Trouble’, she says ‘Australian girls grow up without confidence in either their intellect or their sexuality. It is such a struggle later to compensate for this. One is forced to invent oneself. Hazzard replies, Yes, but all life is inventing oneself’.
Barbara Brooks, July 2021.
List of books published:
Come to Me My Melancholy Baby, Fitzroy, Vic; Outback Press, 1975. Carlton, Vic; Schwartz Publishing, 2017
Cats, Dogs & Pitchforks, Port Melbourne, Vic; William Heinemann Australia, 1993
Bad Manners, Port Melbourne, Vic; Minerva, 1993
Save Me, Joe Louis, Ringwood, Vic; Penguin, 1988
Snake, Port Melbourne: Minerva, 1996; Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, c1997; Back Bay Books: Little, Brown and Co., 1998; Zurich: Nagel & Kimche, c2000; Sydney: Picador, 2003; Carlton, Vic: Black Inc., 2011
Moral Hazard, London; New York: Fourth Estate, 2002; Sydney: Picador, 2003; Amsterdam: Anthos, 2004; Paris; Editions des Deux Terres, 2004; Melbourne: Text Classics 2015
American Revolution: the fall of Wall Street and the rise of Barack Obama. Quarterly Essay 32. Melbourne; Black Inc, 2008.
Stanley and Sophie, New York: Scribner, 2008. North Sydney: Random House, 2008. N Syd, Vintage; 2009. Paris; Editions des Deux Terres, 2010.
Erik Jensen, On Kate Jennings. Carlton, Vic; Black Inc, 2017.
Barbara Brooks has published a book of memoir essays, Leaving Queensland, and a biography, Eleanor Dark: a writer’s life, and co-edited (with Moya Costello, Anna Gibbs and Ros Prosser) Mud Map: Australian women’s experimental writing. Her essays and stories have been published in Australia and overseas. She has worked as a reviewer, librarian, and lecturer in writing.