By Cate KennedyPoetryScribe

The Taste of River Water

Cate Kennedy’s poetry is disarming, warm and accessible. Grounded in lived experience, this collection bears all the hallmarks of her much-loved prose, including lyrical precision and the clear, minimalist eye that reveals how life can turn on a single moment.

Musing on the undercurrents and interconnections between legacy, memory, motherhood, and the natural world, the poems in this exhilarating collection begin on the surface and then take the reader, gracefully and effortlessly, to a far more thought-provoking place.

This earthy, sensuous, and resoundingly compassionate collection is also quietly compelling, rich in its finely observed meditations on the minutiae of ordinary life.

Portrait of Cate Kennedy

Cate Kennedy

Cate Kennedy is the author of the highly acclaimed novel The World Beneath, which won the People’s Choice Award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2010 and was shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year (Fiction) and the ASA Barbara Jefferis Award, among others, in the same year. Her short-story collection, Dark Roots, was shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Award in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. Cate is also the author of the travel memoir Sing, and Don’t Cry, and the poetry collections Joyflight and Signs of Other Fires.

Judges’ report

Cate Kennedy’s The Taste of River Water: New and Selected Poems is an elegant, bold, nuanced and transforming collection, all the things we’ve come to expect from Kennedy. From the seemingly simple: eating guava, watching mud wasps and planting taproot to the gritty life stuff: the five a.m. breastfeed, the plight of famine victims and the death of an unborn child. Her depictions of the ordinary are extraordinary. The Taste of River Water is an outstanding accomplishment.


The subdued ivory and black colours of this collection’s cover belie the rich and vibrant words within. Cate Kennedy selects those words carefully and uses them to great - and occasionally devastating - effect.

Kennedy’s themes will be recognisable to many – some perhaps painfully so – and her relaying of intensely personal experiences allows the reader to immerse themselves in those moments. ‘Eating earth’ mourns the loss of a child at birth, the grief laid bare and raw:

Later at home, I observe my beaten body,

heavy as a hole in space,

helplessly pulling towards itself, in the airless dark,

every black and icy satellite imaginable.

‘Breath’ deals with the all-too-familiar subject of bushfire – the creation of fire plans, the preparation for what is to be done should the unthinkable happen. These practicalities are presented alongside visions of how such an event might play out and reactions in the face of it:

On the fridge is the fire plan,

sensibly discussed and prioritised,

but were that fire to start

I doubt my rationality.

Like an idiot, I fear I would run,

an ant under the boiling sky,

for a shovel and a box

to dig up the small tree I keep alive with bathwater.

Very little escapes Kennedy’s notice. The detail within her verse enhancing images of the ordinary: a swimming class for children, putting a log on a fire. Tiny elements so easily lost in the larger scheme of things are brought into focus, creating poems that command attention and demand that you feel. Here, Kennedy presents poetry that is easily read but certainly doesn’t lack the power to effect.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist