A kaleidoscope of topics: Jean Kent launches ‘The Earth will Outshine Us’ by Kathryn Fry

The Earth will Outshine Us by Kathryn Fry, Porters Square Books 2021 was launched by Jean Kent at the Watt Space Gallery on 2 April 2022 as part of the 2022 Newcastle Writers Festival

I am delighted to be here today to launch Kathryn Fry’s second collection of poetry, The Earth Will Outshine Us.

Like so much over the last two years, this celebration of Kathryn’s book has been delayed. I’ve been fortunate to have a copy of the book since last September, and although it has been disappointing to have to wait so long to officially wish it well as it goes out into the world, that extra time means I’ve also had the chance to become very familiar with the poems.

Even back in September, I thought I knew well what was in this book. But each re-reading has surprised me. Like all good poetry, Kathryn’s writing has instant delights, but it also offers rewards which do not fade with each revisiting. As well as the pleasures in particular poems, though, this book is remarkable for the scope of its content. There are decades of knowledge and experience behind this poetry, and although Kathryn has a very light touch, her spirit is unfailingly generous as she moves us through a kaleidoscope of topics, all of which have somehow sprung from her own “simply extraordinary business of being” (to quote from her poem ‘On William Robinson’s Later Harvest’).

Kathryn is a walker. She walks on Kangaroo Island, just before catastrophic bushfires; she walks in the Blue Mountains seeing waratahs about to bloom; she walks in Central Australia with the music of ‘How beautiful are the feet’ moving her past the spinifex … She walks – often – around her home at Lake Macquarie. She walks all these places into her poems, noticing the angophoras, the sand goannas, the Gymea lilies … alert to all the details, naming and celebrating her glimpses of nature with wonderful clarity and enthusiasm.

A long time ago, long before Kathryn and I met, we spent our early school years studying from the same curriculum. We both grew up in Queensland. In fact, we were born in the same year – and only three days apart! – although we didn’t know this until many decades later.

For the final two years before university, we had to choose between subjects which would take us to Science or Humanities. Kathryn’s subjects led her to a mostly science-based working life, including time as a science teacher (what lucky students, I think!).

The qualities she needed to make these career choices a success are very evident in her writing: she has a rare ability to describe the natural world with exquisite precision and in vivid focus. Her scientific knowledge bounces very easily back to her own personal life, however. In her poem ‘Walking’, for instance, the lines

………………. the heavens inflamed

with rays of light, the astronomical lines
of eight minutes from the sun

are followed by what she does, here on this earth below:

In eight minutes I cross the wooden

bridge crusted with frost, the call
……………of a yellow robin filling the cold air.

How delicious is that “crusted with frost” – or the image of the yellow robin – and how easy and natural is the transition from a scientific fact to a more poetic tone.

So many beautifully recognisable plants and creatures of the Australian landscape appear in Kathryn’s poems. They are recorded in quite reverential detail, but that richness is balanced by an awareness of how all this might be lost. In the poem ‘Fluid Icons’, she writes of the “holy grail of data from studies over the years” and hopes “this should be enough … to keep loss at bay”.

This acknowledgement of the importance of science is a recurring theme throughout the book. We are given enlightening glimpses into the lives of some notable women scientists, from the 1920s through to the present. These poems are rich in scientific curiosity and knowledge, but also grounded and emotionally connected to everyday life. I was especially pleased to find ‘The Means to the End’, a poem about Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize for her work on “decoding the aglet ends of DNA”. I had read about Elizabeth Blackburn and was very impressed by her achievements, but Kathryn makes her a very real person, telling us not only the progression of her research, but also revealing snippets like this: “A competent pianist, she designed tests as elegant as a sonata”.

Music is very important in Kathryn’s poems, too. So is art, particularly painting. There are many poems written in response to paintings, or to music. Always, Kathryn’s personal vision transforms what could be simply factual observation or historical research into imagery which is magical.

What is at the heart of these poems? I think it is ‘connection’ – connection to this earth, but always, and especially movingly, to people: family, friends, strangers seen in shared spaces (buses, trains, the gym …).

When Kathryn turns the microscope on herself and on the people who matter most to her, the results are deeply felt and affectingly tender. There are beautiful poems here about ageing, about the loss of parents and dear friends, about the progressions in family life from the early days of courtship to the joys of grandchildren. It is truly a rich and multi-layered collection!

There are too many gems for me to mention today, but I would like to leave you with just a few moments which leapt out to me:

the beautiful ease and clarity of her description of taking home “ a huge/ bunch of Cootamundra wattle” to give to her mother.

I can still see her face.
It was as if the sun had come.

Or the birds and sea creatures of Heron Island, such as

              the black noddies, seated nun-like
              white wimpled, on duty in October nests

the butterflies, she follows in ‘The Matter of Covid-19’, which suddenly “lift out of their folded selves”

the music of Messiaen, composed in 1940, in a Silesian prison camp, which, in spite of his swollen fingers, and his hair and teeth falling out, is a “dance of fury”, a string quartet which still gives his fellow musicians “wings” – because “he’d written in love” and because

he’d listened to birdsong for hours
and wrote down every feathered note.

In the beautiful ending to ‘Artistry’, Kathryn writes

It’s that cut-through know-how I yearn for,
like the luminous sounds of bellbirds after rain.

There may still be difficulty and imperfection in this world, but in this collection there is also much encouraging hope, and much to celebrate and value. As the poem ‘Chaos on a Canvas’ wisely notes, we are

good enough always, shining sometimes like
……..the Klein blue of dianella or the golden ball
of wombat berry.”

Although the title of this book is The Earth Will Outshine Us, I think there is also an abundance of shining here in Kathryn’s poems. I heartily recommend this book to you, and I’m delighted to declare it launched!

 – Jean Kent

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Jean Kent

Jean Kent is the author of eight books of poetry. Her most recent books are The Hour of Silvered Mullet (Pitt Street Poetry, 2015) and Paris in my Pocket (PSP, 2016), a selection of her poems from an Australia Council residency in Paris. The Shadow Box, a book length sequence of poems based on her grandparents’ experiences during and after World War I is forthcoming from Pitt Street Poetry. Samples of her poems and occasional jottings are on her website http://jeankent.net/   

The Earth will Outshine Us is available from https://www.portersquarebooks.com/book/9781761091711

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