Ellen van Neerven, Throat (UQP 2020)
This is Ellen van Neerven’s second book of poetry. It picks up the themes of the first book, Comfort Food (my post here), and expands and deepens them wonderfully (and sometimes alarmingly). van Neerven discussed the book with poet Tessa Rose at the virtual Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year. The podcast, which you can access here, spurred me to buy a copy. And I’ve just listened to the inaugural episode of UQP’s podcast series, Extraordinary Voices for Extraordinary Times, where van Neerven chats with Western Sydney poet Eunice Andrada (Soundcloud here). It feels as if they are everywhere. (Gender fluidity features in Throat, and I believe that ‘they’ is van Neerven’s preferred pronoun.)
In the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast, van Neerven reads the long poem ‘Chermy’ – about the Westfield shopping centre, Chermside – and describes its evolution as a social poem for and by her First Nations family in south-east Queensland (it’s on the Overland website, here). Another long poem, ‘The Only Blak Queer in the World’ is a similarly social poem about the poet’s identity as part of the Blak Queer community (you can read it on the SBS site, here). ‘Blak’, by the way, is a word coined by artist Destiny Deacon to signify urban First Nations people in Australia, a coining whose origins you can read about here. These two poems, appearing early in this book, provide a kind of backdrop for much of what follows. I love this from about the midpoint of ‘The Only Blak Queer’:
I hadn't yet been to Mardi Gras. I saw the white gays and the white gaze I was used to and then I saw Blak Queers everywhere and every conversation was an insight into a Blak Queer past, the street becoming a site of multi-time, the past-present beat, the future love, and forty years of Blak Queer pride spread into more than sixty thousand years of we-have-always-been-here. My dance joined a big dance. I saw a Wiradjuri/Yorta Yorta lesbian couple who had been marching since the beginning, who chanted, 'Stop Police Attacks! On Gays, Women and Blacks!' in 1978 and they told me off for knowing fuck-all. Every chant is a line of a continuing poem and I am learning the words.
You don’t have to be Blak or Queer to feel the huge joy of finding a community and a history in those lines. And you don’t have to be a 78er to love the humility in the second paragraph and the pride in the last sentence.
The book’s five loose sections all revolve around the lived experience of being Aboriginal/Blak and queer. There are poems commenting on political news, from ‘The Last Apology’ which likens Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations as the apologies of a domestic abuser (‘You want to make up and make out / with the Aboriginal flag / I want you to promise /you won’t do it again’), to ‘Four Truths and a Treaty’, which begins: ‘We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist’, or ‘Engaged’, a wry take on the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Some poems turn a challenging eye on white allies. ‘Expert’, for example, begins:
poor me don't know how it happened think I got a non-Indigenous girlfriend who thinks she's an expert don't know how she got her expertise think I'm the first one she's met
Some poems celebrate being part of the community of Aboriginal women and find strength there. There are poems of connection to Country, and poems of travel – solidarity found with Indigenous people elsewhere, and dread at returning to Australia. ‘Questions of Home’ ends:
I brace my self so much on arrival I forget to breathe.
There are joyful poems about queer relationships. My favourite lines in the whole book (from ‘Pleasure Seeking’):
Tell her ... go'n, tell her ... you're not really dating unless you're dating each other's ancestors
Like Comfort Food, this book features a number of poems responding to works by other artists and writers, including Destiny Deacon ( ‘Portrait of Destiny’), Kerry Reed-Gilbert (‘White Excellence’), Candy Royalle (‘Queens’), Michelle De Kretser (‘Questions of Travel’ and perhaps two other poems), Alice Walker (‘All that is loved (can be saved)’), an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery (‘Body Flow’). In a category of its own is ‘HOMOFOMO’, brief, bitterly hilarious descriptions of eight (imaginary?) queer-themed mainstream movies.
It’s a rich, accessible, many-faceted collection from a strong, challenging and self-questioning voice. I had to use a search engine occasionally, but each time it was rewarding. I laughed a number of times. There is at least one too-much-information moment, but I think my embarrassed averting of the gaze was exactly the response the poet would have expected of me.
There’s so much to respond to but as usual I’ll just pick one poem to talk about in detail. Here’s ‘Call a Spade a Spade’. It wasn’t my first choice, but it kept waving its arms in the air demanding my attention:
This is one of a number of poems in the book addressed to non-Indigenous/settler readers. At first glance it feels pretty prosaic, even preachy, more Facebook post or Twitter thread than poem (though of course the categories aren’t exclusive). But if you take it slowly, that is if you read it as a poem, it opens out like a fan.
The poem falls into five parts: 1) the title 2) three lines, syntactically dependent on the verb ‘call’ in the title, with the form ‘a x a x’; 2) three lines that repeat that verb, and go ‘ call it x not x’; 3) four sentences starting with ‘don’t’, two of one line each, one of three lines, and the fourth of two lines; 4) two lines, back to the word ‘call’, each with the shape ‘call yourself x’.
The title for a start: it means of course, ‘Speak plainly without euphemism or hi-falutinness’: don’t call a spade an agricultural implement. As the title of a poem by an Indigenous woman, it also evokes a term of racist abuse, and if that were the primary meaning it would be a directive to use racist language. Clearly, in this context, that’s not what the poem is about to do, but the ambiguity hangs about, subliminally posing a question about the effect of racist abuse, and unsettling the white liberal reader (which is the only kind of reader I can speak for).
The first three lines takes us to a third and mercifully harmless meaning of ‘spade’ by enumerating the card suits. But thanks to the charged ambiguity of the title, each of these suit names now resonates with a charge of its own: ‘heart’ – these are people; ‘diamond’ – wealth, greed and the profit motive are major forces in our society; ‘club’ – so is violence.
If you were reading the poem as an instructional text, the next three lines are the core: four examples of language that names the reality without pussyfooting around. The list could have included, say, ‘call it massacre not dispersal’, ‘call it Uluru not Ayer’s Rock’, ‘write Aboriginal not aboriginal’, a seemingly endless stream of injunctions.
The first of the next three lines – lines starting with ‘don’t’ – adds to the list, and locates the poem as part of the current long-running conversation about 26 January, a conversation that ranges from Stan Grant’s Australia Day and the Twitter hashtag #ChangetheDate, and so carries with it a whiff of acrimony, a suggestion perhaps that the poem so far is making demands in the spirit of what is being called ‘cancel culture’, what an open letter to Harpers Magazine signed by 150 luminaries called ‘the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides’: use the language that I am specifying here or … But then, in my reading, there’s a turn away from that tone: ‘don’t shy away from telling the truth’ could still mean ‘my truth’, but it would be a stretch. The remainder of this section moves further away with ‘don’t say”no worries” … don’t say “we’re full”‘. Although the language is still about what the speaker wants us to say or not say, these are no longer instructions on how to clean up our language. The first is an exhortation against complacency; the second quotes a battle of slogans about asylum seekers and gives it tremendous metaphorical power: ‘say “we’re open”‘ surely is an appeal to the reader to open himself up to possibility, to other people’s reality, specifically the reality of Indigenous lives.
And the final couplet brings it home: ‘call yourself an ally / call yourself a mate’. The speaker isn’t calling on us for compliance, but for active allyship (is that a word?), and then, and this is the thing that lodged in my brain and made me go back to the poem, to be a mate, with all the associations of that word. We started out with card games, we stopped off at the problematic national day and what Wikipedia says (here) may be white Australia’s national motto, and we end with mateship. This isn’t about getting the words right or conforming to the current demands of wokeness: it’s an appeal for decency and an implied offer of friendship. An ally can retain a sense of superiority; not a mate.
For me this poem is a lesson in the value of slow reading. Skimmed, there’s not a lot to it that you haven’t heard at a hundred demonstrations. Taken meditatively, it pierces the heart.
Added later: If you’re interested in a review from an Indigenous perspective, there’s ‘On the Power of Being Still’ by Wiradjuri woman Janine Leane in the Sydney Review of Books, link here.
Throat is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
This review is a late contribution to Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.