Comfort Food – Ellen van Neerven (UQP)
Food, for van Neerven, is very much a communal, communicative act of kinship. Recipes, sharing, feeding, chomping together. How making a dish the way your mother or sister or aunty taught you might be a way of being with them, even in their absence. Food seems like a way to write about a certain type of Australian experience, too – one that involves a history of specifically Aboriginal kinships being hacked at by outside forces, and a colonised subject who also experiences whatever bourgeois cosmopolitan Brisbane has to offer, like in the final stanza of the poem ‘Generous’:
Those West End bars
with their pool tables
a lemon lime and bitters
and a good bloody cry
It’s no wonder, as the poet writes in ‘Chips’, ‘white people really bore me sometimes’. However sobering the qualifying lines that follow, the poem doesn’t lose its immediate comical quality.
The more one reads, one comes to realise Comfort Food is perhaps a deliberately ironic title for the collection, a gesture towards what happens when food is not always the warmth we need but evidence of urgent fractures between a poet and her language, or a girl and her grandmother.
Ellen van Neerven’s poems are pulled from corners of the contemporary world. In ‘Future Senses’ (not ‘Tenses’, as I kept reading until I retrained my eye), it’s social media and data, but also a car, the climate, walking. How does van Neerven make everything at once minuscule and gaping?
Then there are moments where she plays with phrasing in a way that is not always entirely clear to me. The final line of the short poem ‘Goat Curry’ goes like this: ‘I didn’t ever eat alone’. Not ‘I never ate alone’ but ‘didn’t ever’. Yet there’s something pleasing about the refusal to smooth out this final line, the angular extra syllables.
There’s a sort of gentle command in these poems. On the first reading they seem to read against the sense of a poem – more casual, speech-like, with spatterings of profundity. See, for example, ‘Berries’:
those who belong to wilderness
take off your socks, show your fur
and I’ll show you my feathers
But upon revision, it becomes clear the rhythm of these lines changes the way we read them, and unsettles us in a way that opens up various entries into these works.
Ban en Banlieue – Bhanu Kapil (Nightboat)
3. What is Ban?
Ban is a mixture of dog shit and bitumen (ash) scraped of the soles of running shoes: Puma, Reebok, Adidas.
Looping the city, Ban is a warp of smoke.
Ban en Banlieue is a book where the protagonist, Ban, is ‘both dead and never living’. Ban exists undeniably; Ban is part ‘she’ and part ‘I’:
I made the ivy go faster like a carpet or rug I could pull.
Ban turns her head to the wall.
Ban is comprised of notes, memory, brown, suburbs. In these note-like poems, Bhanu Kapil returns to England in the 1970s, then travels time. The fractured narrative elements of this book take us from the moment Ban/I/she hears a riot from a bedroom, pieced together with declarative statements that create a steady pace, to poems that might otherwise have floated as scenic fragments. Ban is in England. Ban is on the floor. The body and its relations, or its refusals, or its exclusions. Ban reads Adorno and Elizabeth Grosz.
There is a militancy in the softness of images in this book (pink dolphins, raindrop indent, a thin bronze coin). In ‘2. Meat forest: 1979’:
Above her, the pink lightning is branched—forked—in five places.
A brown ankle sparkles on the ground.
Genital life gives way to bubbles, the notebook of a body’s two eyes.
The brown ankle – part of the body that receives violence, that is the body on the ground – also sparkles. Ban seems to operate on multiple planes from which she can assess corporal realities and subjectivities. This sense of multiplicities resonates in the notes at the back of the book, where multiple people are thanked by the poet. Ban, possibly a ‘we’ as well as an ‘I’ and a ‘she’, might teach us about the ‘we’ that is necessary to the poem today.
Not Fox Nor Axe – Chloe Wilson (Hunter)
This is a book that takes you into many skins. The lines are bursting, even at their softest, with imagery and need and events; we feel the poet’s need to read history in multiple ways at once or, sometimes, just one new way. How to play a line of enquiry outwards or sideways. Domestic advice for Lady Macbeth’s spot problem, or solutions to Rapunzel’s hair. Curly narratives sometimes; other times tracing old artworks, mythological figures, photographs, literature. For poems to be at once threatening to spill outside the page and tightly harnessed lines (from ‘Experimenta Lucifera’:
desires that go off
after emptying the bladder
Neat and exploratory and, then, towards the end is ‘Moon-Face in the Blitz’, which shifts me into another gear – long lines with gaps that cause rivers of white space on the page: ‘seen his teeth? always sucking some strange/foreign sweet smell of milk curdled skin’. Even the book’s title Not Fox Nor Axe – a refusal to name by naming – is like the book itself: a refusal to be pinned down to any one thing. The ground is not stable while you read, nor is your vision, which is what it might feel like to be ahead of the ‘something’ that ‘gives us chase’.
not a casual / solitude – Stacey Teague
The epigraph to this chapbook by New Zealand Sydney-based poet Stacey Teague, from Anne Carson, suggests the poetry in these pages will address solitude, will include poems about writing poetry, about the gutters and margins in which the act of writing might flourish. Each poem inside sits opposite a black and white image: for example, foliage, or bare legs leaning on someone else’s thigh next to empty plates and juice cup atop a picnic rug, or a kitten gazing defiantly from inside an otherwise empty beer carton sitting on black and white square tiles. Each poem relinquishes line breaks for the solidus, running along, with pauses, the phrases completely making sense but lending themselves to multiple approaches.
In the poem ‘a tender process’, we find vulnerability and the act of gazing inwardly at one’s own vulnerability. ‘leaving you / is a tender process / but to stay would be like tenderized meat / i’ll go too soft in your mouth’ … ‘you move closer to me in the beer garden / my blood grows’.
Teague’s poems feel like the earnest glow of being surrounded by friends and being young and living in this fucked-up world; they also have a muted resignation, which seems to say here is some nature and body parts and feelings – what do we do with all this? ‘nothing is so neat as an / ending’ reads the final phrase in the final poem, which is probably true, though I’ve not come across so many neat endings but maybe that’s the point. Or maybe the point is to make poems that are equal parts sincere and suspicious of sincerity, while also being pleasurable and memorable to read.
The Victorious Ones – Chris Nealon (Commune Editions)
Post capital, post The Salt Eaters, Dune and Obi Wan. But maybe after everything ends, ‘Poetry began to ask the question it had hidden in the forest’. ‘It chose sides’. This is a chapbook that has feet in many different times; after everything, who will survive? Nealon’s poems (or is it one long poem, numbered into sections?) create a clearing, where we remember poetry, or perhaps instead are
… imagining high-value objects become nearly worthless
People just leaving their prized possessions lying around
For landscape we have forests, savannah, terror. Glimpses of homophobia as it works alongside or within the violence of capital itself. In 7:
Those hammer-blows administered to gay boys’ skulls – they say NO – we are not free from violence – this is not Arcadia – how dare you flounce around –
I didn’t become a professor so I could “demystify” my students
I didn’t kiss that boy in 1987 because I’d forgotten terror
The poem or section that is numbered 11 is an elegy to the poet Peter Culley, who visits the narrator who will ‘never have your mad skills’. Are we being tugged? Besides from behind, I mean. What tugs us forward and what is waiting after? The uncertainty of what a poem can even do, which is always a question for the revolutionary poet, whether or not they joined the listserv. I rather like the places the poem/s take/s me.
Image: crop from cover of Not fox nor axe