and my heart crumples like a coke can
Poetry and comedy meet in Ali Whitelock’s poetry collection and my heart crumples like a coke can. As in a stand-up routine, these poems offer sharp social observation, frankness played for laughs and nourishing doses of swearing. And as with the best poetry, they refresh our language, pay homage to tradition as the generative source of art, and surprise and delight as wit slides into beauty or pathos. The effect of the defamiliarisations and transformations of both comedy and poetry can be invigorating. The reader receives a double shot of revitalisation here.
In “a friend of mine with low self-esteem”, the poet employs gentle satire in a literary milieu, albeit one that illustrates the poet’s concern with the everyday and her working-class suspicion of pretension. The poet visits a “very high-brow bookstore” where the staff “have degrees and phds” and “do not say hello to you / or be nice to you because they are very / intellectual”.
In other poems, the object of Whitelock’s satire has more gravity. In “mia council casa es tu council casa”, the poet is in the gift shop of an art gallery in Sydney when she overhears two strangers reflecting on how “if hitler were alive today this whole thing / with the syrian refugees would not be happening”. The poet, as a Scottish migrant, observes Australia with the critical acuity of an outsider, and her reflections on Australia’s policy towards refugees are damning: “australia i have offered / more hope to more cockatoos more safety / to kookaburras more gum leaves to koalas / than the crumbs you are flicking / from your all-you-can-eat buffet”. Whitelock’s challenges to traditional syntax and punctuation, evident here as in all her poems, reinforce her iconoclastic defiance of a conservative vision. What we see here is a will to see the world not only anew but humanely.
Whitelock, though, is never smug or self-righteous. She is just as likely to address her own foibles as those of others. There are edgy and funny poems about romantic mistakes and being middle-aged. Other poems are concerned with illness and death in powerful ways, avoiding sentimentality and cliché. One of these contains an unforgettable image of a “grief train” onto which the poet and her partner pile “great shovels of our grief”.
Whitelock’s gifts to poetry are many. These include showing how poetry doesn’t have to be written for a minority in order to be first-rate. KN
Wakefield Press, 102pp, $22.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2018 as "Ali Whitelock, and my heart crumples like a coke can". Subscribe here.