Ellen van Neerven
It seems hard to believe that Ellen van Neerven’s debut poetry book, Comfort Food, was only published in 2016, given the remarkable evolution we see in Throat, the second collection from the young Mununjali Yugambeh poet. While the titles of both poetry collections similarly draw attention to the mouth, that organ traditionally associated with poets, they do so in ways that highlight the differences between the books. Comfort Food was an offering of short lyrical poems characterised by the kind of openness and generosity associated with acts of sharing meals. Throat, however, is a far edgier book, speaking of vulnerability but also strength, pain and anger.
There’s a line from Throat that has stuck with me, perhaps because it seems to explain the transformation we see from one book to the next. In a poem titled “18Cs”, the 30-year-old poet reflects: “I’ve grown up / to a world that was uglier than the one I was promised.” The sentiment captures the disillusionment that comes with growing up, but as suggested by the title – which references that much-debated section of the Racial Discrimination Act designed to protect minorities from vilification – that disenchantment is more bitter for some than others. Certainly, it can’t have been easy for van Neerven in 2017 when they were vilified on social media by New South Wales students who had been tasked with analysing one of the poems from Comfort Food – a completely innocuous poem titled “Mango” – in an English exam.
That ugly and undoubtedly traumatic event seems to inform the first and untitled poem of Throat, which shows the poet recovering from an unsaid “incident”, while their girlfriend “spends time weeding my emails”. They are comforted by friends – “We thought you conducted yourself with such dignity and grace” – though the poet insists “I did nothing but lie in my bed”. However, the poet we see in this collection has not been intimidated. In fact, Throat testifies to a new-found confidence, apparent even in the greater length of individual poems as well as in the greater length of the book as a whole.
That confidence, as a number of poems make clear, is something the poet draws in part from their family, community and Country. A number of poems honour, in particular, the sustaining power of the maternal. The long and subtly complex poem “Chermy”, one of my favourites, does this by honouring the maternal or feminine space of the shopping centre. Here the Westfield shopping centre in the Brisbane suburb of Chermside, where the poet’s mother and grandmother have a long history of being “gatherers”, shopping to “make / our houses safe”, is conceptualised as a “sacred site”. The transformation is playful but also political, enacting a reverse colonisation. This is metaphorically symbolised in the poem through an imagined alien invasion, with the poet taking on an “alien lover” and showing her around the shopping centre, with its “shiny things / delicate pathways / like the slight slope up to Coles / with the warm popcorn scent / all the exits of Myer”. The poem also evokes colonial history and the nearby area of Downfall Creek, where “settler-invaders got stuck” and “found trouble”. By contrast, the expansion of “our Chermy” (which is the biggest Westfield in the country) is conflated with the resilience of First Nations people, who “are rising / rising / to the air space / to the sky”.
Many poems in Throat also draw strength from a legacy of First Nations protest poetry going back to Oodgeroo Noonuccal, the first Aboriginal author to publish a poetry collection. In their continuation of this tradition, van Neerven sets aside the lyrical voice that dominated their earlier work, and that dominates contemporary poetry generally, for the more direct, colloquial style of activist poetry. While these poems don’t always feel fresh, van Neerven does extend the traditional subject matter of First Nations protest poetry from race to gender and LGBTQIA rights. “Four truths and a treaty” begins:
We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia and transphobia
in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist.
Some fellas feel threatened by young women speakin up.
Threatened by gay men and women speaking up. Threatened
by gender-diverse mob speakin up. Lemme tell you, we have
every right to be here.
Other poems show van Neerven’s confidence through formal inventiveness – and it is in these poems that van Neerven, for this reader at least, really shines. An unnamed poem in the middle of the book, for example, is suddenly and surprisingly presented in the form of a contract – a “Treaty of shared power between Throat’s reader and author” – including a space for the reader’s signature. This is followed by a companion piece, a prose poem, in which the poet speaks directly to the reader: “I’m not sure whom I’m entering into this agreement with. Are you whitefella, blackfella or a fella of another colour? Whose Country do you belong to and whose do you occupy? What is our relationship with each other? What are our expectations of each other?” The poet’s suspicion of their readers’ goodwill is well founded, given what they endured in 2017, but the interrogation doesn’t require knowledge of this context to be effective. In fact, I can’t remember another poetry collection ever confronting me in such a way, turning my gaze back on myself, demanding that I open myself up to questioning, that I be willing to give as much as I take.
Returning to the first poem in Throat, we see the wounded poet being asked by their therapist to “describe the creative process”. The poet answers that they experience it as “a voice to throw belief at”. That belief is defiantly and satisfyingly apparent in this book. While I didn’t believe every poem was as hard won as it might have been, I do believe in what this young poet could do next.
UQP, 152pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "Ellen van Neerven, Throat".
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