And My Heart Crumples Like a Coke Can (Wakefield Press £13); ISBN: 978-1743055342
I wish review copies would arrive sans publisher’s assertions and solicited opinions from names dropped on the cover. It’d also help if the review copy has the forward or introduction already torn out. Ignoring all that and getting right to the text of a new author you’ve not yet heard of, or a new book by a writer you deeply admire, requires discipline.
If you set the book down to make a coffee before you dive in, blah blah commercially successful author tells me what to think right there on the cover, and if, because of the wonders of the human mind, I ignore the blaring text, my goddamn subconscious soaks it right up, like an affirmation on the fridge, or the warnings on a packet of Australian cigarettes. I stick post-its over everything except the title, skip right over the praise to the dedication, glance over the chapter or poem titles, then hold my breath and leap into the depths of the writer’s mind. 99% of the time I feel like I dived into commercial sump and come up with black-lung as fast as possible without getting the bends. Sometimes though, soon as I hit the text I want to stay in there and I don’t care if I fucking drown.
Recently I opened a beaten-to-shit Australia Post satchel sent from Wakefield Press that had an apology from the P.O taped on it informing me the package had been mutilated somehow in transit. I extracted the book like taking cogs and sprockets out of a crushed platypus and the first thing I saw before the post-its went on was a comparison to Bukowski and Sharon Olds. I’d rather eat that gangrenous foot on the smoking-causes-peripheral-vascular-disease affirmation you see on bags of rollie tobacco than voluntarily read Sharon Olds, but that Bukowski counter piqued my curiosity. It took a few days to get over this comparison, as Olds and Bukowski are two sides of very different coins. Inspired by the coffee ring graphic under the steady with slight hint of mischief gaze of the author on the cover, I sat down with a pot of coffee and a fresh deck of cigarettes, skipped the intro, read the dedication and found myself happily drowning in the poetry of Ali Whitelock.
The poet hails from Glasgow and, as you would expect, many of the poems in Crumples reflect her (unique) experience of an ex-pat in the colony of Sydney, Terra Australis. Whitelock writes in a playful syntax of obligatory commodores, diseased azaleas (azaleus morbus, hilarious), beige villas and the visual pollution of American franchise, lamingtons, chico rolls, various birds, spiders and other vicious wildlife, hideous architecture and blatant disregard for this ancient country and its precious resources. This is not politics, more of a scathing review of the ignorance in lies about clean coal. Wrapped up in these acerbic quotidian observations are glimpses of homesickness, uttered suddenly like a confessional. This sways the reader firmly in the direction of intimacy with the poet, like she is one of your oldest friends. The winds of Scotland which howl and bite make an appearance several times (see, ‘the blue of god’s fucking eyes and ‘a lake full of fucking swans’) and those feelings of family being so far away are encapsulated in moments of pure and simple beauty:
my mother has sent me crystal doorknobs from Scotland that glisten in a way that knobs do not glisten here.
(in kuntry where sun is never stopping shining)
(in kuntry where sun is never stopping shining)
At first I suppose the Olds comparison is fitting, Whitelock’s form is similar, as is this poet’s approach, a sort-of rapid fire psychological landscape of sensoria, but the similarities end there. Where Olds’ poetry laps my ankles with gentle waves of allusion, Whitelock’s work reads like a rip which takes your legs out from under you. There is no swimming against this tide of biting wit and searing turns of phrase; you may as well let her ocean take you to the watery after world. This is where the blurb writer’s comparison to Bukowski is more fitting. Whitelock’s poems are a dark therapy peppered with a sharp satirical insight into the way things really are in this age of machine learning beauty- mode portrait photography. But if you are now imagining a vile corpulent man drunk and hunched in a hotel for men only, writing angry poetry about hundred-dollar whores and getting wasted at the horses, you’d be very wrong, but dirty realism, it is.
Whitelock is more like a Plath from the wrong side of the tracks. Her poetry is intensely personal but just as you expect her to break down and gas the reader as well, she punches you instead, with an oven-sized knuckle-duster. The poems are bound together with a method of inferred image chains, when there is an abundance of beauty the poet hits you with the inverse, even if it’s not there, as in the lines: ‘some days there are whales other days dolphins/occasional jellies and never dead babies’. When she goes in this direction the images are startling and transgressional. More than once I am reminded of the minimalist school of Dangerous Writing, particularly in the poems ‘my friends vagina, ode to an ovary’ and ‘please do not pee in the sink’. The way Whitelock’s internal narratives zoom in puts Carl Zeiss lenses to shame. Something small will happen, as in the poem ‘pakora for starters’ where the poet observes a nurse trying to decipher a doctor’s scrawl on a hospital chart. We are whisked away to a scene of a boy scout in the woods trying to start a fire with a magnifying glass and then lured back to real ground in the nurse’s body, and a right jab is delivered with the fatal sentiment of innocence, like an inviting shallow ocean pool full of blue ringed octopuses and stone fish.
The blurbs on Ali’s book are right, rare as that is. This poet writes poetry of ‘excoriating tenderness; one of the wittiest, liveliest and most moving collections in years; raw and beautiful and completely devoid of pretension.’ You’ll be stung and pierced and sad and bursting out in cackles on the bus as you laugh and drown in Ali Whitelock’s wild ocean of crumpled coke cans, snobby bookshops, panic attacks and Borat mankinis. In these times when antipodean poetry is dominated by stay-in-line competition poets I find this collection by Ali Whitelock honest, invigorating and refreshing. I’m putting this book right on my top shelf of favourite poetry published in Australia.
Dr Brentley Frazer is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Aboriginal to Nowhere (HeadworX, 2016), the critically acclaimed nonfiction novel Scoundrel Days: a memoir (UQP, 2017), and academic papers on experimental creative writing. He is also editor-in-chief of Bareknuckle Poet Journal of Letters and publishing director of Bareknuckle Books.