When Ellen van Neerven’s first book Heat and Light came out a few years ago, I fell in love with its gorgeous writing, sensuality, and interesting structure. I was pleased, then, to see that she’d put out a book of poems, Comfort Food, and used my Avid Reader points to buy a copy. I felt like I should have read the poems over a nicely-prepared curry, but I was interstate on a train (thin books and e-readers are good for travelling) and shovelled chilli-and-lime soy twists into my mouth. For someone who rarely lets herself eat junk food, they were good.
And the poems were good too: sometimes rich and chewable, sometimes dainty morsels, sometimes strange in one’s mouth, sometimes nourishing, and always delightful.
In ‘Pasta’, the warmth of a bowl of pasta is conveyed through the narrator’s consideration: ‘When my parents come to stay/I sneak out across the road/to the bathroom at McDonald’s/so I don’t wake them’; for a mother’s kindness for her daughter: ‘Mum hems my jeans/while I’m at work’; for the familiarity of family: ‘we read to each other in the car/condensation at our feet’. It’s a simple, heartening poem.
Food and sensuality go hand-in-hand, in life and poetry. In ‘Smoking Chutney’ the narrator is on the dance floor ‘just to get a closer look. Those/hips, yes. That flank. Her hair fragrant and viral. The band/also her. The beat mortar and pestle. She’s pushing down,/grinding those spices in the air’. Body, music, smell and taste become one.
But food and sex are not all comfort in a racist country. In ‘Chips’ the narrator is ‘tired with what’s unmentioned/idling in surf club bathrooms’, while that which is unspoken can be just as harmful as what is spoken: ‘what is happening with the dialogue of this country/they are killing people with words’ (21). In ‘Invisible Spears’ I was glad to read the lines ‘the tiddling fear/of invisible spears’ because I was pissed off with the overreaction to Adam Goode’s war cry: we put up with aggression from white men all the time, but can’t cope with it in black men? Jesus.
My favourite story in Heat and Light was ‘Water’, about a narrator who falls in love with a plant person. One of the things I liked about the story were its oceanic elements, and these watery associations were what I loved in ‘Meteorite’ too. This poem describes our lack of care for the environment:
is built for sea-living
but we do not pay
these creatures due respect
are merely pig fish
is a public art gallery
People mourn the passing of the reef because it’s beautiful and they don’t think their kids will be able to see it (and at the rate we’re going, it’s unlikely they will), but it’s also an incredible ecosystem that supports a vast number of animals. If we recognised that rather than seeing it as a place for visual consumption, perhaps more would be concerned for its welfare.
The sea is linked with the image of a meteorite, plunging into the poem in the opening line: ‘Your name changes when you land/on earth. What you were is now/your past.’ and it returns to the meteor at the end:
sometimes you stare
at the sky
and wish to be
what you were:
The play with tenses suggests that we have no recourse but to exist as we are in the present, although it’s not always a nice place to be. However we carry the memory of what we were: something otherworldly, burning bright, crashing and transforming.
This is my first review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Due to starting a new job, travelling and moving house, it’s an even later start than last year – but better that than never!