One of the most important things a poet, or indeed any artist, can do for an audience – particularly in these difficult times – is to convey the complexities of what it feels like to be a human being alive in the world today. Ali Whitelock’s work does this, with both candour and brio. I was therefore delighted to be asked to launch her second collection. The launch was to have taken place at Better Read Than Dead on 19 March 2020, but fell victim – as have so many arts events – to the necessary precautions around the coronavirus. Fortunately, the internet enables us to hold a launch without having to wash our hands thoroughly (though please do that anyway), don gloves, cough into our elbows or maintain a 1.5-metre distance from each other – so I welcome you to the virtual launch of Ali Whitelock’s the lactic acid in the calves of your despair.
Ali is a woman after my own heart in a particular way, namely that she tends to the straight-down-the-line and the sweary, being ever willing to call a spade a spade, when she is not calling it a fucking shovel. Yes, this is a content warning. But be assured that the swearing is not gratuitous, but rather a considered use of a potent and necessary element of the vernacular.
Something you’ll notice straight away, if you turn to the contents page, is that Ali has a gift for intriguing and memorable poem titles. The first poem in the book is called ‘in the silence of the custard’. This title has its own delicious absurdity, and is perfect for the poem, but it also, fittingly, carries a slight resonance of The Silence of the Lambs. There is also ‘the dandruff in the dry scalp of your longing’, ‘mr sausage’, ‘when your father dies of nothing’ and ‘a poem walked into a bar’. These titles are small siren songs, luring you into the poems themselves.
While Ali’s poems are informed by the energy of the spoken word, they are never simply transcriptions of the vernacular. Felicitous choices have been made as to wording, as well as rhythm, line breaks and other elements of form. The poems offer, in addition to their own intrinsic rewards, insight, entertainment and not a small measure of consolation. They contain many wonderful descriptions, like this one, from ‘kmart sells out of cheap fans made in China’, depicting lying in bed on a scorching night:
……………………………………………………….. … some nights i lie awake for hours crisping
at the edges like a fucking meat lover’s pizza. someone said count sheep.
i tried but they turned into air conditioners.
And this, from the same poem:
……………………………………………………………………. … sadness crept up behind me,
put its hand over my mouth and pulled me backwards into a filthy dark
alley I hadn’t been game enough to venture into before.
There’s a poem with a description of how to write a sonnet that is like nothing you’ve ever come across in a writing manual or a writing class. The author, having ventured into a metaphorical forest, summons several alphabets’ worth of letters and charms them, using blandishments and a tune on a magic pipe. Then she writes:
…………………AND once I had enough letters to make my sonnet
I threw down my pipe, rounded the letters up, twisted
their arms up their backs, held a gun at their heads
told them to lay the fuck down in their fourteen
……………………………..lines and no one gets hurt!
The humour in the collection is balanced with moments of poignancy: the poem ‘in the silence of the custard’ includes a small observation, a description of the hair spiralling out of the poet’s father’s smallpox scar, and then this devastating line: ‘something of you finally stretching toward the light’. A few words that contain worlds.
The book does not shy away from dealing with life’s difficulties. Even apart from death – which has a strong presence – there is the complexity of relating to an abusive parent, the paradoxes inherent in being a migrant, the vicissitudes of a long-term relationship. There are also some very modern troubles: the poem ‘now is the modem of our discontent’ is about the existential panic that can occur when the dreaded happens and the internet goes down. And while the deaths of the poet’s father and beloved dog Hector haunt the book, the poems they appear in are by turns tender, bleak, angry, bereft, and framed with wry observation and much humour. The collection also includes urgent poems about the planet, like ‘in the event of a lack of oxygen’, and, a late addition, ‘this is coal, don’t be afraid’ – a poem that went viral on social media and was retweeted by none other than former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
This is a book with a lot of heart; human connection and compassion feature alongside human distress. I’m going to (virtually) read you a little chunk from ‘The great fucking wall of China’, in which the protagonist, in physical pain, has sat down on the kerb outside the Lucky World supermarket in Chinatown. A man comes out and sits beside her. He doesn’t speak English and the protagonist doesn’t speak Chinese:
……………………………………………………..then the chinese man rose
from the kerb, went into the supermarket where they
sell the bitter melon and the chicken feet in the five kilo
bags and came out with a carton of chrysanthemum tea,
poked a straw in the hole handed it to me and I drank
it down and his look said to my look, I wish there was
more I could do. and my look said to his look you’ve
done enough already, thank you for this tea. it is delicious.
how thoughtful you are, how caring. and as I swallowed
the last of the tea his look said to my look, take care
of yourself won’t you. and my look said to his look,
I promise you I will.
The title poem is one of my favourites, a poem about grief that features not only ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’ but other metaphors that surprise and illuminate, like ‘the Grampians of your anguish’ and ‘the tartan thermos of your healing’. It is a hopeful poem that says: I know how bad it can be. I am here for you. Hang in there.
I’d like to end with a small extract from the poem called ‘a poem walked into a bar’, in which the poem itself addresses the author, saying:
I am merely words
the lactic acid in the calves of your despair is a potent brew of words, rhythm, imagination and truth. I highly recommend that you buy yourself a copy – and a few for your friends.
– Tricia Dearborn
Tricia Dearborn’s third collection of poetry, Autobiochemistry (UWA Publishing), was released in 2019, as was She Reconsiders Life on the Run, an International Poetry Studies Institute Chapbook. Her previous collections are The Ringing World and Frankenstein’s Bathtub. Her work has been published widely in literary journals, and is represented in anthologies including Contemporary Australian Poetry, Australian Poetry since 1788 and The Best Australian Poems. She was a Poet in Residence at the 2019 Poetry on the Move festival, and a judge of the 2019 University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize.
the lactic acid in the calves of your despair is available from https://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1564