A trove of ancestral magic: Leila Lois reviews ‘In the Room with the She Wolf’ by Jelena Dinic

In the Room with the She Wolf by Jelena Dinic, Wakefield Press 2021

In the Room with the She Wolf, the winner of Wakefield Press/Arts South Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award is a great debut from a vital emerging voice, Jelena Dinić.

Jelena came to Australia during the civil war in former Yugoslavia. Her poem, The shift of 90, directly addresses this rupture:

In a coal-coloured town
black fingernails scraping
bread of many layers.
They move
through the torch-lit crust.
They dig
Earth’s dimples
deep into her mouth
until she widens
shaking, crumbling,
swallowing their breath.
Behind them,

The pathetic fallacy of mined earth sets a precedent for a collection that explores turbidity, extraction and devastation, in multiple forms. At the level of language, the most resonant for a poetry collection, Dinić explores the multiple excavations needed to recapture stolen histories of her past. The poem J like Y explores the daily labour of reguiling people with her tragic personal history as a series of clinical questions are asked of the voice of the poem—we presume Dinić’s voice— such as: ‘Anything to declare?’ and ‘Where are you from?’. The latter question, like the title of the poem, reveals the ways in which war and colonisation causes erasure through nomenclature, as we are told ‘Sorry [Yugoslavia] doesn’t exist anymore.’ Similarly, Dinić intimates through the title of the poem how regular mispronunciation of her name erodes this personal inheritance. The lines abruptly remind us of this continued loss, ‘a great longing’:

I cry in mother tongue
mostly in the library.
Open the first page.
Last page.
Back to the middle.
Shut it!
Make a mind map!
Make a mind map!

The titular poem of the collection, In the Room with the She Wolf, seems to describe something of what it feels like to live with such loss, as if cohabiting with a ‘she wolf’, or perhaps metamorphosing into one:

All that is left is on the floor. Or is sailing
on the farmhouse dust

in waves of the washing cycle.
Hot and cold water, like a change of heart.

Dinić uses meteorological metaphors skillfully in this collection, along with describing change in the landscape, in a way that hints at the broader problems with translation and what it often necessitates, erasure. There is a distinct tone of ambivalence and disposition of cognitive dissonance in the work that is ossified in the words:

I can’t protect her from myself.
She will hang

in the backyard full of sun

and one of us will laugh.
There is no going back.

This feels not so much like resignation but acceptance of her hybrid, diasporic identity and curiosity for the secrets yet uncovered. Although there are several poems in the collection that deal with the heartbreaking realities of her personal story, Dinić has curated a beautiful cornucopia of hope, ‘music’ and ‘fairytales’. She explores with a tenderness and attention to detail the real and imagined experience of living through a legacy of loss and captures the ancestral magic therein. Several poems explore theatrical themes: make up, dress making, soliloquies and dancing. The tensions between the real and the imagined; grit and artifice; truth and forgery are palpable in this collection. One of the final poems in this well-crafted collection, The Treachery of Images, leaves the reader with a lasting impression of this unreconciled tension:

I hold your hand,
holding back— the heart drawing

then erasing, the paper
clouding my vision.

A layer of dust falls
as if the walls are undressing.

Right there, we settle
for the step more difficult, but magical—

tricksters stripped of illusion
our mouths kissing the worst.

This collection is bursting with enigma, despite its tragic subject matter and as such, invites the reader to contemplate that with ancestral trauma comes a trove of ancestral magic.

 – Leila Lois


Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic heritage. Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published in Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada by Southerly Journal, LA review of Books, Honey Literary Journal, Right Now, Delving Into Dance and more.



In the Room with the She Wolf by Jelena Dinic is available from https://www.wakefieldpress.com.au/product.php?productid=1685&cat=0&page=1