Blakwork by Alison Whittaker

Poetry doesn’t come easy to me. 
I often feel like I’m on the outside looking in. I don’t always get the rhythm, or the cadence of poetry. I struggle with the silences and the spaces. I flounder around unable to hear the voices or feel the mood.
But every now and again a poem or a poet crosses my path and I feel a connection. Suddenly I want to work it out. Suddenly I hear, or almost hear, what the poet is trying to say. I’m moved and motivated to dig deeper.

Alison Whittaker is one such poet and her collection of poems, Blakwork has provided me with non-stop provocation for several months now. Her poems delight me, confound me and unnerve me in equal measure.

I keep returning to certain poems over and over again. A Love Like Doreathea’s is one (see link at the bottom of this post).

My first read through was like a sucker punch to the stomach. I have loved Doreathea MacKellar’s My Country all my life, but suddenly seeing it through another’s eyes, was a shock. Seeing how something I loved – my country, my land of sweeping plains – was also the same land that had been taken away from others.  Not only taken away but altered so much that it no longer looked like the country they once knew and cherished. Up until now, I had thought that love of country, was something that Indigenous and non-Indigenous could share. Something that could bring us together. Now I’m not so sure.

As Bill @The Australian Legend says far more succinctly, ‘Our love leaves no room for their love.’

I’ve underlined, starred and questioned so many of Whittaker’s words and phrases. 
I’m not sure I will ever be done with this book. 
For the first time in my life, I understand why people used to (maybe some still do?) carry around pocket books of their favourite poems (like Willoughby and Marianne in Sense & Sensibility). Some poems, some poets just get under your skin, or speak to you so deeply, that you have to have them nearby all the time, ready to dip into at will.
Whittaker has done this to me.

Watching the spoken word videos that she performed for the Melbourne Visiting Poets Program at The Wheeler Centre in August 2018 (see below) have helped me to feel her rhythm and get into her space. I also like being able to hear her voice in my head as I read and reread the other poems for myself.

I’m still trying to understand why this collection of poems has had such a profound impact on me. I guess I need to keep reading and listening until I work it out.

I’ve also been wondering about cultural appropriation this past week or so as I’ve been preparing for Indigenous Literature Week. Who really cares what another white woman thinks about the work of an Indigenous author? What right do I even have to voice an opinion on something I understand so imperfectly?

However the NAIDOC About page reminded me that one of our roles is to listen, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want their voice to be heard.


The true story of colonisation must be told, must be heard, must be acknowledged.

But hearing this history is necessary before we can come to some true reconciliation, some genuine healing for both sides.

And of course, this is not just the history of our First Peoples – it is the history of all of us, of all of Australia, and we need to own it.

Then we can move forward together.

Let’s work together for a shared future.

Perhaps that’s why Whittaker’s poems have had such a profound impact on me. I was open to hearing. Instead of feeling defensive or dismissive, I have heard and accepted the truth of what I’ve heard. Everything I thought I knew has been turned on its head.

As Atticus Finch says to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird,

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.

Whittaker has shifted my point of view.

My earlier post for A Love Like Dorothea’s.

Book 10 of #20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 19℃
Dublin 21℃

12 thoughts on “Blakwork by Alison Whittaker

  1. This is a beautiful heartfelt response to a powerful work, and your words express the dilemmas we all feel, I think, when we try to interpret Indigenous writing. But I think, whatever flaws there may be in our interpretations, we are doing important work in spreading the word, and that means that more people will indeed be listening. Thank you for your contribution to #IndigLitWeek!

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  2. I agree. To me, ignorant of this poet and her background, the passion with which you speak about her poems was contagious.I relate to your comment on poems that get under your skin.Love this and reminded me to continue with reading my poetry. (It's rewarding)

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  3. Thank you for your kind words & persisting to get through the blogger hurdles. I’ve been time poor this week & uber tired. This post has been sitting in draft for a couple of weeks now but I couldn’t finish it. Last night Atticus’ words came back to me st 3am! The relief of getting one of my ILW posts posted during the actual week was huge ☺️

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  4. Thanks Silvia. I always feel that the trick with poetry is to find a connection or a way in. Jennifer’s poem on Thursday meme has been a great inspiration for me this year.

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  5. Poetry is made to be spoken, isn't it? I have been thinking about that a lot lately as I rummage through various poetry anthologies. I wonder how many poems I pass by because the first line doesn't catch me when I read it. But it might if I read it. I can see you her poems got under your skin.

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  6. Thanks for the mention. Because I write about women authors I think about 'appropriation' a lot. I want to talk about women not talk for them, and as I write more and more about Indigenous authors the same applies. There are still Australian authors who don't get the difference (looking at you Peter Carey). Bill Holloway

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  7. Your post is so full of important insights for me. I rarely read poetry, and your summary of how you usually react is very clarifying about my response or non-response to much poetry. Finding a poet that has the resonance you found would be wonderful, especially a poet that offers such excellent insights into people with a differing life and history.best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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  8. Yes, hearing poetry makes such a difference and it's one of the main ways that helps me find a way into a poem. I've been having a go at saying some aloud too – it really helps.

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  9. Thanks Bill, I like that clarification 'I want to talk about women not talk for them', I will keep that in mind for my next post for ILW.The whole 'hearing' thing was brought home for me again this morning, listening to stupid, stupid Pauline Hanson talking about tourists climbing Uluru. She cannot acknowledge that for 200 hundreds the locals have been telling us that this is a sacred site and everyone just ignored them, and that by comparing Uluru to Bondi Beach just shows a complete and utter ignorance towards another's religious beliefs. If she'd compared Uluru to St Mary's Cathedral we could have had a more equal comparison, but once again, she has just highlighted how some people look at Indigenous matters through a superior white lens and that anything different is less and therefore dismissible. Ugh! She makes me so mad.

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  10. Thanks Mae, it was only because of the approaching NAIDOC week and Lisa's earlier post about her ILW intentions, that made me pick up Blakwork a couple of months ago as a possibility for my participation. I'm so glad I did. Then finding a poem early in the collection that not only caught my eye, but also had a spoken word video of it online, that made the words jump off the page, was another plus in drawing me all the way in to Whitakker's world. I wanted to hear what she had to say.

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