Thanks to the 2015 Stella Prize, I picked up Ellen Van Neervan’s book, Heat and Light to discover the most extraordinary and eclectic collection of stories. I still think about them five years later. So I was thrilled when she published a book of poetry entitled Throat last year.
It did not have an easy gestation period.
It grew out of a painful and difficult time in Ellen’s life, as I guess so much bittersweet art does. In 2017, one of her poems was included as part of the Year 12 NSW English exam, unbeknownst to her, as the department does not advise any authors “in advance due to security and confidentiality requirements”. A number of the students were upset at having to answer a question about the poem, entitled ‘mango‘ and went on social media to abuse her about it. Some of the abuse became racial and a media storm blew up.
It comes as no surprise that her first piece, they haunt-walk in, addresses this time.
Memories sometimes come backwards.
I’m walking-dead-haunting-live and there seems nothing left to do but write about my trauma.
But she does not dwell on this. Bigger issues are at play. Colonisation, gender politics, sexuality, culture, country and history. She writes about family, community and truth-telling. It’s angry. But it is also very sad and touching and hopeful. Ellen doesn’t indulge in the darkness, despite temptation, instead she reaches for honour, courage and healing.
we don’t get to choose our grief | if you want to pick at mine | try it on
Many of her poems are like mini stories. They’re fluid and supple and glide across your mind. Her words pull you up short, then carry you forward. She confronts with one hand and smooths with the other. Sometimes.
Who is the custodian of this book? | How do we co-exist on this page? | How can we re-imagine custodianship? | Is this an agreement or a series of | unanswered questions? | Are you willing to enter an agreement that is | incomplete and subject to change?
I wish I had a way with words like Van Neerven does, so that I could fully express my appreciation. Perhaps the best I can do is to tell you that Throat is a keeper; it will have a permanent home on my rather scant poetry shelf, next to Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork. And I will make the time to research all of the notes at the end, revealing Ellen’s inspirations and further reading list suggestions. I only do this when I’ve been moved to dig deeper, to understand more fully the author’s intent and point of view.
Van Neerven is conscious of her place in her community, and she wears her politics on her sleeve. But this collection is also very personal, an example of an artist exposing their vulnerability to find a universal truth.
Epigraph: Patience Agbabi | Serious Pepper
no-one’s friend | until they find themselves hurting | in the back of the throat
Patience Agbabi is a spoken word poet from the UK. She describes herself as being ‘bicultural and bisexual’ and she uses her poetry to tackle issues of race and gender identity.
The full stanza from Van Neerven’s epigraph reads:
Everyone’s born | no-one’s found
until they find themselves |
hurting in the back of the throat |
because they’ve swallowed |
serious pepper | painful as truth
- Van Neerven is a Mununjali Yugambeh (south-east Queensland) poet with Dutch heritage.
- Shortlisted Queensland Literary Awards: Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection 2020
- Winner of the inaugural UQP: Quentin Bryce Award 2020
old people, old country. deep prints | longtime. longtime yet for you to know | us. and for us to know our future.