Heart is full and burstin’ blak
Whitework, bloodwork, badwork, blakwork: Alison Whittaker’s sassy second collection of poems is structured in chapters ranging from the collective to the deeply personal, from the comic, to the deadly serious. A Gomeroi woman, from the floodplains of Gunnedah in northern NSW, Whittaker flips white Australian narratives about country. In one of the opening poems of the collection she muses on Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’, that patriotic poem that begins:
I love a sunburnt country
A land of sweeping plains.
‘My Country’ is said to be inspired by Whittaker’s home region around Gunnedah and Whittaker loves this country too, it’s cored in her heart. But unlike ‘sweet Mackellar’ whose ‘gaze turns rivers into sand’ Whittaker has a different view. Her response to Mackellar is like the answering part of a duet, troubled, darker and thread with pain.
I love white nativity
that digs its roots and ticks to suck the floodplains and the sea—
the love that swept those sweeping plains from Nan, from Mum, from me.
Many of the poems in Blakwork contend with the calamity of colonisation. We meet a trespassing lamb, ‘a tuft of sustenance, adrip with meat’ as it pads the clay, and a stock image barefoot child ‘with pea-thick flies on face’. In the poem ‘beneviolence’ we’re told:
THIS IS GOOD FOR YOU!
THIS IS FOR YOUR GOOD. YOUR OWN
GOOD. THIS IS FOR YOU.
The arc of the poems takes us from the past closer to the present. She notes a bustling trade in the soft currencies of guilt and reconciliation and is unsparing in her depictions of entrenched racism. Where she’s best, however, is in her vivid observations. Her poem ‘for the feral girls’ is gorgeous in its femininity—we’re accosted by leopard prints and river map undie seams, by sweat and sex and Kmart bras and Centrelink. She writes:
You got that
chain-smoking habit, Nintendo 64 and KFC for dinner …
On the whole, Blakwork is a delight: the challenges to white Australian narratives like ‘My Country’ and ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, the fresh use of form and language and the knock-your-socks-off one-liners like, ‘A tea bag haemorrhaging ‘round its spoon.’
It’s no surprise that Whittaker was co-winner of the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize in 2017, the winner of the State Library of Queensland’s black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship in 2015, and that she was the Australian Indigenous Poet-In-Residence for the 2018 Queensland Poetry Festival. On top of these accolades, between 2017-2018, she was a Fulbright scholar at Harvard Law School, where she was named the Dean’s Scholar in Race, Gender and Criminal Law.
Blakwork was released by Magabala Books, Australia’s oldest Indigenous publishing house, in September this year. More information can be found at: https://www.magabala.com/young-adult/blakwork.html
By Madelaine Dickie