Ali Whitelock, and my heart crumples like a coke can (Wakefield Press, 2018)
Review by Edward O’Dwyer
When you first pick up a copy of and my heart crumples like a coke can you’ll probably notice it has a very unusual front cover. It isn’t typical to see the face of the poet whose poems you are about to read gazing back at you rather warmly. Nevertheless, that’s Ali Whitelock’s face, her eyes wide and clear. You couldn’t doubt that her attention here is absolute and unflinching.
The idea of reading a book, presumably, is that you are interested in what the author may have to say, but here it’s as though the author is as much concerned with what you have to say, whether that be about your latest great piece of news, or your list of cyclical banalities that she may have heard a thousand times before. Nonetheless, the message is that she’s all ears, she cares, and you can take as long as you need.
As unusual as the effect of this cover is, it becomes increasingly apt as you move through the book. The poet might as well be sitting across a table from you at a café, or even at your own kitchen table. She has invited you into her life. She is sharing its intimate details with you, perhaps because what else is there to do only share moments with each other, to be our best selves with each other? Make no mistake, though these poems are Ali Whitelock’s, and speak of her life, they are very much about you, the reader, the person, whoever you are and wherever you are, simply because this collection is so full of the richness and vitality of life in its full diversity of moments and situations.
The foreword by Mark Tredinnick prepares us somewhat for this before we’ve even gotten to the poems. He writes: “These poems wake you. They are conversations with a better best friend than you ever had. One who lets you do all the talking and then picks up the cheque.” He goes on to say: “You’ll find a voice here so distinctive it could be your own.” Ali Whitelock’s voice? I really don’t know what to say to do justice to the distinctiveness and intrigue of it, but she should probably always speak into a megaphone, for starters. She has a lot to say and a way of saying it that should be given full attention.
I’ll start with the poem ‘water’s for fish’ because I have to start somewhere. Here, Whitelock describes returning to her native Scotland from her adoptive home of Australia but in less than ideal circumstances:
weirdly i was coming back to visit you mum
you’d been unwell minor kidney failure
for fuckssake how many years have we been asking
you to drink water? Water’s for fish you’d say
– not so smart now are you? Then you made
this miraculous recovery too late i’d already
booked my ticket to come sit at your bedside
to hold your hand to keep you company on your descent
into complete renal failure…
Evidenced here, Whitelock’s language never rose-tints our view of the book’s many and various scenes. She has no time for telling it the slightest bit contrary to how she sees it, and can do this unerringly because the idea that she might be taken up wrong has no hold over her. If she’s going to do this at all it’s on her terms or nothing. These are rants, sure, but in the most composed manner possible. Frequently there is a harsh and rather unapologetic edge that she is extricating from herself, her memories, her people and her place, but perhaps the greatest achievement in these poems is the ability to counteract and enrich this darker edge with an even more present tenderness, which amounts to a continuous celebration of the human condition, whatever the hell that is.
While these poems are certainly very thoughtful, measured rants, they can equally be (and are when Whitelock feels like it) meditations. She possesses a serene reflexivity and this shines in poems such as ‘there is no sound when it snows’. Here, she remembers a poignant recurring moment shared with her mother while growing up:
mum would drop me at the station in the village
then race back through the forest
to wave as my train sped past and as the forest
approached i’d wave through the window
though the train went so fast i could never
quite see her – but i knew that she was there.
This poem is a love poem to her Scotland and her childhood, followed by a lamentation for not being there anymore, and then a candid assessment of just what in god’s name she’s doing in Australia, in a “yard” when it’s a “garden” she wants. She remembers sticking her tongue out to catch “snowflakes that flit” and this was one of those moments where she broke my heart just a little bit:
their flesh drink down their blood
till i am the snowflake the snowflake is me.
I lived here once. In this icy silence.
The place i live now is hot and there are days
i could weep for the boughs of my forest…
Another thing that cannot be overstated: Whitelock is very funny. Her titles alone will have you in stitches often enough, such as ‘please do not pee in the sink’, ‘a lake full of fucking swans’ and ‘dead man farting’. With that said, every poem in this book is a deadly serious poem, just with huge portions of witty observation and black humour so expertly added it is never at odds with her subjects. For instance, in reference to a doctor’s handwriting on her father’s chart, in ‘pakora for starters’, she claims the “manic scribble” looks “like a fly / with parkinsons just crash landed on the page / and tried to crawl to safety but died on the fucking way.” Priceless, and just one example.
I laughed so often while reading these poems but it was often through watery eyes. That’s just how good a storyteller Whitelock is, but she could also, if she ever wanted, have a good crack at being a comedian. This juxtaposing of humour and seriousness is done flawlessly in ‘please do not pee in the sink’, which describes a beautiful connection – friendship? kindredness? – that blossoms out of casual or lazy racism. Whitelock doesn’t mind admitting her thoughts that the “madman” next to her in the café, “kneeling / in the middle of the footpath and praying / to allah,” may have his “unfashionable” clothing “packed with explosives.” She goes on:
…and post-detonation there’ll be skimmed cappuccino
froth and body parts scattered the lengths of glebe point road.
In all the years we’ve been coming
here the daily special has never changed something
about fettucini in a mushroom sauce with pesto
and a hint of dijon – not dijon mustard – just dijon
as though the chef might wear a french beret
and cycle to work with a string of onions hanging
off the handlebars of his bicyclette next time
we came to the café the unexpected madman
was there and the time after that and the time after that
and every five minutes he’d be down on his knees.
Months passed like this.
We kept coming.
He kept praying.
Eventually we came to enjoy watching mothers
with strollers wide berth him and dog walkers
drag reluctant puppies to the other side of the road
then one day he rose made eye contact pointed
at our dog said ‘yoouurr dog very beeg’
Yet another vital aspect of these poems is their social conscience, but I would rather call it the poet’s awareness of what it means to her to be a human being. That just seems more accurate to me. She is all the time negotiating what it means to her to be in Australia, where, in ‘mia council casa es tu council casa’, she is a foreigner “of the acceptable kind”. Feelings of displacement in a land that is not hers aligns in this poem, however, with feelings of displacement in terms of its concepts of morality and decency:
After the little boy’s body got washed
up on the sand australia offered synthetic
duvets fake chai lattes and empty promises
to twelve thousand of the five million
in camps who cry themselves to sleep at night
and i have calculated this on my iPhone and it works
out to be a teardrop in the ocean to the closest
decimal point australia i have offered
more hope to more cockatoos more safety
to kookaburras more gum leaves to koalas
than the crumbs you are flicking
from your all-you-can-eat buffet
Whitelock is not claiming a complete moral high ground here, however. She may not be from Australia, but is accepted there – which she is assured of each day while passing “the statue / of robert burns standing alone and too far away / from Scotland.” Her admittance of making her calculations on her iPhone is also admittance of a share of culpability, of that land-of-plenty ambivalence she is addressing. The poem is about the awakening from that drowsiness far more than it is about accusation of her adopted land.
Before I start wrapping this up (it’s getting late!) I should also make mention of the irresistible sweetness that can be found in Whitelock’s poems. It often turns up just for a moment or two, and then she moves on, but it does turn up often. It is most present in ‘this is a prayer for the soul of my boy’. The boy in question is her dog, Hector, who lifts his head up regularly from his basket to make an appearance in the collection. It is as moving and poignant an account of the bond between human and dog that you’re ever likely to read. If you’ve ever had that bond for yourself, then you will get teary when you read this, I’m sure of that. She recalls:
…After he died a woman on the beach
gave me a photograph she’d taken of him and me together
we are sitting on the sand side by side staring
out beyond the breakers we look like we are inseparable
every day of the too few years we had him devotion
coursed from him i was his master the keeper of sausages
the caller of walkies the turner of blind eyes
when he’d jump up and steal expensive chunks of camembert…
I could go on here, because there are loads of wonderful poems in this book that I haven’t even referred to, but then the point is for you to read the book for yourselves and enjoy it the way it was intended. I’d also like to point out that this review isn’t really a review at all. I don’t write reviews. I don’t really intend to start either. No one has asked me (or commissioned me) to write this. I have written this piece only because I was very lucky to come by this incredible book, and there are people all around me who haven’t been so lucky in this regard. This may not help a lot of them find it, but if it helps a few and those few help another few to find it, then great, that’s “fan-fucking-tastic” (yes, I’m fairly sure that’s in the book somewhere).
A lot of people have told me they aren’t so interested in poetry because they found it boring at school. Some who have gone a bit deeper into why it doesn’t work for them have said that it does nothing to enhance their experiences of this life. I’m paraphrasing, of course. It’s hard to disagree. I’ll admit to finding so much poetry boring, and finding it so obviously boring that I’m convinced it must be rejoicing in its boringness. I’ll also admit to having read a lot of poetry that was so forgettable and irrelevant, damn near pointless, that I can see why such a view would exist among people who might well be poetry readers if they only came by the right poems. Ali Whitelock’s poems are the right poems. This is one of my favourite collections of poetry.
These poems are conversations between Whitelock and herself, Whitelock and her peoples and places, Whitelock and you, the reader, but they are also, because of what is at the root of her poetry, conversations between you and yourself. Somehow, (I don’t know how), she knows how to draw you completely into it all. As you read these poems, you are ‘in’ her world, ‘in’ her life, you are across from her at a table. And yes, she is listening. I can say with total sincerity that I feel like I’m a better person for having read this brilliant book of poems. In fairness, what more could ask for from a poetry collection?