Raelee Lancaster Reviews Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork

By | 25 March 2019

Whittaker’s no-holds-barred approach is seen throughout this collection, regardless of content or genre. ‘For feral girls’, for instance, is a poem I wish I had read when I was younger. It was one of the first poems in the collection that my sister and I read together. It explores the nature of ‘feral’ women, how they are viewed by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike. Growing up, the stigma around being called ‘feral’ was worse than being called a bitch or a slut. Those flew like water off a duck’s back, but feral? We don’t want to be seen as feral—a throwback to the ‘noble savage’ era—and white people only like their blackfellas served well-dressed and articulate, thank you very much. Whittaker says it perfectly in the line, ‘The feral, reviled by whites and upright blakfulla alike’. However, Whittaker also allows a reverence for feral girls to seep into the poem. She is in awe of their strength, their don’t-care attitude. This poem gave me a whole new appreciation for the term:

You got that 
chain-smoking habit, Nintendo 64 and KFC for dinner. You got that 
hanging out down the main street, every five year off to Port 
       Macquarie. You spoke
my language better than me, taller than me. You got high.

Whittaker nails the unapologetic tone, but she also manages to combine it with a strange mix of humour and satire. The poem, ‘start-up’ is as hilarious as it is horrifying, and reading colonialization described as ‘Uber for 1788 synergies’ is reason enough to purchase this collection. This is again seen, maybe more seriously, in the poems like ‘Beneviolence’ where the repetition of ‘GOOD’ combined with the all-caps format of the poem evoke violence, anger and outrage. Further, this stir of volatile emotion seems to be coming from a colonial perspective: ‘THIS IS GOOD FOR YOU. YOUR OWN GOOD. THIS IS FOR YOU’ is a line that brings forth images of a white settler state of mind where Aboriginal people don’t know how to take care of ourselves, where we should be thankful for the disruption, violation and exploitation at the hands of Europeans. At the same time, I heard this poem being read from an Aboriginal perspective. Reading it from this perspective, I could still sense anger, outrage—but also sarcasm, as if this poem was Whittaker’s way of throwing that colonial mindset back in the faces of the colonisers and asking, ‘Does this seem fair to you?’ While a difficult read, it was also cathartic.

As a poet myself, I’ve spoken mainly about Whittaker’s poetry in Blakwork. At first, I was nervous approaching her prose poems with a critical eye. Then, I bit the bullet and sunk, seeing a musicality in prose that swims in a half-poetic realm, such as ‘outskirts’ where ‘a love for the kill is a shadow—especially for a woman’. The prose in this collection is contained within three sections, which are also the only sections without ‘work’ in their title. ‘the abattoir’, the first section of prose, explores death, both human and animal, and how the lines between death-for-survival and murder are not always straight-forward. ‘the school’ is the second prose section. It includes memoir and is an exploration of identity, culture and connection. Though this section deals with issues of displacement and identity crises, Whittaker adds humour to the mix, such as when she covers her face in pelican faeces in ‘not a lake’. The third section of prose, ‘the centre’, revolves around work within the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence. Though they don’t have ‘work’ in their titles, the prose sections of this collection offer deep, analytical insight into work conducted by Indigenous peoples through the mode of storytelling. These sections of Blakwork serve to spotlight concealed or untold histories of Aboriginal labour.

Now, if this review sounds like a love letter to Whittaker—it is. Just as this collection is a love letter to me, women like me, girls like my sister, and the women that came before us. We come from a long line of matriarchs who fought and worked and lived and cried, just as we do. This book is a jarring read. Whittaker takes her legal background, her childhood, her values and her culture, and she turns it into prose, critique, memoir, satire, poetry. This is a multi-purpose, all-encompassing, rollercoaster of a collection that challenges and satiates, excites and relieves, is sparse and is concentrated. It’s a collection that me and my sister and many others like us can read and in which we can be seen, teach and learn, nourish and be nourished.

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