Caitlin Maling Reviews Ellen van Neerven

By | 22 August 2016

Food as a measure of dislocation becomes increasingly apparent in the third section of the collection, in which the speaker roams countries, puzzling out how they might connect with these foreign spaces. Some of these poems lack the resonance of the Australian poems. At times it feels like the lens stays slightly too broad, that the foreign landscape hasn’t been observed long enough or close enough to become meaningful. For example, ‘Bagel’ relies a bit too heavily on a grand closing image that doesn’t quite achieve the resonance of the local poems:

her hands covered in cream cheese
and the first snow drops
waiting for the barge to move

a friend’s friend’s coat
and friend’s friend’s scarf
bite off the wind
protect her chest
the island is
the lake’s scar
coming closer

The more successful poems are particular in how they use food as a way of mediating the relationship between person and place. In ‘Tamale’ van Neerven returns to repetition as a way of energising and transforming a seemingly mundane situation or word. It is a particularly successful strategy in a prose poem, especially when combined with sibilance and the harder, insistent alliteration of ‘t’ and ‘c’:

Finally, a tamale in Texas, She throats anticipation with a hairclip and another Mexican beet. Corn husk, like Christmas, out of wrapping, out of Toni Price at the Continental. Singled out of the crowd with a slow one but who remembers, graffiti on the toilet door, every song sounds the same. Fussed by nothing but the company. The way an evening tumble-turns out of trouble, warm voices, tunnel of black beans, every tamale tastes the same.

The risk inherent in a simple poem is one of recognition – similar to what the woman in ‘Pie’ fears in the poem’s closing. On one level, to state things as plainly or as clearly as van Neerven does, often invites the ‘so what?’ criticism – the question of how this expression differs from the ‘regularly lonely’ interior discourse of any other person. To be absolutely clear, this is not a criticism I believe can be levelled at van Neerven. These are poems that, through risking exposure, are able to create connection. The epigraph from Sina Queryas’s MxT – ‘I am not interested in other words for honey. / I am interested in honey’ – emphasises a desire for the object itself, through the most direct route possible. The voice of these poems is assured, unafraid, individual and rarely reductive. As demonstrated in ‘Whole Lot’, one of the ways in which Comfort Food is rewarding is through its subtle rejection of dualistic philosophies, in how it doesn’t separate the visual from the verbal, the world from the human. The ekphrastic response in ‘Whole Lot’, and in other poems written to artworks – ‘Surfboards’ (written in response to Vernon Ah Kee’s 2015 acontentedslave) and ‘Spectra of Birds’ (written in response to Madeleine Kelly’s 2014-15 Spectra of Birds) – is experiential, phenomenological, rooted. The same type of gaze characterises van Neerven’s response to food. These are poems that have been processed through the body, poems that have formed like ‘three embryos in my womb / waiting for the opportune moment / to begin’ (‘Coconut Oil’).

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