Blakwork, Alison Whittaker

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

Blakwork - Base Image

I am not a poetry reader let alone reviewer and I only bought this book, a year or so ago, because I was in my local bookstore and the book’s from Broome, WA based indigenous publisher Magabala, and so I assumed it was West Australian. In fact Alison Whittaker “is a Gomeroi multitasker from the floodplains of Gunnedah [NSW]. She is a Fulbright scholar, and a poet and essayist …”.

BlakWorks then languished on my bedside table until I was reminded by Brona’s review of the poem A Love like Dorothea’s (here including a video of a reading by the author) to give it another try. I wasn’t really thinking about who Dorothea was when I started to read and so it hit me like a punch. The assertion Whittaker is making here, I think, is that our love for this land we have so recently occupied alienates the people who have been its custodians for the last 60 millenia. Our love leaves no room for their love. No quote, it would decrease the impact of you reading/listening to it yourself.

The book is divided into 15 sections: whitework, bloodwork, storywork … through to newwork, blakwork; each with about half a dozen poems. Whitework commences with the poem blakwork which tells us that it is a full time job dealing with white guilt: “Indentured blakwork, something like:/nine to five, forgiv-/-ing you.”

I won’t pretend I understood all, or even half, of what I read. Some of the poems are concrete, that is their structure is part of the poem; at least a couple are short essays but here, in a book of poems, we must be aware of the shape, the sound of words as well as of meaning; a number render legalese into poetry to provide a commentary on Indigenous people’s experience of the Australian legal system; and some (I think!) are about other stuff, not just Black-White relations.

Some I like without knowing why: “… so many blaks/How could I name them all?/Inner city arty blak/Remote yet so connected blak/Welfare woman villain blak …” (bpm); or “Indigine, slip through the world Aboriginally this is your line, as your parents will prepare/you so too will you prepare yourself so too will you repair you …” (badblak).

One, ethnomathematics, struck me with a dose of that white guilt. A few words (numbers) dotted across the page: “one, one   /halfhalfhalf …/threequarters/fiveeighths”. Pretty clear what it’s referring to.

There are a few poems which are commentaries on white man’s law. Two or three are ‘simply’  lists of the most common phrases in the judges’ decsion. So, the skeleton of the common law is extracted from the Mabo decision; and exhibit tab is from the inquest into the death of Ms Dhu [who died in a police cell in Port Hedland WA in 2014, while being held for unpaid fines (here)] –

Exhibit 2 tab
The custody system
XXXX Dhu’s temperature
The police vehicle
Lock up procedure

Another, An Act, plays with white legalese: “This Act is the Binaal Bunma-li, Warra-y Act 2018 …  Definitions:/… Binaal Bunma-li: to soothe or settle down/…/Regulations: such as determined by Elders through Country/…. “.

Some is more or less what you would expect, family stories in the section the abattoir; a complaint that a Black woman has been white-washed out of the Thunderbolt [bushranger] legend; an ode to her schoolmates, for feral girls:

‘O, youse feral girls,’
Twisting hands, dancing to warrambul like they’re crossing fingers,
twisting Kmart bras under Big Dub singlets.
They got that
sacred patchwork of precedence–legging thighs follow panty lines,
topograph their overcourse–goad softly little babs to sleep
goad firecourse to wake
goad Centrelink, its cards and monies, from the settler state.

And out of the blue, the section, the centre appears to be a dystopian short story in blank verse:

Bounced through a low-hanging satellite that competes with the atmosphere like I compete with the pedestrians, the Centre for Mob Futures is being rebuilt. Far from here, out desert ways, I’ve reported on its programmers quick to plug its many hostile haemorrhages and rework its paper scaffolds. An archive of drives all buzzing with unsteady fans and unlabelled wires. (futures. excellence.)

Access to the centre is guarded by an AI which determines Aboriginality by yarning, and demands that it be made a cup of tea (blak captcha). In a virtual outback-

… totally unsupervised by mission managers –old and new alike–mob frolicked, philosophised, borned art, and built technologies… In the Centre, a place spinning imprecisely through the sky and broadcasting to a supercomputer in the desert … (virtualisation).

It fails, I think (the project, not the poem).

As I slipped back past the belly-touching AI into the real meatland, all sparse and beige-hot and withering, the Centre’s satellite lost its signal. It shut down. (the last project).

You know I’m an SF/dystopian fan and it’s interesting that Whittaker, Ellen van Neerven and Claire Coleman, to name the most obvious, are all, sometimes anyway, in that space (pun unintended, and indeed unnoticed until about the fourth re-reading).

All the poems require contemplation, more than I have given them at this reading, and I recommend you follow Brona, both in reading one poem at a time, and literally, to see what she has to say about them. And if you’re really serious you could read the review below from the Sydney Review of books. (I haven’t, not yet anyway).

Melanie, did I like it? Not enough to rush out and buy more, but nor did I dislike it, it was interesting.

 

Alison Whittaker, BlakWork, Magabala Books, Broome WA, 2018

Jeanine Leane, Ultima Thule: BlakWork by Alison Whittaker, Sydney Review of Books, 5 Feb 2019 (here)

For further reading of Indigenous authors see –
my Aboriginal Australia page (here) – there’s a list of all my reviews at the bottom.
Lisa’a ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List (here)

17 thoughts on “Blakwork, Alison Whittaker

  1. Ah, I know what this reminds me of…
    I reviewed MudMap a while ago, it was a collection of Australian women’s experimental writing.
    Scroll down (unless you want to read it all) to the part about a section called Evidence. It sounds a bit like Skeleton, doesn’t it?

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  2. Well done Bill. You have really intrigued me with this write-up – such a lovely honest discussion of something that is clearly hard to pin down, that needs more grappling with. It sounds, however, as though you have got the essence of it.

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  3. Bill, you are a wonderfully attentive friend 🙂

    Poetry is hard because much of it makes me feel like I am a terrible reader, but over the years I’ve realized that some poets just aren’t great at what they do. I realized this after I attended many poetry readings at which the poets explained the context or inspiration for their poems, and then what they read was lovely. However, when I would buy their books, excited by the reading I’d just heard, and got home, I realized that without that lengthy story pre-poem, much of what I read made no sense. i would advocate poems including their inspiration in their works, just a paragraph before the poem. I mean, why not? It makes a better connection, and what is poetry for it not connecting?

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    • Your question: But did I really like it? is often in my mind when I’m winding up a review. That’s true, isn’t it, some poets just aren’t great at what they do, but if they’re not too pretentious I suppose we should give them credit for giving it a shot. But, to be clear, that’s not the case here.

      I like what you say about giving poems a context. In the case of these poems that context is the history of black/white relations in Australia and so they make a lot of sense to me, though much less to you. For instance the first poem I mention, A Love Like Dorothea’s refers to a poem as well known to Australians as A Star Spangled Banner is to Americans.

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  4. Thanks for the shout out Bill, but I may just simply copy & paste your response to my emerging half-written post for this book, as we seem to have had similar reactions.

    The Sydney Review article was interesting & gives some of the background info that Grab the Labels likes…as does this article – https://www.theliftedbrow.com/liftedbrow/2019/3/14/black-work-alison-audits-the-colony-a-review-of-alison-whittakers-blakwork-by-laniyuk-garcon
    when you have time to read it.

    I’d be very keen to hear Whittaker read more of her poems. Hearing where she places the emphasis on the 2 poems I have heard, brought them to life – I’ll have to watch out for her at writer’s festivals and poetry slams.

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    • Paste away, I won’t dob you in. But seriously, I’m glad you inspired me – with your post on Dorothea – to read this book, it was worth the effort. I’m working now but I’ll catch up with your further reading on Sunday maybe.

      Liked by 1 person

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