‘Poetry Worth Pausing For: a Review of Ellen van Neerven’s “Comfort Food”’, by Omar Sakr

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I am not interested in other words for honey.
I am interested in honey.

— Sina Queyras, MxT

This epigraph to Ellen van Neerven’s debut poetry collection, like most of the poetry here, is deceptively simple. It seems to signify an intention to say what is meant and to say it plain. Much like comfort food, it doesn’t have to be gourmet to satisfy you, to provide everything you need in the moment. It would be easy to read this as a self-conscious declaration aimed at the artifice of language, or the (assumed) pretentiousness of poetry itself, but there’s more at play here.

One of the many tensions threaded through these poems is between what is said, and what goes unsaid, or is distorted, or forgotten – both on a personal level and a national one. Neerven, a Mununjali poet working in a country stolen from Indigenous people, a country still invested in denial, isn’t going to look for other words, isn’t going to hide from anything: not racism, not history, not loss, not love, not now, not the future. Everything’s on the table.

The opening poem, ‘Whole Lot’, demonstrates the promised directness and states her thesis, the urgency that drives the work:

what we eat comes from our roots
if we stop sharing there will be nothing

Neerven’s writing is unadorned, her lines short and sharp more often than not. In many respects, this opening poem is reflective of the book, not just in terms of its disjointed free verse, or its casual tone, but in its generous use of space to give meaning the room to build between observations. Though informal, there is nonetheless a tendency to fall in and out of rhymes, or near-rhymes, a kind of meandering that gives the impression that you’re witnessing these words almost as they occur to the poet, an effortless free association. Effortlessness, of course, is the hardest art to master and the surest sign of skilled execution.

we start with black
let it get hold of you
look at the stars
or are you afraid to?

(‘Whole Lot’)

One of my favourite aspects of this collection is its playfulness. As direct as it can be with its political intentions, it’s also personal, also willing to dance around your expectations. As seen here with the imperative first two lines that speak to history, then pivot to “look at the stars”, a feint toward space, a different blackness, before hitting hard with the question: “are you afraid to?” Australia has shown empirically that yes, it is afraid of black, it is afraid of its own start, to let it get hold, to look at, when it can look away instead.

A few lines down, Neerven explicitly says of this “country spread open”: “don’t forget it / I’m tracing it to remember.” It’s not uncommon to find these kinds of public addresses interwoven with smaller personal reflections in the same poem, lines which speak to the past as well as the future, a kind of multi-dimensional approach which manages to lend an aura both of huge scope and quiet intimacy. It is difficult to create an atmosphere of either – it is something else altogether to achieve both from the outset.

I want this to be here
when I leave again

(‘Whole Lot’)

It isn’t just a cultural or historical erasure that is being spoken of, but a literal fear for the land itself. Climate change looms large over these poems, an ominous shadow which sometimes comes crashing down, as seen in the tumult of ‘Love and Tradition’ where the rising sea is troubling families, the island is unplugged and “the tide / is coming / to stroke / our dead.”

These lines play on a duality of time, so the collection becomes not just a record of the loss that has already occurred but of loss yet to come. We can’t afford to lose the present or the past, the living or the dead, and that means sharing our stories, our food, our love and tradition – or at least that which hasn’t already been swept away. Colonial history is the tide that has already buried so much, and by using its violent reflection, the poet shines a light on the damage being done to the environment, on what is threatening us now.

let them see
what has gone under

(‘Love and Tradition’)

Throughout, Neerven builds a sense of unease, expertly tackling alienation from and connection to country through the prism of the poet travelling abroad. In ‘Finger Limes’, the narrator pines for the Queensland fruit, only to find “when we return / they are gone”. As with many of these poems though, the food in question is rarely of consequence, so much as what it represents by proxy: home, distance, family.

We go home anyway
and you make dinner
I’m sorry if I’m crying
I haven’t had anyone cook me a meal
It’s been a while, you know

(‘Finger Limes’)

Though the settings flicker from house to hotel to takeaway shop, company is constant, be it a friend, relative, lover or even “the boy at the counter” who the poet hopes doesn’t see her as “regularly lonely”. Purchased or grown, food is always passing from one set of hands to another. It is, in that sense, impossible to eat alone.

That constancy is always tempered, however, by disappearance, which has multiple forms, either in process or on the verge of beginning. Whether it’s in the vanished crops, be it a seasonal or permanent loss due to climate change, or in the bodies and stories glossed over by multiple generations indifferent to history, what is current in every small and large moment presented here is tensed against what is going and gone.

it is when original people are acknowledged
the room breathes easier for me
a preoccupation with absence

(‘Berries’)

Absence haunts these pages, and it is both physical and emotional, as the poet is always moving away. “I’ve been leaving a lot of times / it doesn’t mean I want to”. I keep returning to those lines, from the first poem ‘Whole Lot’, which is apt, since as much as absence is emphasised, return, too, is implied. Whether you go because you are suffocating at home, or because of work or love or violence, to leave often is still to have to come back, much like the waves which recur in this collection.

In this toing-and-froing between permanence and disappearance, the weight of what we have in our hands, what we put in our mouths at meal-times, takes on a new meaning. Consider the transitory nature of anything edible, how quickly it passes through us, and is gone. In this light, the qualifier of “comfort” takes on a largely ironic cast. Food never lasts, it is perishable like us, but what it can do is summon country, summon other times, as it does in the titular prose poem, set it in a hotel in Hong Kong:

The last time I ate nachos was on K’gari as I watched the sun lie down on water.
Reel back home.
No sunset in Hong Kong. Grey skyline.

(‘Comfort Food’)

The final line makes clear there isn’t much in the way of comfort here, and absence from country is at the heart of it. In another excellent prose poem, ‘Pumpkin’, Neerven expands on the tangible connection between food and land: “I left Unc’s pumpkin in the car. I left it and I’m away from country.” Nostalgia is not the only force at work, and simply being present at home isn’t enough to sustain comfort either, not when home has been compromised for so long.

what is happening
with the dialogue of this country
they are killing people with words

(‘Chips’)

The latter half of the collection delves into this discomfort with rousing defiance. From ‘Please Pause Today’’s searing intertextual riff on ex-SBS journalist Scott McIntyre’s 2015 Anzac Day tweets to the ‘G20 Free Range’ protest poem, to ‘We’re Still Here’ and ‘Invisible Spears’ centring indigenous culture, Neerven unflinchingly tackles racism and colonialism. ‘Invisible Spears’, dedicated to Adam Goodes and the racism he faced for visibly practicing his culture where the nation could see it, is particularly fierce:

you don’t want us protecting
our land like the Maori
that means it was our land to protect
we don’t need
a haka of whitefullas
just let us resist.

Here we see the poet make good on the opening epigraph in the most emphatic fashion. The language of avoidance, while comforting for the privileged, is death for the oppressed, and Neerven makes this point profoundly well, not just when it comes to being indigenous or a minority in a colonised country, but also when discussing the reality of climate change and the danger it poses to society. While you may not find everything to your taste here, there is undoubtedly something for everyone in this versatile smorgasbord of poetry freestyling: personal reflections on love and lust, childhood reminiscence, unvarnished straight talk on history and racism, a loving ode to “what we eat / and what we don’t eat / to stay who we are”. It’s Whole Lot, it’s all these things.


Omar Sakr is an Arab Australian poet from Western Sydney. His poetry has appeared in Meanjin, Overland, Mascara Literary Review, and Tincture Journal, among others. He placed runner-up in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and his début collection, these wild houses, is forthcoming from Cordite Books (2017).