Poetry collection about colonisation, queerness and the tension between city and country
Content warning: family violence, racism, colonisation
I first heard of this award-winning writer and poet when unacceptably they were harassed and abused online after their poem Mango was selected for a New South Wales Higher School Certificate English examination paper. Although I have been meaning to buy their work, it was not until I found myself standing in the poetry section of a book shop a couple of months ago looking for a different book that I saw their newest collection.
“Throat” by Ellen van Neerven is a collection of poetry that explores the intersection of being both queer and Aboriginal. Through her poetry, van Neerven grapples with issues that are both personal and political and invites the reader to engage with issues such as racism, deaths in custody, calls for treaty, gender, urbanisation and identity.
Although I am no poetry aficionado, one thing that really struck me about this book was van Neerven’s exceptional and innovative use of structure. Their poem 18Cs, a clear reference to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the protection against offensive behaviour, lists 18 reflections relating to words beginning with the letter C. Similarly, Acts of protection refers to historical legislation that gave governments the power over Aboriginal people’s lives, and uses Roman numerals to emulate subsections of legislation in actually listing things that bring van Neerven comfort. Another poem, logonliveon, uses an Aboriginal flag emoji to punctuate their thoughts about being Aboriginal online. At one point, van Neerven invites the reader to sign a treaty they have drafted in relation to shared power.
I really enjoyed Chermy, in which van Neerven, tongue-in-cheek, reminisces about the “cultural” connection she and her family have with Westfield Chermside, and then more seriously considers the ongoing impact of colonisation and gentrification on connection to country. Van Neerven also writes about issues such as dysphoria, navigating queer spaces, loneliness, longing for country, language and family. Expert was particularly heart-breaking; writing about family violence in a queer relationship where Aboriginal identity is used against them and the stereotype of who is the perpetrator is turned upside down.
There is so much to think about in this book, so I won’t go into much more detail except to say that van Neerven is a deeply profound poet whose work is the finger on the pulse of this nation.