A Review of Ali Whitelock’s
and my heart crumples like a coke can
Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet now residing in Australia. She published her first book in 2009, a memoir titled, Poking Seaweed with a Stick and Running Away from the Smell. Last year her first book of poetry was published in Australia, and my heart crumples like a coke can. It is set to be published in the UK next year.
Right off the bat you realize Ali Whitelock is a little different. Her love of long titles and her devil-may-care attitude towards capitalization tells you she’s a bit of a rebel.
And my heart has received some glowing reviews, two of which compare Whitelock to Bukowski. I have never liked Bukowski. Many people have tried to get me into him but I always found him boring.
I read the first five or so poems of and my heart and struggled to connect. I thought, maybe it’s the style, maybe I don’t get it. Maybe I’m just an idiot. So, I looked up some of Bukowski’s most beloved poems. I thought there was a chance I just happened to have read some duds the first time I tried. I found a list of 8 poems, I read them all, and I enjoyed them, particularly “Let it Enfold You.” I could even see why people might compare Whitelock’s style to Bukowski’s, but Bukowski’s writing has a fire that I failed to find in Whitelock’s writing.
When you’re writing in this particular style, you have to have real inspiration and feeling seeping out of every word or they simply fail and some of Ali Whitelock’s poems came across as cold and sterile.
Perhaps my judgements are made in ignorance though—this is very contemporary poetry and maybe I’m simply unable to relate. The forward by Mark Tredinnick is what convinces me this is true because I don’t understand what he’s trying to say. He writes of Whitelock’s poems, “They keen and they yearn and they warn and they thank the stars for not falling more than they do. These poems, trying not to be poems at all, are acts of love and defiant triumphs of order over disorder, Hurrahs that cry down all disarray.” This is about as specific to Whitelock’s poetry as the morning horoscope is to your life and it uses the same strategy—So ambiguous it can mean whatever you want it to mean.
Earlier in the forward Tredinnick writes, “These are improvisations rehearsed and performed as if they hardly cared for how they sounded at all.” Now, on this point, Tredinnick and I agree. These poems meander from topic to topic, forcing connections that weren’t there and aren’t interesting to observe once she makes them appear.
There’s also an anger in these poems. In “so she’s not my friend and runs a fish & chip shop,” Whitelock encounters a woman who runs a restaurant and who believes that she could write a poem herself because it’s “easy.” Maybe she could. What do we know about this woman? But Whitelock replies:
[. . .] i am encouraging
tell her she should go right ahead and write one
if it’s that fucking easy i tell her i will read it not because
i am supportive but because i know it will be shit as if anyone
can write a poem without haemorrhaging internally
It’s difficult to grasp from this poem why Whitelock gets so worked up about this seemingly meaningless exchange with a stranger.
In the poem, “a lake full of fucking swans” Whitelock refers to an Australian lady as a racist for harassing her for not being Australian enough. Yes, this is certainly a form of discrimination but to elevate it to the level of racism seems inappropriate to me.
However, there are some poems in this collection in which Whitelock shows self-awareness and humility, “please do not pee in the sink” and “in kuntry where sun is never stopping shinning.” Are two examples.
In “please do not pee in the sink,” Whitelock tells an interesting coming of age story about her frequent encounter with a Muslim man outside her favorite coffee shop. At first, Whitelock is afraid of this man—And I personally think there is some bravery in admitting to your own racist and bigoted reflexes because we all have them. But as time goes on, and Whitelock interacts with this man, she comes to respect him and to see him for what he truly is—just another human being trying to live a decent life, nothing more.
In “in kuntry where sun is never stopping shinning,” Whitelock speaks about another interaction with an immigrant, a man who fled to Australia to escape war torn Yugoslavia. Unlike her, the immigrants in these two poems did not arrive to Australia fluent in English. Not only did they have to learn the language but they’re expertise (accountant and crime scene investigator) did not translate to this new land and so they were forced to take lower positions. In “kuntry,” Whitelock finally manages to show us how self-aware she is of her personal experience as an immigrant. Whitelock writes, “[. . .] I felt sheepish/to have marched in there with my first world problems.”—The ex-crime scene investigator is a clerk at a hardware store helping her repair some doorknobs.
Earlier in “kuntry” she writes, “This war,’ he says ‘is keeping me awake in the night,’/and I can see it is keeping him awake in the day.” This is easily the best line in the entire book. It shows Whitelock’s compassion for this man’s suffering and, more importantly, it shows that Whitelock understands that although her transition from life in Scotland to life in Australia might have been difficult and a bit scary, it’s nothing compared to the struggles of so many immigrants around the world, who are forced to leave their homes due to dire circumstances.
While I may be critical of much of Whitelock’s writing in this volume, I see so much potential. When Whitelock looks up at the world around her, her writing becomes visceral and powerful. She has a great eye for detail and when she trades her bouts of anger and frustration for compassion and humility, the poetry blossoms across the page and the reader leaves these particular poems a better person for having read them.
As I said above, maybe I’m just not the right audience for this particular brand of poetry. I encourage you to check it out and form your own opinion.