Review: Blakwork by Alison Whittaker

I read this collection because I’m a huge fan of Alison Whittaker’s literary criticism, and also she was one of the writers highlighted in a recent talk by Maria Tumarkin as possessing a certain “wildness”, a sense of never knowing where her writing will go. It is a very apt description.

In blakwork we find a collection of poems and other types of writing broken into chapters, most titled for different kinds of work. So there is “workwork”, centred on things we think of as jobs, “groundwork”, perhaps about land; “bloodwork”, genealogy; and “heartwork”, about children and love.

The collection begins with a chapter called “whitework” and a poem called “blakwork”,  which offers a definition of the term as:

Soothing re-/-conciliation./That dawdling off-trend meme,/white guilt. To survive among it; well,/it’s naff to say, but compul-/-sory to do.

It feels like a warning shot: Indigenous people are done with doing work that makes white Australians feel better, even if they are constantly asked to do so. Later “blakwork” will be complicated by the series of poems under the chapter of the same heading, one offering what is perhaps an affirmation and awakening, “you are inevitable, ahead/of unpredictability”. Like all the poems in this collection, meanings multiply, perspectives shift, and I am on particularly uncertain ground as a white Australian. I’d urge you to read two great reviews from Indigenous writers at The Lifted Brow and the Sydney Review of Books.

These chapters are interspersed by three chapters of prose-poetry/memoir, talking about the poet’s family working at an abattoir in Tamworth, her formative experiences at school, and a fantastical journalistic investigation of a certain digital Centre for Mob Futures.

It is a collection ambitious in its time span, reaching back and forward through deep time, and finding its centre among the regional class and racial divides of country NSW. What emerges is a Gothic, apocalyptic picture of colonised Australia, of what colonisation (a continuing process) does to Indigenous bodies and minds. From “MANY GIRLS WHITE LINEN”:

nails peeling back floor/scrubbing back blak chores/white luxe hangnails hanging/more than nails while/no palm growing paler

The framing of these poems through “work” proves to be rich ground. It is as if, Whittaker is saying, all life is work. What matters is who it is done for, and to what end. Work can break people down, dehumanise, as it does to the woman in “hospo”, walking home after a shift as racist abuse is hurled at her from a passing car, beginning:

oi there, lard arsed butter heifer

But work can also build people up, provide dignity, forge connection. Bodies are the things that do work and work is done to, and Whittaker’s poetry takes people’s bodies apart as if they are machines, investigating the components.

There is also the work that words do, particularly the words of law and bureaucracy. In three stark poems Whittaker collates the most-used three word phrases in prominent Indigenous legal cases: Mabo, Miss Dhu, the Stolen Generation. The effect is potent and revealing in its simplicity; this is how Indigenous people are broken down, reduced:

Aboriginal children from/of exemplary damages;/of Aboriginal children;/of the maintenance.

But for every act of dispossession and dehumanisation there is the possibility of resistance. “for feral girls” is a stunning ode to maligned women:

Got wind itself for hair. The feral, reviled by whites and upright/blackfulla alike/got more to tell us

And in “bpm”, Whittaker gently satirises all the types of Aboriginal person, before building to a crescendo of affirmation.

Whittaker’s poetic language is urgent but timeless, vernacular but formally rigorous, totally unique. This collection breaks down poetic conventions and rebuilds them to do the work it needs.

This is most evident in poems that offer no guide to reading them – words scattered across pages, repeated in blocks, or entirely absent (“scissors anchor pistol” is written in emoji). They are poems that demand work.

Inevitably I was drawn to poems that aligned with my expectations of poetry: rhyme, metre, etc, but if this collection did anything, it made me consider how those devices do the work of colonisation.

For instance in “a love like Dorothea’s”, Whittaker breaks down a famous ode to Australia and reveals how it enforces a coloniser’s view of the land:

It burns my eyes to turn to hers, my wide brown land out of like hands/but traced in fetish verse-/’I love a sunburnt’           I loved a sunburnt country./I love white nativity

Other poems, “the errand”, “bathe”, carve out a space for love free from white eyes. “bathe” is an exquisite micro-scene of boys playing in the surf:

Squared against the swoop of sea/four gaayili swoop back them backs

But there is a devastating sting to come:

This is a poem about not suffering.

In the chapter titled “newwork” Whittaker lets her imagination fly into the digital realm. “don’t @ me” curates tweets, hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure:

Yesssssss/This hurts/When kids are locked up

“start-up” notes ironically that millennia before Uber, Indigenous society had already nailed the “sharing economy”.

And “futurefear” contrasts hyperbolic (and misspelled) doomsday headlines with tragedies that are already in front of us:

Driverless Cars Transmogriphy Ethics!/Galahs spring-grapple from nest to road/AI Writing Festive Songs!/A puff and it is nothing – some down/Will Automation Take Your Job?/affixed on a rear-view screen. A silent car/Social Media Is Isolating Us!/huffing old carbon.

There are so many exquisite turns of phrase – words that seethe with anger, pulse with love, that satirically skewer Australia so shockingly you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. They’re phrases that are burrowing into my brain, slowly altering it.

blakwork is published by Magabala Books

Gay rating: 3/5 for some queer themes and some poetic queer sex. 



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