Review: Throat by Ellen van Neerven

Ellen van Neerven is a queer writer and editor of Mununjali Yugambeh and Dutch heritage and Throat is their second collection of poetry, following Comfort Food and their first book, the fantastical story series Heat and Light, which does exactly what it says on the cover, radiating both like a warm river at sunset. Throat is another generous gift of magic-making.

Throat is separated into five sections. The first three address memory and growing up, whiteness and colonialism, and queerness, respectively. The fourth section, speaking out, is a series of poems that take their titles from words in the poem that opens the section, and honour female ancestors and women’s work. The final section, take me to the back of my throat, seems to chart recovery from a break-up. But ultimately the poems in Throat resist this simple categorisation, and themes recur throughout. They are wonderfully fluid things, like the rivers and waterways that flow through the collection.

In the first poem, the speaker, who we can assume is van Neerven, reflects on a conversation with their therapist. Asked to describe their creative process, the poet says “a voice to throw belief at”. But here, a long way from their Country, their “throat is always dry”. There is an “incident”, which may refer to the racism and abuse van Neerven faced when one of their poems formed part of the NSW english exams in 2017. The poems in Throat then seem to be in part a way of “writing around trauma”.

Voice and language, and their location in the body, are preoccupations throughout Throat. Language can connect to Country and empower, but it is fraught in a land where so many Indigenous languages have had their fabric torn apart. In untitled (page 103), which follows another poem partly in Yugambeh, the speaker apologises for their “bent and buried tongue”.

Throughout Throat van Neerven addresses the ongoing violence of colonisation, rendered particularly on the land. They describe “ship-shaped holes in the forest” in a poem with the same title, and continuing the image later in Paper ships, make the link between the two c words, colonisation and climate change. They wonder aloud, “how can we save the world/when we have barely/just survived it?”. On a smaller, but no less hurtful scale, there is the editor in the untitled game of snakes and ladders (page 52) that says she dated “one” once. Throughout these poems there is always the possibility of resistance, which draws deeply on connection to Country. Footnotes on a timeline declares that “we line our stomachs with water, it will be our armour, we are the people that can live inside our dreaming.”

Van Neerven’s poems speaking directly to whiteness are wry and precisely pointed. In Politicians having long showers on stolen lands, government ministers do exactly that while the drought-stricken Murray-Darling becomes “gung djam – without water”. In Expert, they mock a girlfriend who seems to know more about the problems Indigenous people face than they do. In White Excellence, they challenge white folk to be better and ask for a Tinder filter to weed out the bad ones. The good ones, they write, “know they are permanent Visitors”. But then in Four truths and a treaty, about halfway through the collection, van Neerven offers a treaty with the reader, one that is “incomplete and subject to change.” Like all the best poems in Throat it is funny, sharp, and very generous.

Other poems talk about “the queer heatwave”, that heady summer when same-sex marriage was first legalised. Van Neerven writes of formative journeys overseas, in “Urup”, south east Asia, to the country of others. Throughout they pay tribute to the women in their lives – mothers, grandmothers, aunts, girlfriends, passing on ritual, tradition, love.

For all that these poems are borne of trauma, they are wonderfully hopeful, suffused with warmth and light like Queensland climate where van Neerven was born. Throughout, as Ellen addresses love, queerness and gender fluidity, the collection embraces possibility, asks that “our future be our past and our past be our future”. Superficially simple (in that they don’t necessarily use big words or flashy meter – I don’t know, it might be there but I’m not really a poetry expert!), they show that magic can be created in the air around the words. These are poems that give you space. Take Chermy, a raucous ode to a suburban shopping centre, which the poet wryly (and then not-so-wryly) announces as “one of our sacred sites,” where “large mobs of lorikeets get drunk every night / every night outside Chermy / like teenagers”. Magic.

Gay rating: 4/5 for substantial queer themes and some queer sex. 


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