Review: Jeanine Leaneon Ellen van Neerven

On The Power To Be Still

I chose to read this work through the poet’s chosen vessel, the throat. Finishing it left me with my heart right there – beating at the back of my throat; in awe of what I had just read, and in suspenseful anticipation of what is to come.

It has only been four years since Mununjali Yugambeh poet Ellen van Neerven’s first volume, Comfort Food, appeared. While central to both collections are the experiences of young queer First Nations identity in settler Australia, Throat extends the work of Comfort Food from the retrospective of the four years that have passed since its writing. And, certainly much has happened.

The opening poem of Throat is untitled and reads like a micro-story in poetic form. On the page this piece appears as three poetic stanzas. Each stanza begins with the same two lean sentences:

Memories sometimes come backwards. They haunt walk in.

As this piece unfolds, we hear of an incident:

Haunting, walking, and sugar from the chocolates my friends give me after the incident.

The ‘incident’ that the poet refers to is their vilification via social media by NSW HSC students in 2017, when a poem from Comfort Food was set as an English exam text. That ugly incident informs this poem as we read of the poet that a girlfriend spends time ‘weeding’ her emails, while they are ‘being comforted by friends’:

We are in great admiration of how you handled yourself. We thought you conducted yourself with such dignity and grace.

But the poet is adamant: ‘I did nothing but lie in my bed.’

Stoicism and strength emanate from these words. The power to be still – immovable in the face of challenge and adversity – should not be underestimated, nor should it be misread as inertia. I read this line as catalyst for the transition of the poet and the segue from her earlier work to Throat. While the HSC incident is shocking for what it for what it reveals about ongoing, deep-seated racism in Australia, and its proliferation among the settler middle-class – a fact much denied in public venues and often smoothed over by the liberal-politically-correct-dulcet-toned-white-middle-class-speak – the poet refuses to be intimidated by it. Nor will they be reduced by it. When they write –

So I’m walking-dead-haunting-live and there seems nothing left to write about but my trauma

– the sentiment is the opposite to the words on the page. It is a case of appearance versus reality and an example of the poet critiquing another pernicious stereotype of Aboriginal people, that we are nothing but the sum total of ongoing colonial trauma. As the rest of the collection evidences the poet refuses to be crippled or reduced by this or any other trauma white invasion and occupation presents; they have plenty more to write about.

Van Neerven’s reference to ‘the incident’ in the opening poem is the first time they have publicly responded to what happened in 2017 and what it says more broadly about settler Australian hubris. The ‘grace’ and ‘composure’ attributed to them at the time permeates this new work. The collection is a testimony to the power of being still and reflecting deeply, rather than reacting or wasting precious creative energy on negativity. Throat is infused and empowered by the composure of one who writes literally, physically, spiritually and metaphorically from solid ground.

Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice reminds us that the trauma is real for all of us, but it is not all we are. Settler readers are immersed in concepts of trauma and deficit as the only forms of authenticity for Aboriginal peoples, and so they look for it because that is mainly what they see in media. But as Heath Justice points out, there has been and there still is inequality and racial discrimination towards First Nations peoples, but we are not just the products of colonialism: it is not what determines our being. It can’t be, because if it is, we don’t continue. If we’re nothing but trauma, there’s no future. We can experience trauma, and not be made of it. There is much in Throat that speaks to the resilience and strength that we are made of.

The strength and confidence of this book is drawn, as van Neerven so poignantly articulates through many of their works, from family, community and Country. In particular, a number of poems honour the sustaining and nurturing power of the maternal. The long narrative poem, ‘Chermy’ is homage to the power of the maternal through reclaiming the space of a Westfield’s shopping centre in the Brisbane suburb of Chermside as women’s space:

Westfield Chermy is one of our sacred sites/

As the poem unfolds the history of Chermy emerges through the intergenerational stories of women in van Neerven’s family. We learn the shopping centre first opened in 1957, that their mother and all her siblings grew up there on Fee Street where ‘all the families’ kids played together’ where ‘the bush was all open’ and you could ‘walk through the bush’ and ‘all you had to worry about was snakes’. But the poem is much more than an evocative personal picture of a suburban area that has undergone much development since its construction in the 1950s. Through the personal the political is constantly evoked in a way that enacts a type of reverse colonialism; ‘Chermy’ reads as a testimony to deep and continuing presence of Aboriginal matriarchs in this place that is now ‘the largest single level shopping centre in Australia’. We feel,

Nanny’s warm arm/against mine/Mum and Nanny
touching/by the brickie shop/next to the butcher’s/strong
deadly women/ready to/take on Chermy at peak hour

And the tradition continues as,

Each year our bodies change/we get older in changing rooms/

But the constancy remains. In this built-up and built-over environment the poet asserts the continuation of Aboriginal culture through the time immemorial role of Aboriginal women as gatherers, something I’ve written about elsewhere. Aboriginal culture is diverse and Australia is a nation imagined and constructed over many Aboriginal nations; common across Aboriginal societies was the role of women as gatherers of often small but essential items of food that sustain the clan – lizards, insects, bugs, berries, fruits, frogs, seeds, tubers, eggs, small ground animals, nectar and wild honey. In settler academies the physical role of gathering may be understood, but not so well understood is the spiritual, transcendental role of women as gatherers and keepers of family histories, knowledge and secrets from Country that are handed down to nurture and sustain future generations.

Westfield is sacred to us/women are the gatherers/make our houses safe/make our families safe/my mum, grandmother, Aunties took care of me good…

we were jahjams/now we can with greater ease/make our own mistakes.

Much of van Neerven’s poetry explores the everyday activism that occurs in the Aboriginal home, differing from the more public or ‘loud’ expressions of activism. The poem ‘Bold & Beautiful’ documents home front activism by Aboriginal women that is often under-appreciated, yet vital to keeping the family together – for raising future generations of activists. The poet confides,

Nanny’s like my mum, she’s generous and special. She’d give us
 grandkids her last dollar. She’d give us everything she got.

This poem among others such as ‘Crushed’, with its dedication ‘to Mum, a library woman’, and the moving evocative elegy to their grandmother, ‘ Bahbuny’ where ‘stars broke when they heard you died’, claim the home front as a sovereign space of nurture, growth and actualisation. And in this van Neerven echoes the sentiments of activist and scholar bell hooks who noted that Black women make homes where all people can be subjects not objects; and where we can restore the dignity denied to us in the outside world. These works are tributes to the ongoing role of women as gatherers and caregivers, passed from one generation to the next, described by van Neerven as a ‘stitching of care between generations’. This is exactly what binds them or ‘pulls us all in’. ‘Bold & Beautiful’, a deeply personal poem, also reflects the importance of a nurturing family for Aboriginal children.

The home front is often dismissed in conversations of Indigenous activism, but it is vital to Aboriginal lives, and without it, we would not see the more valued, public activisms explored. ‘Acts of protection’, with its oppressive overtures of the recent history of state-controlled Aboriginal Protection Acts that conducted invasive surveillance over the lives of many Aboriginal people, is written as six short numbered stanzas, emulating the style of an official document. Each stanza describes with a judicious economy of words an act of nurture and care, each stanza offering a stark contrast to the national protection acts:

showing pride in handwriting
leaving notes to find
in the kitchen

picking me up from school with
puppy at your knees
giving love shape

telling us who we are
not who we aren’t
defying a fixed identity

And there is ‘Vinegar’, with its opening a scene of panic,

Sometimes, the house is unclean.
In this panic
I find myself in both past and future.

As an Aboriginal reader, my heart leaps to my throat as I remember and feel this fear of the outside perception of an unclean house and all its brutal implications for Aboriginal families living under constant welfare surveillance and the threat of having children removed.

…they are watching and our lives depend on it

The poem is as potent as the liquid it is named after in its criticism of the legacies of state initiated polices and sanctioned cultural genocide. It ends with the descendant of the ‘squatting of the shower floor’, ‘honouring the recipe’ of an unnamed matriarch, knowing that ‘they will not have to work as hard’ or have the same burdens. And, in this bittersweet resolve is the triumph of the family and home as a site of empowerment and hope for the future.

As the poet wonders in their conclusion,

does the intergenerational load get lighter or heavier?

This is a sober reminder that the past is never over; that all times are important for Aboriginal peoples; and of the many uncertainties Aboriginal people still live with today.

When Audre Lorde said that for women, poetry is not a luxury, she was talking about Black women. She was talking to Black women. In making this claim, Lorde spoke of poetry as the revelation or distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean – in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.

The white fathers told us: I think therefore I am. The Black mother
within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I
am free.

Lorde’s powerful words are a fitting description of Throat.

There is much in van Neerven’s work that evokes Lorde’s Black Mothers within. Along with poems such as ‘Boiling and burning’, ‘Bold & Beautiful’, ‘Chermy’ and ‘Crushed’ that pay homage to van Neerven’s mother and grandmother, several poems in Throat honour the role of women as activists, lovers, friends and nurturers.

‘Water Power’, dedicated to Aunty Mel, sees the poet, ‘remember strength of freshwater and saltwater’ as they are ‘slowly recovering their power’; ‘this deadly love’ writes poignantly of ‘a Mununjali Yugambeh shapeshifter from Black Soil Country fallin in one big love with a deado Ballardong Noongar tidda from York in south-west WA’. ‘White Excellence’ is dedicated to the late Wiradjuri word warrior Aunty Kerry Reed Gilbert and Blak musician Thelma Plum; ‘Portrait of Destiny’ honours K’ua K’ua and Erub/Mer visual artist Destiny Deacon who gave us the term Blak; ‘homoe’ recalls a home shared with a lover; ‘QLDR’ cites the words of acclaimed Waanyi writer Alexis Wright. And the searing and beautiful ‘Queens’ is a tribute to the late Candy Royalle that reminds us,

…that we all lead back to rivers
and flow to the sea
and we breathe with our mothers
and heartbeat with our grandmothers

The title of the collection, Throat, offers a framework through which to read the work. In functional anatomy, the throat is the part of the body that is responsible for both breathing and swallowing – breath and taste. The human throat is connected to many body parts. It works with the nose, ears and mouth as well as a number of other parts of the body. Its connection to the mouth allows speech to occur and food and liquid to pass through; its proximity to the ears aids hearing and the filtering of sound; and its connection to the nose is essential to the sense of smell. Many poems in the collection are of the body and are sensory, afferent, auditory, gustative; recalled and perceived through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. In the poem ‘Sacred ground beating heart’

we’re all sleeping on a sensation
bigger than us, bigger than the body

We read of the poets Country ‘between two rivers/two ribs/two hip bones.’ And, an untitled poem in the section called ‘speaking outside’ asks

Which part of the
               brain   body   throat
                           does language enter?

The throat is also the subject of several figures of speech. You can have your heart in your throat, when you are on the edge of fear or suspense; your heart can leap to your throat when you are overwhelmed with joy, awe or excitement; and, when people want to confront something head on, to be direct and forthright, they often speak of grabbing or taking something by the throat. All these idioms convey a sense of shock, awe, revelation, force and suspense.

Audre Lorde tells us that good poetry works hard to do the job that history fails to do. In the case of First Nations peoples Australia (and our sister-settler colonies across the Tasman and Atlantic) history fails to tell the truth of us. It fails to tell of the nation’s continued brutality towards us. Nowhere is this more blatant and obvious than in the poem ‘Women are still not being heard’ written for and of the late Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman who died in police custody in South Hedland in 2014:

women are still not being heard

women are still not being heard
our bodies ignored
crimes against us approved
sister spoke up
it took her life
in custody without custodianship

And ‘Silenced Identity’ where the poet thinks of, and in doing so asks us all to think of

…. those murdered and missing
counted, described and spoken about
in courts and in tabloids
without their true gender identities

History also fails to tell of our resilience and continued survival. If the only way to be authentically Indigenous is to be traumatised within colonialism, then you have to have colonial violence to be Indigenous, which maintains this relationship in perpetuity. This leaves us always in deficit, in a perpetual state of dysfunction. Unsettling and disturbing these narrow and reductionist visual and literary representations of us I think, is part of the important work van Neerven’s writing does. ‘Heal’ for example sees us ‘cleaning out the same rock holes our old people did’. This poem recounts an ancient and ongoing ritual – a testimony to the resilience of the oldest living culture on earth:

we come round you
hold you up
when you can’t stand on your own

the harvest
and then the feast
of mullet
and lemongrass

Throat defies definition and containment by Western binaries, a characteristic van Neerven’s voice and work shares with First Nations two-spirit and queer poets of North America and Canada, such as Qwo-li Driskill, Deborah Miranda, Chrystos, and Joshua Whitehead. These poets speak of sovereign erotics as an assertion of the decolonial potential of Native two-spirit people healing from heteropatriarchal colonisation of both land and gender regimes. The term two-spirit, according to Driskill, is deliberately and intentionally complex. It is intended as an umbrella term for First Nations LGBTIQ+ peoples, as well as people who use words and concepts from their own specific traditions and languages to describe themselves. The term speaks to the inherent right of First Nations Queer people to define themselves as part of a bigger older story that pre-dates invasions. There is much in Throat inboth form and contentthat exposes the limits of, defies, critiques and rejects colonial binaries of genre and gender.

In their 2011 work The Erotics of Sovereignty, two-spirit and queer writers Lisa Tatonetti, Deborah Miranda and Daniel Heath Justice examine erotics and sovereignty and contend that sexual self-determination undermines restrictive notions of Indigenous identity and opens up possibilities for Indigenous collective self-hood. These scholars also highlight the role of Indigenous literatures in disrupting colonial logics through the act of storytelling. This premise is one I wish to emulate in drawing attention to two-spirit, queer and non-binary perspectives in First Nations writing.

The erotic in van Neerven’s work is a powerful realm through which Aboriginal people can disrupt and challenge the mechanisms of colonial systems that continue to govern and constrain gender and sexuality. Works such as ‘unsent text messages’, ‘I Grieve Sleep’, ‘Questions of Love’ and ‘Blood Sex Mentorship’ enact a sovereign eroticism where Blak Queer bodies refuse to be named or defined. The poet tells us,‘I can’t wait to meet my future genders’.

The Blak Queer body is written as a site of pride in works like ‘Pleasure Seeking’, which begins with a question from the poet Malcolm Tariq, ‘What if the ancestors are watching us fuck?’:

You need a Sista to lead you astray
tell you if you push your fingers just so…
she’ll always be…
she’ll always be…

In the t-bar position
Your maps transpose
Land sea sky
Occupation reoccupation decolonisation

The poem ends poignantly with the line ‘tell her you’re not really dating/unless your dating each other’s ancestors’. For van Neerven, Blackness and queerness are inseparable, and their body is a sovereign site of both.I hear trans-Atlantic susurrations of Menominee two-spirit poet and activist Chrystos here.

Integral to van Neerven’s writing is their standpoint as a Blak queer. They promote a pride in both Aboriginality and queerness, an important form of activism. ‘The Only Blak Queer in the World’ expresses feelings of isolation: the poem opens, ‘I was the Only Blak Queer in the world. I had many difficulties.’ The title, ‘Only Blak Queer’ is a lonely space, where the poet sits in shame and confusion: ‘I didn’t know how to tell my family’. The poem demonstrates the importance of representation for the Aboriginal LGBTQI+ community. It is because they ‘hadn’t yet read Lisa Bellear’, her ‘sharply written work that spoke to me and my experience’ that van Neerven felt so alone in their queerness. The intertextuality of the poem is profound. Just as Lisa Bellear, Steven Oliver, Zaachariaha Feilding helped the poet reach an acceptance of self and feeling of community, so too will this poem and van Neerven’s works for many other young queer Aboriginal people. The poem transitions to reflect the discovery of the Queer Blak community conveying a newfound pride of self. Almost suddenly, ‘I saw Blak Queers everywhere.’

The poet enters a different space in which she feels validated in her personal experience: ‘every conversation was an insight into a Black Queer past’. Pride is symbolised in the ‘flag singlet’ to be worn by the poet. ‘Flag’ here, conjures images of both the Aboriginal and the Pride flag or perhaps an amalgamation of the two, capturing a distinct Queer Aboriginal pride and sovereignty. ‘Every chant is a line of a continuing poem and I am learning the words’. This line epitomises the role of poetry as activism – a ‘chant’ – and as telling a true ‘continuing’ history, in this case of Queer Aboriginal peoples that have been erased from the narrative. As van Neerven is ‘learning the words’ to this poem-chant, entering this Blak Queer world, they are assuming their own place within it.

This piece is adamant in its rejection of colonial gender constructions. In this poem I hear echoes of Oji-Cree two-spirit poet Joshua Whitehead who refuses to be binarized by choosing to define themselves as IndigiQueer. Whitehead’s collection of poems, Full Metal Indigiqueer, created through the Indigequeer character Zoa, in the poet’s own words, ‘brings together the organic (the protozoan) and the technological (the binaric) to re-beautify and re-member queer Indigeneity’.

Fluidity of gender and genre are also represented by van Neerven in form through many untitled poems. These works appear unannounced, defining themselves only by words suspended on the page, transcending convention and transforming space.

Nothing started the day I was born.
No gender or story.
No walls went up.
I was quiet.

First Nations poetry is an essential part of any decolonising movement. By using the term decolonisation, I am speaking of ongoing, radical resistance against colonialism that includes struggles for land redress, self-determination, healing historical trauma, cultural continuance, and reconciliation. Decolonisation is not a process that ends in clearly defined postcolonial states in South Asia and Africa. The colonisers have gone – but not their legacy. British invaders have officially pulled out of India and many states in South Asia and Africa. Our colonial realities in settler-occupied Australia, as in the United States, Canada and Aotearoa-NZ, are substantially different, as colonial governments still maintaining power and control over Indigenous communities. Decolonisation, like colonisation is a structure and an ongoing labour that First Nations people drive and enact; and writing – our creative works are one way that we create intellectual sovereignty – sovereignty of the mind where our texts are territories of First Nations ascendency and dominion.

Claudia Rankine’s descriptions of the limitations of the white imagination in representing other races can also be applied to the limits of white-settler readings of First Nations writing. The imagination of the Aboriginal writer, in this case van Neerven, is not limited, by default to one vantage point. The Blak writer does not have to ask, much less wonder what occupies the minds and imaginations of white Australia. It is abundant – in literature, in the media, on the screen, in tabloids, in our workplaces, on public transport, in classrooms on the streets and everywhere we look and move. Yet settler society does not have the same vantage point(s) when it comes to the Aboriginal imagination. The potency of this work is its capacity to expose the limits of the settler reading imagination; and challenge existing constraints of current limited definitions of poetry and the constrictions of western assigned genres to express ourselves and imagine our futures.

Rankine, Lorde and hooks’ experiences of Blackness are part of a larger African diaspora who were removed from their homelands by colonialism and are not the same as First Nations Blakness in the invaded settler nation of Australia where we were dispossessed from our homelands. Yet their sentiments and critiques of colonial oppression and discrimination resonate with First Nations women who’ve experienced colonial and patriarchal violence.

Trans-Indigenous Yugambeh literary theorist Maddee Clark in their essay ‘Becoming‑with and together: Indigenous transgender and transcultural practices’ speaks to the potential of the prefix trans as a non-essentialising, non-binarising framework for curating artworks by queer Indigenous artists. This can also be applied to First Nations queer and two-spirit writers. Clark draws on the work of First Nations literary scholar Chadwick Allen’s term trans-Indigenous as a way of examining First Nations cultural productions. Allen examines the uses of trans- as a means of looking at Indigenous aesthetics across time and geographic locations as expressions of global Indigenous politics that avoid comparative reductionism of First Nations cultures in the same flattening way in which colonial institutions have done; to move away from comparatives and into trans-. Such a definition offers a transformative framework for new, informed readings of First Nations Australian queer and two-spirit writing in the future.

Throat is a brave and radical work. A work that deserves an equally radical and considered reading position. One that requires a suspension of western realism, history, temporality, literary conventions and values, binaries and expectations. Its potency leaves an aftertaste to savour as it lingers long.

Works Cited

Maddee Clark, ‘Becoming-with and together: trans-Indigenous transgender transcultural practices’ in Artlink, 1 June 2017.

Janine Leane, ‘Gathering: The Politics of Contemporary Aboriginal Women’s Writing’ in Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australia/New Zealand Literature, 2017 ,Vol. 31, No. 2 pp. 242-252. 

Audre Lorde, ‘Poetry is not a Luxury’ in Sister Outsider : essays and speeches. Trumansburg NY Crossing Press: 1984,  p10.

Claudia Rankine, ‘On Whiteness the Racial Imaginary’ in Literary Hub, 9 April 2015.

Joshua Whitehead, cited in Alison Wick, ‘Joshua Whitehead Full-metal Indigiqueer is inspired by love, identity and the internet’ in The Peak, 2019.