University of Queensland Press, 2016.
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit.
Ellen van Neerven’s debut collection of poetry, Comfort Food, is a treat for the senses. A poet of Mununjali and Dutch heritage, van Neerven is also an acclaimed author of fiction: her novel, Heat and Light (2014), won the David Unaipon Award and the Dobbie Literary Award. The poems in this impressive collection explore food as an expression of identity, love, and passion.
Van Neerven’s travels to Canada and India cemented her intuitive idea that food is an intrinsically cultural and social experience for her. She says: “I only enjoyed eating while I was with other people … I became obsessed with my relationship to food and how food was entwined with culture, place, family, and love.”
The triumph of these poems is their complex use of a very simple lexicon: the language is comprised of the everyday words used by people at home with family and friends. There is no need for verbosity when we are among friends. For van Neerven, to travel abroad is neither to encounter the exotic nor to see the self reflected back but, rather, to simply broaden one’s circle of friends and loved ones. That is not to say that there is no friction: she recognises that loving coexistence necessarily entails dispute and disharmony at times. This “Comfort Food” is not sugar-coated.
“Prawn Tails” is worth quoting in full as an example of van Neerven’s metamorphosis of home-style cooking into home-spun wisdom:
to take the tail of the prawn
squeeze the end
see the licks of liquid
and pull it hard
like the ring
stuck to your finger
at that party
all things come easier
The sensuous merges with the sensual in the light touch of alliteration — “see the licks of liquid” — to suggest finger-food at a get-together on a languid summer day, while the way in which relationships become tighter over time is made tangible in the ring stuck to the finger fattened by comfort and familiarity. Indeed, “all things come easier when fresh:” from the witty banter of a first, carefree encounter at a party to the blush of love in the early stages of a relationship. “Freshness” as in a fresh encounter with other people makes things seem light and lithe. Van Neerven articulates this idea brilliantly in “Tamale” with the line: “The way an evening tumble-turns out of / trouble,” suggesting the superficiality of first conversations between new acquaintances but also the foreboding that discord will arrive as time moves on.
In this collection, freshness-as-novelty merges with freshness-as-wholesome-rawness, so that the new and the old, the modern and the traditional, coexist in a time of plenty. The title of the very first poem of this collection suggests this plenitude: “Whole Lot.” There is further wisdom to be found here: “what we eat comes from our roots / if we stop sharing there will be nothing.” Indeed, van Neerven’s work is a generous poetics as she shares her wisdom, both innate knowledge and hard-won learning, with the reader in a way that seems natural and conversational but, when examined closely, reveals great depths of meaning.
The poet senses her own sagacity born of blood and rooted firmly in this land. In “Finger Limes,” while exploring her country, van Neerven states: “I know more / than I can fit into thought.” This knowledge must be the great wisdom that is simultaneously of all time and outside of time and which is tied to place: the essence of country and the spirit of its people. Soul food is the sole food of love.
Yet while food, like language, gives sustenance and nourishment, if used in excess or gone bad, it is also capable of bringing pain, as van Neerven astutely observes in “Chips:”
what is happening
with the dialogue of this country
they are killing people with words
if I’m not back soon
tell them I’ve had too many chips
Moderation is seen as both safe and staid; calm and unadventurous; healthy and lacklustre. The cornucopia or horn of plenty must be shared with all so that each is richly satisfied and none is denied or overindulged.
Ultimately, this is poetry of optimism and courage, love and passion, with the darkness not only acknowledged but also raged against, the words as illuminating as lightning crossing the evening sky. Dazzling, potent, radiant: van Neerven’s collection is a joy to consume like the fresh, cool “Mango” she describes, its sweet juice the elixir of life.
The final line of the last poem in this collection, “Buffalo Milk,” speaks of “the woman I will become” and the absence of a full stop is telling. Van Neerven is a poetic voice of brilliance and acuity whose future is continually coming into being. This is a poetics of becoming even as it is a poetics of what has always been and which must be conserved. In the same poem, she implores, “suck until you burn the room:” this incandescence is a fire of passionate love for one’s own; a fire that burns through the boundaries that separate us and divide us into “rooms” of clique and culture. Comfort Food is no rare and exotic delicacy. It is a nourishing feast shared by friends and family. This collection deserves not to be consumed in solitude but, rather, generously shared: loudly, whole-heartedly, and with relish.