Ellen van Neerven’s second book of poetry, Throat (UQP 2020), with its arresting cover, is a stunning, at times quietly thoughtful and then bravely confrontational collection that explores language, history, country, love and belonging with tenderness, emotional honesty, vulnerability and courage. A thread throughout is Australia’s unreconciled past, as van Neerven examines gender, identity and sexuality and what it means to be blak and queer.

At times beautifully poetic and lyrical, at times brutally honest and truthful, these poems encourage the reader to think about race, history, invasion, inclusivity, culture, gender, desire, loneliness and exclusion. The author is proudly Aboriginal, proudly queer, proudly an artist.

The anthology is divided into five sections: they haunt-walk in; Whiteness is always approaching; I can’t wait to meet my future genders; speaking outside; and take me to the back of my throat. Some are intimate and personal, some broad and expansive.

Some of my favourite lines:

‘Memories sometimes come backwards. They haunt-walk in.’

‘sovereignty was never ceded. why do we need to reference the invasion, we are continuing our ancestors’ talk. I can close my eyes and you are gone – that’s the power of Country.’

‘I’m looking for comfort now my protection has gone. I’ve grown up to a world that was uglier than the one I was promised.’

‘courage is telling them what you think of that play. that script they try and write us in will no longer contain us. bring me a new coat of oppression. this one’s wearing thin.’

‘I saw the colours of my own heart, and they were not the colours of isolation and fear.’

‘we heal hearts by crying/mourning our mothers/our heroes/the sky is black with geese’

‘What does it mean to be held/ in another/ tongue’

‘Stars broke/when they heard you died/dust fell at our feet’

‘They make us feel like we should be so grateful just to be here.’

Some of these poems are poignant, some angry and defiant, some melancholy and some show a sharp sense of wit and humour.  

I especially love Vinegar, Bold and Beautiful, My Country, Funeral Plan (‘I am not aware of my power/you watch me build my weapon’), Call a Spade a Spade, Type, The Last Apology, White Excellence, Four Truths and a Treaty (the Treaty being between the reader and the author…fascinating), Questions of Home, Silenced Identity, Listen (‘tell our strong young women/talk up, bub/like your mother and grandmother are at the table’), Tap, I Grieve in Sleep, and Paper Ships.

An impressive collection by one of Australia’s most significant poets writing today.