Savage, Ellena. Blueberries. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2020. RRP $32.99, 256pp, ISBN: 9781922268563
Autotheory, personal essay, creative non-fiction: our contemporary moment is populated by modes of inquiry which seek to uncover the ‘I’ within the universal and the universal within the ‘I’. In her début collection, Blueberries, Ellena Savage seeks to question how our variously competing and collaborating selves—the writer, the settler, the gendered body—find means to exist in a world where any fixed social or economic habitus is precarious and fleeting.
As a collection, Blueberries is frequently peripatetic and content to wander a number of avenues (often within the same essay). ‘The Museum of Rape’ exemplifies the tendency: reflections are indexed according to numerals, with parenthetical footnotes directing the reader to other portions of the text (and finer numeric gradations allocated to the collateral thoughts: 2.0, 3.0, 4.0; then 4.1, 4.2, 4.3). The piece is a moving meditation on memory—how it is catalogued, captured—and the lacunae of loss (of loved ones, faith, and even the mind itself).
Other pieces begin at a particular angle before switching to a different mode, like a lazy Susan spun just as you’re expecting a certain dish. At the outset, ‘The Literature of Sadness’ appears like an invitation to complicity in a schoolground secret—urging the reader in, cajoling—before quietly transforming into a meditation on the relationship between love and political violence. A similarly evasive quality marks pieces like ‘Allen Ginsberg’ and ‘Friendship between Women’. The grace of Savage’s prose reminds us that there is braveness in not-knowing. It is an approach which aims to ‘avoid distorting the voice of life which sounds within us’ (98), speaking directly to the fleeting beauty of those knowledges we cannot voice, or might prefer to hide:
I am trying to
my lover from a year ago
wrote poems about me,
using my words, and I felt
I don’t know I felt like…
I have started
calling myself a poet in public—
I felt that she nailed my
terrible and not my tender.
+ because I hate essays.
+ because I keep fighting with
editors, like. I went
to high school I
think I know what a
question mark is?
+ because the comfort
of grammar false freedom.
Instead I want revenge. (99)
Unlike the comforts of grammar or easy self-historicisation, these are the sort of revelations which come to us from beyond language. They are never entirely concluded.
Similarly, in ‘Satellite’ and ‘Houses’, the evasive quality helps difficult material to cut through; concerns about the meaning of belonging when ‘Australia [is] a Crime Scene’ (92) for settler and migrant alike. Reflecting on the implications of what it means for communities to live and work on sovereign unceded land, Savage remarks: ‘There is no property without invasion; colonial theft precedes all other thieving. The date of the initial theft is enshrined in the calendar for everyone to see’ (182). Coming to terms with this particular body of belonging is necessarily discomfiting. The insights borne of troubled histories and inheritances gesture toward uneasy truths—truths whose blinding heat the pinhole camera of her prose allows, if only briefly, to be viewed:
I don’t have to romanticise an ontology I have no access to (say, early Jewish spiritualism) in order to witness the non-material world. Indeed, the ‘ancestors’ and the ‘communities’ we believe we have shucked off (where I come from, at least) are still present. They haunt us, not least because they make it possible for us to be alive. (191)
A vexed relationship with temps perdu also haunts the collection, and the need to escape—or at least manage—its subtler cruelties is finely conveyed. In pieces like ‘Turning Thirty’ and ‘Notes to Unlived Time’, Savage evokes a world of ‘[f]antasy futures not lived, having never lived’ (195). It is a vivid description of the accounting that comes with age, the dilettantism and vivid pretensions formulated during (and often defining of) youth limned in wry detail.
A host of authors—notably Kathy Acker, but also Bhanu Kapil, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, and Maria Tumarkin—inform the collection, both in the irruptive prose and the concern for bodily materiality (not for nothing were Acker’s own collected essays entitled Bodies of Work). The artist as manufacturer of cultural capital and capitalist subject; as sexual being and object; as carer and maternal figure to ‘rock-dogs’ (113); as prospective 7-Eleven taste-tester and recipient of abortion anaesthetic: through multiplying perspectives Savage uncovers the fractured, fragile quality of life as a young writer, where a room of one’s own must compete with other demands.
Navigating these, writing is apt to become compulsive, a ‘violent ordering’ born from the desire ‘to manage the unmanageable, to contain, correct and formalise the world […] to survive it’ (154). It is ‘the kind of occupation that thrives in cultures that are built upon accumulation’ (154). Disturbingly, this acquisitive impulse often functions as an act of theft. Savage asks her readers to contend with several: the theft of land that birthed settler-colonial Australia; the theft of time as one’s twenties make way for their thirties; the theft of labour defining landlord-tenant relations and the excess capital they produce, slyly pricing others out of the market; and the cruel coercion and theft of self that marks sexual violence, causing survivors to collaborate in their own trauma.
In writing ourselves we invest in the faith that, by peering into the trick mirror of self-documentation, we might also convey something of the wider world’s joys and cruelties. At one point Savage recalls a common refrain in her writing classes—‘Why write, when there is so much horror going on in the world?’ (197). Her response is telling:
Writing is an argument for hope: it believes in the future; it believes, even, in futures it ought to know better than to. It believes in the ongoingness, the wanton tenacity, of human beings. (199)
Blueberries is a remarkable collection. From the material of our frequently wanton and violent world, Savage has woven together a book that is at once tenacious and wondrously alive.
Declan Fry is an essayist, critic, and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta. Born on Wongatha country in Kalgoorlie, in 2009 he received the Tom Collins Prize in Australian Literature, and, as joint winner, the Todhunter Literary Award in 2013. He currently lives on unceded Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung land and is a board member of Books ‘n’ Boots, an organisation which distributes football boots and books to remote and regional Aboriginal communities. His work has appeared in Meanjin, Overland, and Australian Book Review.