Whitelock, Ali. the lactic acid in the calves of your despair. Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2020. RRP: $22.95, 112pp, ISBN: 9781743057049.
to love is not to tiptoe around the crust of your soul, rather / it is to descend into the fire of your molten core without a harness, / asbestos suit, or dry ice; it is to suffer third-degree burns; / it is to gasp for breath; it is to watch many canaries die. (5)
This collection by Ali Whitelock poses love as a kind of injury that we never quite recover from. Despair and grief also being alternate dimensions of love, and unavoidable companions if we are to make the choice of the poet in the author’s note and ‘live my life differently; that I would take my life by the balls’ (xiii). Just reading this collection feels exactly like what it is ‘to descend into the fire of your molten core without a harness’, as the persona in the collection shares all kinds of life experiences with an attitude of extreme honesty, the raw vulnerability of which only draws the reader further into Whitelock’s poems (5). For example, in ‘the primary reason you may find yourself fucking a psychopath’, (great title), Whitelock lists many possible reasons, among them ‘because you had your ovaries removed & a complete / hysterectomy’ but also ‘another very good reason might be that you are in a long-term relationship’ and although you are not too sure what exactly you are feeling, ‘bored seems to be the closest you can come to it’ (39). The sheer audacity of admitting and writing down these feelings seems somewhat of a personal revolution, an act of defiant allegiance to the truth of the poetic self.
I don’t know if I am noticing this because I am a woman, but there seems to be an underlying theme of womanhood in this collection. The volume’s persona meditates on what her hysterectomy means, ‘this is the one thing your body was meant to produce’ which has now ‘amounted to sweet / fuck all…there ain’t no baby ever / coming from this here womb’ (39). This meditation sets into motion a kind of grief for what could have been. Insightfully documented by Whitelock are the reactions of friends and even strangers to her emotional and physical pain. One friend offers the line ‘I’m sorry you’ll never be a mother’ while the protagonist has just driven her to the airport and the sentiment may have been well-intended, but the bluntness is shown as insensitive (5). Equally, another friend asks her ‘if it would affect my ability to have children’, again showing a lack of understanding and empathy about the situation. (24)
The medical team of the narrator are not much better with a radiographer casually asking ‘if I was doing anything special this year’ for Christmas while inserting a vaginal probe into the protagonist (7). In another scene, a surgeon states condescendingly ‘if you’re predisposed to cancer, no amount of chrysanthemum tea’s going to save you’ (10). Furthermore, in the poem ‘if you have no eyes where do the tears go’, the narrator goes for a shopping spree in a supermarket, but with a twist—in this store you can buy sadness, for ‘sadness is on special’, along with ‘a dozen cans of disappointment’, anger and regret. What I haven’t yet said about Whitelock’s work is it is often disarmingly funny. As in the case in this poem, where the narrator sees a ‘250 g block of forgiveness’ but instead decides to ‘head for the exit’ for ‘forgiveness is on ice. you know it will keep’ (78). There is something in these poems about the callousness of the system, whether it be in the medical establishment, or in the commercialisation of emotion. In these instances, the system is represented as masculine, or as faceless.
That is not to say that individuals cannot do their part to spread empathy when the going gets tough. In the poem ‘the great fucking wall of china’, a precious and rare experience of the ‘chrysanthemum tea of human kindness’ occurs between the protagonist and a Chinese man (9). Neither could speak the other’s language, but a silent empathy was expressed when the man gives the narrator some chrysanthemum tea to recover from her spasm of pain outside his shop. The choice of words for this interaction is just divine:
the chinese man came and sat quietly
beside me on the kerb, only he didn’t speak english and i didn’t
speak chinese, but he looked at me. and this look asked if i was
okay and was there anything he could do. and my look said to
his look, thank you, there’s nothing you can do, but i can’t tell
you what it means that you stopped to ask, then his look said
to my look, have you seen a doctor? and my look said to his look
i have, but so far they say there is nothing to see. (8)
The narrator herself then takes on this role of the empathiser in the title poem ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’ as she invites us to ‘let me pour tea into the holes of your grief’ and instructs us to ‘wrap your wounds / in gauze soaked overnight in my deepest concern’ with the acknowledgement of our shared helplessness as nurturer and as griever. (42)
There is a lot packed into this collection. Too much to address in one review. But what is perhaps most striking about Whitelock’s work is her ingenious use of metaphor. In the poem ‘mr sausage’ appears the line ‘soaking in the too much garlic marinade of loss that seeps deep / into the folds of the chicken tenderloins of their existence’. To say the least, this is a pretty original way to speak about loss—it’s expressive, poignant, funny and emotionally accurate. There are probably a hundred such quotations I could pull from the book that are equally intelligent and unusual and which show the deft play with metaphor and simile of Whitelock’s poetic hand. If you are at all intrigued by what you’ve read in this review, do go and read this book, because it promises an enlivening and heartfelt experience, plus plenty of funny moments along the way.
Gemma White is a poet living in Melbourne, Australia. Her first collection of poetry, Furniture is Disappearing, was published in 2014 by Interactive Publications. She shares her knowledge of poetry at www.gemmawhite.com.au, where she offers a free 5-day email poetry course. Gemma is currently working on a follow-up manuscript.