A review of Comfort Food, poetry by Ellen van Neerven.
There isn't a single culture that doesn't understand the unifying experience of food, in its many guises of form, tradition, production and sharing. Its consumption is understood as one of the many sensual pleasures available to us as humans. As a subject, the fact that it is so multi-sensory, attracts the interest of poets, who specialise in exploring its delicious facets. On the cover of Ellen van Neerven's poetry debut, Comfort Food (UQP, 2016), poet Omar Musa describes the book as "...the real deal...nourishing, soulful tucker for the here and now."
As an Australian indigenous writer (of Mununjali/dutch heritage, Ellen has laid out a veritable smorgasbord from her travels (India, America, Canada and more) and at-home experiences. At times, she adds a touch of spice in the form of biting social commentary (e.g. Invisible Spears)and potent queer sexuality (Buffalo Milk, How My Heart Behaves, Sweet Note). The book reads well as a poetic memoir, and thankfully doesn't adhere to formalism. The work feels fresh and yes, "here and now".
As a poet, Ellen values economy and most of the poems included are short and...well, sweet (in the slang sense, not the saccharine sense). Excuse the puns, but despite their bite-size length, the subject matter is something the reader will find themselves chewing over and relishing again and again. The stories are often moving and endearing, such as the uncle 'midwifing' the snapper he caught (Brun) and the mundane tales of laundry and supermarket shopping.
It strikes you how adept Ellen is at framing her culture in her writing, alongside life as a young woman navigating travel, family and sexuality. It is an insightful, warm and yet comforting debut from a poet who is breaking new ground in Australia.
Don't miss Girls on Key presents Ellen van Neerven reading and QA at Hares and Hyenas in July! Thanks to UQP for the review copy.