A review of and my heart crumples like a coke can by Ali Whitelock

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

and my heart crumples like a coke can
By Ali Whitelock
Wakefield Press
Paperback, ISBN: 9781743055342,102 pages, 22.95

Anyone who has heard Ali Whitelock perform her poetry will hear the same Scottish accent when reading her poems on the page. The accent has a certain density that forms a rhythmic backbone to these poems that cross genres between memoir and verse. The pieces are cumulative, unfolding in stories that explore key moments such as the illness and death of a family dog, a sister-in-law’s heart attack, the building of friendship with a once feared praying Muslim, a father’s sudden death, the dislocation of migration, menopause, infidelity, and the perilous state of the world. The poetry manages to be both pithy and almost hysterically funny, not an easy mix to achieve, but that is how life works: the paradox of what we carry and what we experience in each moment. Whitlock captures this duality perfectly, taking a stand-up comedian’s incision to pretension and human foibles.  Sometimes these are trivial, as in the pretensions of bad therapists or snooty shop assistants:

and even though she said she was sorry
she didn’t really sound sorry because
when you are an intellectual sometimes
you do not have time to sound sorry. (“a friend of mine with low self-esteem”)

Sometimes it’s tragic, as in the death of Whitelock’s father, whose rapid and surprising decline are charted with description that is deeply moving and powerfully visual:

i booked myself on writers’ groups on open mics
circled poetry readings I’d attend I’d hop across
to paris maybe berlin fuck it why not Barcelona?
but a quick drop in to see you father revealed
you were a sliver of yourself
a flaked almond of a man
a fragment
like someone took a photocopy
of you reduced it to A5 printed it in grey scale (“water’s for fish”)

Whitelock sees through the many illusions we create to get through each day, but there’s no judgment here. The work invites the reader to laugh along. There’s deep intimacy in this work, and it’s impossible not to feel the connection and universal in Whitelock’s particulars. Along with the loss that permeates all of the poems, not just as sorrow, but also as anger, fear, relief and confusion, there’s also desire, a new kind of discontent that comes with the loss of youth and hormonal changes. Whitelock writes with an honesty so sharp it’s almost subversive:

eventually you will be home for dinner less and less
and you will like to him more and more
and one night you will send him a text saying
you will be back later than usual maybe even the next day
and your lie for this one will be very original and completely
unbelievable but you are now so addicted
to your lies like a kid on nothing but smarties and mars bars
and tob-le-fucking-rones that you just keep right on
shovelling your refined sugar onto the fire of your truth (“eventually you will turn fifty”)

As a migrant, Whitelock writes with affection and irritation taking on Australian icons like Holden Commodores, Lamingtons, Coles cooking chocolate, beige weatherboard villas, and Chicko Rolls and even as you’re laughing about the aesthetically bereft suburbs and idle chitchat of the racist, Whitelock slips right into a critique of our damning treatment of refugees (with a very straightforward directive):

it is time to feed the birds australia
tuppence a fucking bag sure what does it cost
to pipe in a haggis share some tatties and neeps
raise a glass to their health mia council
casa es tu council casa australia the world’s
eyes are rolling in your general direction
and right now you look like some kind of jesus
sandalled arsehole sitting on the veranda
of your ocean front property with your deep pockets
and short arms pretending you don’t even know
it’s your turn to buy the next round at the bar (“mia council casa est tu council casa)

The impact of this motion between the domestic and the political is powerful and unsettling, opening out grief and loss through piercing wit and uncanny metaphors.

and my heart crumples like a coke can reads very quickly, like confession, with a performative cadence that rings in the head as you read it (Check out Whitelock’s reading of “water is for fish” here, for an illustration: https://youtu.be/Cu6UR4hmD4Y), but the poems are also self-referential, clever, carefully refined and condensed. The book is heart-wrenching and in ways I can’t quite explicate, entirely affirming. Perhaps is that the language is always a wee bit defiant even when tracing the most excruciating pain, or maybe it’s the way the reader is drawn directly into the circle and made to see how compassion and empathy, even to a lying, aging and sometimes vain self, is the only way forward.