A review of a brief letter to the sea about a couple of things by Ali Whitelock

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

a brief letter to the sea about a couple of things
By Ali Whitelock
Wakefield Press
Paperback, June 2023, ISBN: 9781743059722, 106 pp, $24.95

Ali Whitelock’s voice is so distinctive. I don’t just mean her beautiful Scottish brogue, though if you’ve ever heard her read, the richness of that accent will remain with you when you read her work on the page. Whitelock’s voice is woven throughout the work. It’s an immediacy and an openness that makes you feel, when reading her poetry, that you have been friends your whole life and she is not only confiding in you but drawing out of you your own dark secrets so you can laugh at them together.

a brief letter to the sea about a couple of things exudes the same wry warmth that fans of Whitelock’s previous books the lactic acid in the calves of your despair, and my heart crumples like a coke can, and poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell have come to expect, with a unique combination of vulnerability, personal memoir, universal concerns, hilarious narration, and a brilliant poetics that often extends the simile to its outer limits.

While a brief letter to the sea about a couple of things is easy to read and never falters in its humour–I did find myself howling with laughter, sometimes in public–the work is intense, crossing the boundaries of life and death, longing and loss, love and guilt in ways that are immediately recognisable and familiar but also fresh. Whitelock has a gift for finding the exact metaphor to make deep-seated trauma visible, and if not less painful, then almost certainly less shameful. The book explores a range of topics from mature love, the covid pandemic, toxic masculinity in many different forms, the climate emergency, the aging body – both female and male, tumours, failing eyesight, and grief and the way it permeates through the everyday actions of grocery shopping, drinking coffee, or even doing kegels:

and every night as you squeeze your pelvic floor muscles twelve times & hold for the count of ten you will imagine what’s left of your organs lining to the walls of your abdominal cavity screaming out to each other across the voice, for the love of god, hold on as tightly as you can! if you don’t fall out through this black fucking hole she will have you removed. she got rid of the others—she will get rid of you too. (“It will start innocently enough with the ovarian cyst”)

Each poem is a mini essay exploring a single topic which is always engaging, but taken collectively, the book makes a clear link between the kinds of overt and grabby capitalism that gives rise to Donald Trump, toxic masculinity, the climate emergency, the treatment of refugees, class inequality, the cascade of medical interventions and the commodification of womens’ health, or the overt postures of a well-heeled new age women:

it looked like her manifestation might take up
most of the day so i decided to leave her to it.
as I made to leave she opened one eye–not too
wide in case it interfered with her kundalini–
turned towards me, placed the palms of her hands
together, bowed her head & whispered namaste. (“yin & fucking yang”)

While the poems have a narrative feel that flows easily, they they use a range of poetic techniques from the aforementioned extended metaphor:  

when the darkness has sucked the last dregs of light from your days turn to your cargo, mix your sadness with coke. toss the screw top of your pain onto the pale rising int he corner like mould up the wall of a gorbal’s flat (“vodka & coke”)

to the way that words reorient themselves, drip down, balloon outward, shape themselves into pictures, play across and through the white space on the page, or in one of my favourite poems in the collection, “ode to the twenty-five kilos my husband lost”, turn themselves into lost fat. I won’t try to quote that piece in its rotund glory as my coding skills aren’t up to it, but suffice to say that this quiet poem is both funny, its shape calling to mind the Adiposians of Dr Who, a reflection of the stupid way people seems to celebrate any kind of weight loss no matter the cause, and also an utterly sad and beautiful reflection on grief at the loss of a beloved family pet, which hit me somewhere in my solar plexus. That’s the way with these poems. a brief letter to the sea about a couple of things is a beautiful collection, with such rhythmic verve that the poems are a delight to read out loud, even if you will never be able to replicate the rolling rs and well rounded vowel sounds of Whitelock herself. These are poems that hit immediately but also keep bringing you back in a way that is somehow healing and forgiving of all that is human and broken in us, or as Whitelock herself puts it the “Great betadine of the grazed Chambers of our Exhausted Hearts.”