Searching for Satisfaction: Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort Food

Reading in the New Year for the AWW2017 Challenge

Reading in the New Year for the AWW2017 Challenge

This review is part of the AWW2017 Challenge


I spent almost half an hour searching the shelves of Readings Carlton for Ellen van Neerven’s 2016 collection of poems, Comfort Food, before asking why I couldn’t see it on the shelves when the website assured me it was in stock. After confirming that my alphabetical skills were top-notch and it definitely wasn’t on the shelf, the assistant went out the back to find a copy. They returned carrying a small white book, its bottom-right corner crinkled and cracked, stained a slightly darker white than its surrounding page – the result of an incident involving a wine glass, an errant elbow, and a stack of unsigned books at a recent launch event. I could have the copy at a discounted rate if I still wanted it.

Indeed, I feel as though I should have paid more for it. Comfort Food is a visceral pleasure to read, and the hardened pages along with the delicious verses made it feel as though I was reading a much-loved copy: as though I was repeating an action gone many times before; sharing my experience with others – innumerable invisible past, present, and future readers feasting together. As the ghosts of my imagination haunted my reading, so too do the ghosts of culture, language, and identity haunt Neerven’s verse. A poet of Dutch and Mununjali heritage, Neerven’s writing (dedicated to ‘those who have made me meals’) looks to food as a means of navigating and finding the self in a world that keeps shifting.

In the final chapter of her 1976 memoir The Woman Warrior – ‘A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe’ – Maxine Hong Kingston draws on the story of classical Chinese poet Ts’ai Yen to contemplate her own experience of growing up between cultures as a first-generation Chinese American in post-war USA. Abducted by barbarian bandits and taken far from her own family and community, Ts’ai Yen later married the chieftain of the tribe and bore two sons. One night – as Kingston tells it – the barbarians sitting around the camp fire struck up a musical chorus with flutes that emitted a sharp, piercing note. At first the music disturbed Ts’ai Yen, but then the flute players heard a woman’s voice singing of pain and anger and loss and forever wandering in a pitch to match the flutes’ own. When Ts’ai Yen finally returned to her people more than a decade later, she brought her new song with her. Kingston closes this story – and her novel – with the assurance that ‘It translated well.’

In Comfort Food, it is not music but the Proustian nature of food that acts as the intermediary between cultures, places, people, and languages. Food – as many artists before Neerven have realised – can operate in this manner because it is a signifier of life: it contains within it stories, culture, history, identity. Neerven taps into this food force with her devastatingly simple and direct language:

We talk about what we would

and what we wouldn’t eat

to stay who we are

for love

(From ‘Finger Limes’)

This is indeed where the power of Neerven’s take on food as translator and intermediary of self comes to fruition. Comfort Food – as its title and titular poem suggest – is about holes and wholes; about longing and satiation; it is a collection of deferred pleasures and nostalgic desire.

In the title poem ‘Comfort Food’, the narrator has ‘fourteen hours in Hong Kong’. But the poem itself is displaced: it is set, not in Hong Kong, but in the ‘private resting area’ of the Hong Kong airport where ‘I feel others’ privacies bump up against mine.’ In the dining area in one of the world’s food capitals ‘there is no real food to eat. Bread and butter pudding. Tomato soup. Nachos.’ The airport – a suffocatingly demarcated no-space – lacks a geographic and cultural specificity, lacks a personality, lacks comfort and love and this is nowhere more apparent than in the disappointingly banal buffet selection. And yet even in this anodyne space, food instigates memory, community, home:

The last time I ate nachos was on K’gari as I watched the sun lie down on the water.

Reel back home.

(From ‘Comfort Food’)

Drawing these links explicitly in the opening sections of the collection, in the fourth section food acts less as signifier than as metaphor and simile. It evokes particular sensations, recalls specific pleasures and textures. In ‘Sweet Note’ – a poem to lick your lips to –

the heart is open and oozing rhubarb

and this lover knows sex is custard

likes it without a recipe

(‘Sweet Note’)

In the two penultimate sections of the collection – which include ‘Please Pause Today’ (a remix of ex-SBS journalist Scott McIntyre’s 2015 Anzac Day tweets) and ‘Invisible Spears’ (dedicated to footballer Adam Goodes and first published by Overland) – food becomes an almost-myth in the Barthesian sense. French philosopher Roland Barthes contends that myth, in its most basic form is a type of speech: it is a way of saying something; a manner of presenting an ethos, ideology, or value system as a natural condition, rather than as what it is – a constructed and contingent perspective.

In ‘G20 Free Range’ food becomes a means of speaking about the disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities, the working class, and anyone unable to benefit from the diffusion of power in ‘multicultural’ Australia:

I walk in my singlet

to the city

to brown up

and show up

wearing my flag

on my chest

is warrant

to arrest

my Greek friend

stripped of rights

can’t make baklava

without egg whites

and a sense of past

with the packs

like 1890

keep out the blacks

we keep going

to the park

with a fire

for the dark

(‘G20 Free Range’)

Yet it is here that Neerven’s deceptively simple prose disarms. The limitation of myth is that it is intentional, that is to say its meaning derives from a prior linguistic schema, not from interaction with the world in its complexity. And this is where Neerven’s mythologising of (comfort) food diverges from Barthesian mythologising. This divergence is indeed foreshadowed in the collection’s epigraph:

I am not interested in other words for honey.

I am interested in honey.

(Sina Queyras, MxT)

Food for Neerven is not simply a means of speaking, but of translating experience. This is not the phrase-based translation against which Queyras warns – indeed that could serve to obscure what honey even is – but a transformation of knowledge into understanding. Neerven presents her experiences as bite size morsels, and in tasting samples of the many we begin to find links between ostensibly disparate moments in Australia’s past and present: and displacement emerges as the dominant flavour.

Towards the end of the collection – in ‘Dalgay/Yugambeh Death Poem’ – Neerven writes:

I haven’t yet found the place I will die.

(From ‘Dalgay/Yugambeh Death Poem’)

In a poem about finding the means to speak yourself in a language that is not yours (‘I don’t speak my language/but I speak yours/and I write it well’) this line makes tangible the aching absence – the hole obscured by its many wholes – that lies at the heart of this collection. Comfort Food expresses the dislocations and confusions that come from living between multiple languages and cultures – specifically Mununjali, Dutch, and white-dominated Australia, but also including travels to Asia and North and South America – a dislocation and confusion that Neerven navigates through a translation of food into life and the place where she will die.

Comfort Food remains un-closed, but the final two poems move away from dislocation to incorporate a rhetoric of ‘becoming’. In ‘Coconut Oil’, Comfort Food‘s penultimate offering:

old bush women guide me

to waterhole

sing my beauty, my strength

Freshwater woman, I am

Talgunn, Hairywoman, European, I am

(From ‘Coconut Oil’)

And in these becomings we find a strand of hope that suggests there might yet be a path from ‘those who have made me meals’ to ‘the place where I will die.’

We may yet still arrive at the place where it translated well.

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