the lactic acid in the calves of your despair
Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet now based in Australia. This is her third book, her second volume of poems. I loved the previous volume, and my heart crumples like a coke can, so much. I still think about it. Often. It was hard to put it aside to read the lactic acid in the calves of your despair. This is the whitest of first world problems: Your new favourite poet releases a really good new book that might threaten to eclipse that other really great book she wrote which is still current and occupying your mind.
I don’t know Ali – but we have corresponded. And I feel like I know her through her words and I would rather write her down as ‘Ali’ than start a meandering sentence in a review with: Whitelock is devastating, funny and cruel and wise, and life – hers and ours – is devastating and funny and cruel, so her wisdom is a tonic. Because that seems a bit wanky. So I’ll just write instead: Ali is devastating, funny and cruel and wise, and life – hers and ours – is devastating and funny and cruel, so her wisdom is a tonic. There. That feels so much better.
Ali’s poems are heart-breaking and wondrous – and as with her previous volume I had to take my time with this; the poems stopped me in my tracks. My usual way of reading poetry is to plough through the book as if stories or a novel or non-fiction, read in order, then re-visit and cherry-pick and spend time on second and third readings. But Ali’s poems demand second and third (and fourth, fifth and sixth) readings as soon as you encounter them. Ali’s poems corner you and confront you. But behind their barbs there’s a cheeky smile, there’s dried tears. There are arms waiting to hug. And there’s a heart wanting to be hugged in return.
There are great jokes here too. She’s got the best comic timing.
i marvel at women falling pregnant at the drop
of a fedora
Like my favourite kind of comedy, some of my favourite poems lure you in, trick you with a laugh and then sucker-punch you.
Later in that same poem I quoted from above – and I’m aware I’m basically ruining a joke here, spoiling the punchline, and I’m quite prepared to go back to referring to Ali as ‘Whitelock’ for penance – a medical expert or “gynae” in the Scottish vernacular, and you read all of these poems in Ali/Whitelock’s voice, urges her to hurry up and give it a go if she wants to get pregnant.
we gave it a go. if i’m honest, half-heartedly.
our fedora never dropped, it barely even tipped,
I’ll save the last line for you to read for yourself. But it was at this moment that I stopped comparing this poet to Bukowski or Mary Oliver or to any of the other obvious, referential sources. This, to me, was like a line from a Bridget Christie routine. Maybe Bill Burr. Certainly Dave Chappelle.
And that made me very happy.
These poems are so miserable that I laugh and I laugh. My heart cries as well. My soul is stirred. I stop mid-verse and go back to the start of the poem, reading in near-disbelief. Reading as if I don’t know what’s coming even though I’ve just read the exact same lines. They feel different, surprising and wonderful, each and every time.
Congratulations Ali on another very fine book. Your best to date. May you climb many more hills with your words. And burn deep – through despair and towards a sustenance that approaches its own form of happiness.
The grief in these poems is profound; is palpable. The loss of children and the ability to conceive, the loss of a parent – the grieving, still and always, for a relationship that was never really quite there. These are tough hills to climb. And it’s Ali’s sincere wish that when climbing the mountain of life the lactic acid in the calves of your own despair will not burn too deep.
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