Book review: Comfort Food

Comfort Food by Ellen van Neerven
Review by Kylie Thompson

Genre: poetry

For a lot of us, poetry was that baffling part of studying English that was all about rhyming, and a bunch of dead white guys trying to get laid. Though Robin Williams went some ways to correcting that in his iconic role in ‘Dead Poets Society’, for a lot of people, poetry is mostly about remembering the pain of stumbling through readings of olde English, and trying to figure out when to pause for breath while feeling like you’re suffocating.

This is not that kind of poetry. Instead, it’s the kind of poetry hell-bent on soothing past poetry-related traumas. If you love poetry, you need to read ‘Comfort Food’ by Ellen van Neerven. But if you hate poetry, you need to read it, too.

Van Neerven, with a deft and compassionate hand, weaves magic here. These aren’t the poems of your school years. Though the idea of food is the starting point for the collected works, if you’re thinking this is an ode to edibles, you’re wrong. ‘Comfort Food’ is an anthology of works that are warm, tender, and rife with wry humour on a range of topics. They’re longing without becoming cloyingly sweet, political without preaching, a gentle reminder that there are many wounds in our shared history that need to be acknowledged before they can be healed.

Van Neerven is a writer of Mununjali and Dutch heritage, and readers are given a glimpse into the life and experience of a vibrant woman discovering how such a heritage situates her on Australia’s cultural spectrum. The journey towards self-acceptance and understanding is one that resonates strongly throughout. There’s something raw and vulnerable in ‘Comfort Food’, a sense of longing that you can’t quite shake yourself clear of. There’s a haunting in these pages, a sense of kinship it’s hard not to notice. Who hasn’t questioned who they are as their lives change around them? Who hasn’t looked around a crowded space and wondered where they belong?

‘Comfort Food’ is a collection of pieces about life and love, making peace with the self, missing home and all that it means, the search for something more and the half-whispered fear that it’s been back where you started all along. Though there are moments of sadness, and anger, there’s a sense of hope to van Neerven’s work that glimmers throughout. It’s frank, and honest, with the sort of phrasing that leaves you wanting to hug the book, and try and drink in the imagery. It’s also the sort of collection it’s hard not to drink down all at once, and the sort you can’t help but sneak back to for another serving.

‘Comfort Food’ is what poetry can be when we strip away the BS and pretentiousness that tends to infect the average classroom, and let poetry be a personal, emotional exploration of the world and our place within it. If you’re looking for outstanding Australian poetry, this is certainly a great place to start.

‘Comfort Food’ is published by UQP, and is available through the publishers website, and through leading retailers both online and off.

Rating: 5 stars

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