Welcome to the virtual launch of

Ali Whitelock's

the lactic acid in the calves of your despair

Political, profound, profane. These poems of defiant disobedience crash through the barriers erected to keep us contained. Writing with humour and tenderness, Ali Whitelock takes us through the parched landscape of life, death, love, fear, regret and the unbearable sadness of losing a dog.

And particularly topical in the aftermath of the destructive Australia-wide fires, the powerful 'this is coal don't be afraid' is a found poem made up of statements by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the Rural Fire Service, as well as relevant tweets and quotes, collated to create an extraordinary piece to make us shiver.

this is coal don't be scared don't be afraid seek shelter from the heat of the fire. but look, the girls and jen, they love holidaying in hawaii and so we've had a few nice days here. drink water to prevent dehydration evacuate your horse to the beach have your children row for their lives. australians will be inspired by the great feats of our cricketers this is not about climate change

Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet and writer living on the south coast of Sydney with her French chain-smoking husband. Her shiny new poetry collection, the lactic acid in the calves of your despair is published by Wakefield Press and her debut collection, and my heart crumples like a coke can (Wakefield Press 2018) has a forthcoming UK edition by Polygon, Edinburgh. Her memoir, Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell was launched at Sydney Writers Festival to critical acclaim in Australia (2008) and the UK (2009). You can read more about Ali at her website.

Launch speech by

Tricia Dearborn

One of the most important things a poet, or indeed any artist, can do for an audience – particularly in these difficult times – is to convey the complexities of what it feels like to be a human being alive in the world today. Ali Whitelock’s work does this, with both candour and brio. I was therefore delighted to be asked to launch her second collection. The launch was to have taken place at Better Read Than Dead on 19 March 2020, but fell victim – as have so many arts events – to the necessary precautions around the coronavirus. Fortunately, the internet enables us to hold a launch without having to wash our hands thoroughly (though please do that anyway), don gloves, cough into our elbows or maintain a 1.5-metre distance from each other – so I welcome you to the virtual launch of Ali Whitelock’s the lactic acid in the calves of your despair.

Ali is a woman after my own heart in a particular way, namely that she tends to the straight-down-the-line and the sweary, being ever willing to call a spade a spade, when she is not calling it a fucking shovel. Yes, this is a content warning. But be assured that the swearing is not gratuitous, but rather a considered use of a potent and necessary element of the vernacular.

Something you’ll notice straight away, if you turn to the contents page, is that Ali has a gift for intriguing and memorable poem titles. The first poem in the book is called ‘in the silence of the custard’. This title has its own delicious absurdity, and is perfect for the poem, but it also, fittingly, carries a slight resonance of The Silence of the Lambs. There is also ‘the dandruff in the dry scalp of your longing’, ‘mr sausage’, ‘when your father dies of nothing’ and ‘a poem walked into a bar’. These titles are small siren songs, luring you into the poems themselves.

While Ali’s poems are informed by the energy of the spoken word, they are never simply transcriptions of the vernacular. Felicitous choices have been made as to wording, as well as rhythm, line breaks and other elements of form. The poems offer, in addition to their own intrinsic rewards, insight, entertainment and not a small measure of consolation. They contain many wonderful descriptions, like this one, from ‘kmart sells out of cheap fans made in China’, depicting lying in bed on a scorching night:

And this, from the same poem:

There’s a poem with a description of how to write a sonnet that is like nothing you’ve ever come across in a writing manual or a writing class. The author, having ventured into a metaphorical forest, summons several alphabets’ worth of letters and charms them, using blandishments and a tune on a magic pipe. Then she writes:

The humour in the collection is balanced with moments of poignancy: the poem ‘in the silence of the custard’ includes a small observation, a description of the hair spiralling out of the poet’s father’s smallpox scar, and then this devastating line: ‘something of you finally stretching toward the light’. A few words that contain worlds.

The book does not shy away from dealing with life’s difficulties. Even apart from death – which has a strong presence – there is the complexity of relating to an abusive parent, the paradoxes inherent in being a migrant, the vicissitudes of a long-term relationship. There are also some very modern troubles: the poem ‘now is the modem of our discontent’ is about the existential panic that can occur when the dreaded happens and the internet goes down. And while the deaths of the poet’s father and beloved dog Hector haunt the book, the poems they appear in are by turns tender, bleak, angry, bereft, and framed with wry observation and much humour. The collection also includes urgent poems about the planet, like ‘in the event of a lack of oxygen’, and, a late addition, ‘this is coal, don’t be afraid’ – a poem that went viral on social media and was retweeted by none other than former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

This is a book with a lot of heart; human connection and compassion feature alongside human distress. I’m going to (virtually) read you a little chunk from ‘The great fucking wall of China’, in which the protagonist, in physical pain, has sat down on the kerb outside the Lucky World supermarket in Chinatown. A man comes out and sits beside her. He doesn’t speak English and the protagonist doesn’t speak Chinese:

The title poem is one of my favourites, a poem about grief that features not only ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’ but other metaphors that surprise and illuminate, like ‘the Grampians of your anguish’ and ‘the tartan thermos of your healing’. It is a hopeful poem that says: I know how bad it can be. I am here for you. Hang in there.

I’d like to end with a small extract from the poem called ‘a poem walked into a bar’, in which the poem itself addresses the author, saying:

the lactic acid in the calves of your despair is a potent brew of words, rhythm, imagination and truth. I highly recommend that you buy yourself a copy – and a few for your friends.

Some of the poems you'll find inside …

An unfurl project

Created By
Stephen J. Williams