Book Review / Blakwork by Alison Whittaker

“Always, a mirror is held up for the reader to re-examine themselves in the reflection of the work and the struggles of Indigenous peoples.”
Kyra Thomsen reviews Blakwork by Alison Whittaker, a poetry collection which provokes thought on contemporary and historical Indigenous consciousness in our society.

Blakwork, by Gomeroi poet Alison Whittaker, is a compelling collection exploring Indigenous culture and the connections found (and lost) in our everyday lives.

A Google search will tell you that “blackwork” is a kind of embroidery used on shirts and smocks in the time of Henry VIII. In this vein, Whittaker’s Blakwork weaves a complex image of life in post-colonial Australia. Simultaneously, it unravels the conventions of post-colonialism through surprising use of language and the dismantling of poetic structure. This deconstruction of conventional forms can even be seen in the title of the book, which reconstructs and reclaims the English word ‘black’ by leaving a letter behind.

Whittaker writes in a range of styles throughout Blakwork, from contemporary verse to microfiction and experimental forms. In ‘framework’, for example, the grid structure reflects the image in the title, while in ‘ethnomathematics’ the reader is given space to question themselves in the voids between words. In a further variation from convention, ‘scissors anchor pistol’ is written entirely in emojis; via this medium, Whittaker draws attention to the difficulty of communicating in a language not your own. Strikingly, some pieces are sideways on the page, which forces the reader to physically tilt to read them, yielding to the poem.

The book’s chapters focus on the word ‘work’: whitework, bloodwork, storywork, heartwork, badwork, workwork, groundwork, selfwork, goodwork, sovwork, newwork and blakwork. The exceptions are ‘the abbatoir’, ‘the school’ and ‘the centre’, which have the distinct feeling of prosaic memoir writing, of recalling the past and reinterpreting the story to the reader.

Always, a mirror is held up for the reader to re-examine themselves in the reflection of the work and the struggles of Indigenous peoples. References to these struggles have been woven into our contemporary cultural consciousness, and Whittaker references them in such cases as the campaigns of Eddie Mabo in “The forty-nine most common three-word phrases in the Mabo decision, ranked”. Whittaker’s unique use of structure asks us to look again, and to pay attention.

This layering of structure and technique throughout Blakwork means you’re never quite sure what you’ll find on the other side of the page. What is certain is that Whittaker’s poetry is a fearless voice on Indigenous experiences.

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