Christine Ratnasingham reviews How Decent Folk Behave by Maxine Beneba Clarke
How Decent Folk Behave
By Maxine Beneba Clarke
Reviewed by CHRISTINE SHAMISTA RATNASINGHAM
Building glass walls to show ‘how decent folk behave’
From the beginning to the end, front and back covers inclusive, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s newly released book, How Decent Folk Behave, is rich with carefully curated images and words that connect with and confront the reader. Poetry is both mystical and tangible. For many of us, particularly us writers of colour, it’s the natural way in which we tell our stories. According to Nina Simone, the artist’s duty is ‘to reflect the times’. This quote precedes the table of contents and gives context to the following pages – Beneba Clarke’s account of our recent collective events.
Beneba Clarke’s refusal to use traditional punctuation, her playful and clever use of line breaks and formatting, her exploration of place, historical references and lived experiences make for a rich and unique collection. How Decent Folk Behave, ethically provocative in its title, takes us on a cleverly sequenced journey, commencing with a prologue that warns us to ‘be prepared’, for there is poetry beyond! It starts with the day before the year 2000 in the first poem ‘when the decade broke’. Many of us will remember this day very clearly. We were warned that at the stroke of midnight, catastrophe would occur due to the constraints of and our over reliance on computer technology. Beneba Clarke carries a sense of dread throughout this first poem, and so begins the rollercoaster ride as we read the poems that follow. Her poetry weaves through recent events and connects personal micro moments to the systemic macro moments that mark our time. Like lockdown life enforced on us, she carefully gets us to slow down and observe, as we ‘… also … learn/ how to grow the world; from seed’ (‘generation zoom’).
Beneba Clarke’s critique of our recent times doesn’t attempt to claim there is a perfect way. In the searing poem, ‘my feminism’: she writes that ‘all feminism is flawed, but/ my feminism/ will try… my feminism/ will amplify/ the songs/ of the silenced … my feminism/ does not go/ smashing glass ceilings/ at the same time it builds glass walls’. Yes, we women march for feminist causes, yet we often do so at the cost of other women’s sacrifices. Past and present sacrifices have given us the opportunity to have an amplified and powerful voice. She shows us the shadow side too – that domestic violence for example, is perpetrated by the hands of those we thought we brought up right. The facets she reveals expose the disturbing intersectional layers of abuse, racism, ableism and sexism.
In her 2009 TED talk, ‘The Danger of the Single Story’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns: ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’ Beneba Clarke exposes the myth of a single story through her writing, which is how she describes her feminism – strong, fierce, burning, alive, smart, intersectional and kind.
As a woman of colour and a mother, ‘grace’ was another poem that resonated strongly with me. She explores the truths that our children teach us in the relentless and exhausting lessons of motherhood: how it opens our hearts; how it decentralises from just us; that we are shown life through our stubborn, strong willed, ‘solid’ child, in the mess, in the constant waking through the night. Beneba Clarke explores the high price of the motherhood journey while acknowledging it also adds a ‘hum’ to the home we build and maintain. We then need to let go of the beings who are ours, and also not ours.
‘the monsters are out’ weaves this description of motherhood to the uncomfortable truth that ‘… monsters/ have the same face/ as our sleeping four-year-olds’, our wondrous children. She takes us through the tragic accounts of Jill Meagher’s final hours, and then doesn’t let us ignore the accounts of those less recognised, like Natalina Angok. This particular part of the journey takes us to the ‘capital’ poem, our nation’s capital, and specifically, our Parliament House, where men flourish and women languish.
The experiences of not being believed, being misunderstood and left suffering is powerfully explored in ‘trouble walking’. This gave me disturbing déjà vu to health issues that go misdiagnosed among people of colour, showing the reader that for some, it’s easier to cope with pain than have to engage in discriminatory health systems that are quick to judge. In ‘muscle memory’, she rightfully takes us through the ‘us’ and ‘them’ that occurs to ‘communities of colour’. The ‘they’ constantly remind us we are more susceptible to infections and diseases, yet less likely to engage in health care support. Both are reductionist generalisations that fail to recognise the various ways in which societies and systems perpetuate racism. Paradoxically, it is often these ‘communities of colour’ that sustain health practitioners in the workforce – looking after their children, cleaning their houses and workplaces, making food, and driving them in Ubers.
When we’re halfway through the collection, prepare to feel deservedly uncomfortable at ‘home to biloela’. We read Beneba Clarke’s account of one of our greatest current failings: the attempted deportation, detention and continued uncertainty we’ve given Priya, Nades, Tharnicaa and Kopika – often referred to as the Biloela family. She continues her portrayal of control in ‘surveillance’ which explores how surveillance legislation continues colonisation of brown bodies by the law enforcement institutions. Her focus narrows on the perpetrator in ‘wolf pack’. Beneba Clarke challenges the term ‘lone wolf’ which, in the events of the Christchurch massacre, descriptions of the ‘blond boy’ with his ‘mock-shy smile’ (and other lone wolves across the globe, in the USA, Norway, England) rightfully question our broader role and responsibility in the formation of ‘lone wolves’.
‘fourteen and nine months’ took me back to that golden age when we get to have our first job. And grateful we are, right? For our first pay cheque? Finally, for the first time, we get money straight into our hands. Many of us didn’t really know or care that we were receiving the minimum wage or lower. And our bosses knew that, and also knew there were plenty of others who would be happy with getting these low wages too. Beneba Clarke then connects this experience with the making of Australia’s ‘self-made’ male millionaires, before juxtaposing the crime of underpayment with the brutal notification of Centrelink overpayment, via robocall.
Her final poem, ‘fire moves faster’, is like a benediction to this collection. It’s a reflection of 2020, taking us from Wuhan to Italy, reminding us of the great toilet paper and canned goods drought, of empty cities and online learning. It was the year when nations watched and then retold the message that ‘black lives matter’; a phrase that needed to be told over and over again because racism occurs on such a scale that it results in a US man like George Floyd being murdered by those who are meant to protect and keep him (and all of us) safe. There are far too many accounts of similar instances here in our soil, experienced by our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. And so, as she writes, the world was proclaiming ‘black lives matter/black lives matter’, and ‘… just for a moment/ you [we] could taste a dream of hope.’ Yes, despite it all, there was hope.
Beneba Clarke’s final page reminds us that 2020 went full speed, and yet was so slow. She recalls how we returned to a gentler rhythm, observed the wonder of nature, of children playing old-school style, how we had the time to actually find out our ‘neighbour’s name’. She reminds us of the hope that exists, because of us ‘ordinary people’, and our ability to fight and survive. And tell our stories.
I marvel at her concise approach to every day racism that is delivered with such intimate detail. It is a superb curation of uncomfortable truths for those of us who experience such oppressions and those who are willing to listen, and hopefully be part of the change. I’ve read nothing like this collection. But don’t take my word for it. Read it for your self.
CHRISTINE RATNASINGHAM is a writer and poet who lives on the land of the Wangal people of the Eora nation in Sydney. Her writing has been published in Sweatshop Women Volumes 1 & 2 anthologies (2019 & 2020), Sweatshop’s Racism Anthology, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (2013) and a number of journals including Mascara Literary Journal, FourW, Hypallage, Peril, and extempore.