Ali Whitelock
i leaned my head against yours


The Art Gallery of NSW and Red Room Poetry invited six poets to respond creatively to the artworks in Shadow catchers, an exhibition of photographs and moving image from the Gallery’s collection.

Emma Phillips Untitled (Denise and Diane twinning) from the series Too Much to Dream 2018, 2019, printed later. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Collection Benefactors Group 2019
© Emma Phillips

Ali Whitelock observes that “As poets, we are often delving into our shadows, trying to catch and pin them down like entomologists pinning rare specimens of butterflies and beetles to display boards.”

Describing her response to being invited to engage with an exhibition all about the enigmatic shadow, Ali recalls how she “accepted the commission on the spot, despite being engulfed in a greater than average dose of terror – laced with wild excitement. The moment I emailed my acceptance, I immediately downward spiralled into, what if I can’t write a single word? What if what I manage to write is garbage? What if I don’t follow the rules? What if I get it wrong? The shadows of our pasts are long. No matter how much time passes, they can still wreak havoc on our present.

Despite my fears, the work had to be done. The minute I received images of the three artworks I was to respond to, I planned. I had seven weeks to write three poems, which for me was not much time at all. I gave each of the artworks one full week to get the bones of the poem down, then spent the remaining four weeks re-writing, editing, tweaking, refining and finger-crossing. Under normal circumstances, I write without boundary, without time constraints, without fear. Here I had boundaries (the artworks – though there were no boundaries as to how I could respond to them), I had time constraints and a super-sized serving of fear. I have never worked so hard. Once the poems were well underway, my terror gave way to quiet exhilaration. I could never have imagined at the start of this process that the artworks would have taken my poetry to the places they did. When I pressed send on the final poems I felt I had conquered something. A demon, perhaps? Maybe even two.”


as though my forehead were a mouth i could share
secrets through. i was never a good person though
somehow i am surrounded by angels.

as children we weren’t twins but we dressed almost
the same in clothes mum made from remnants of be-
wildered reds, injured blues, disquieting yellows. too
often there was enough fabric for matching headscarves.
with our monobrows in our grey scottish swing parks
we were the frida kahlos of our time.

when i no longer knew what to do with it i breathed
my secret into your forehead––

then careened through the
fog of the swing park, my
bulkhead taking on water
pulled on a puncture repaired
life jacket with a red light &
a whistle for not attracting
attention. in the shadow of
a marooned shopping trolley
i tore the wings off butterflies
drowned bees
in a jar.

in the days before anti-caking agents my grandmother
kept her salt cellar on the hearth of the fire, her blini
ingredients behind the fluted glass doors of the kitchen
cabinet. two ceramic swans swam lazily across her
sideboard, their hollow backs transporting house keys,
fisherman’s friends, silver shillings down the river
to nowhere––

the last time i saw him was
in my dreams––

––wrapped in curtains that don’t
quite reach the floor, shuffling towards a roaring log fire.
i watch on, hoping he’ll trip & be engulfed in flames. in-
stead he pirouettes from the curtains & turns to face me,
his pink fingers, fat like pork sausages spread terrifyingly
across the mantelpiece. i wake thinking of bees.

in the blackpool boarding house the landlady wipes
down her condiment sets after breakfast, stores them
away behind the fluted glass doors of her kitchen
cabinet. the five of us sleep in the same room

in the absence of a telly
my father, itching for a
drink and not knowing
what to do in a room full
of his own children makes
sad shadow puppets on the
wall––a one eared dog, a
not-preying–drowning mantis,
a peace dove having a heart
attack mid-air

after breakfast we stroll along the seafront filling
our lungs with the good sea air we’re instructed to
inhale deeply. we pause by the amusement arcade with
its shop selling lacklustre starfish, brightly embarrassed
crabs, fragile seahorses that once danced to the music of
the sea, a solitary shaved coconut transformed into a little
hand bag, golden rapunzel braids dangling off each side,
its womb-like interior lined with warm velvet––a place
to whisper my secrets, to bury the bees
i’ve yet to drown.

Ali Whitelock

Poetic reflections is produced in collaboration with Red Room Poetry 

With thanks to Together In Art supporter: Presenting Partner of the AGNSW Contemporary Galleries UBS