News & Commentary I wish I’d had a poem like Mango by Ellen van Neerven to write about in my English exam By Rosemary Sorensen | October 18, 2017 | Ellen van Neerven’s poem upset some students sitting the NSW Higher School Certificate English exam this week. They were asked “how does the speaker convey delight?” Some were not delighted by the poem, the question or the poet. The ensuing “controversy” may well become a footnote in the history of our Culture Wars. *** Mango by Ellen van Neerven eight years old walking under the bridge scrub, swamp abandoned machinery insides of tennis balls bits of fences meeting the boys at the dam bikes in a pile skater shoe soles not cold in never is boys talking about mangoes slapping water some have never had one listen to the taste the squeeze of a cheek dripping chins a dog jumps in they pull on tufts of hair fill ears with mud breeze full clouds break they remember my birthday is tomorrow I wish I’d had a poem like “Mango” by Ellen van Neerven to write about in my matriculation English exam. Forty years ago, we were given Gertrude Stein’s “Pigeons on the grass” (“Pigeons on the grass alas./ Pigeons on the grass alas. / Short longer grass / short longer longer shorter yellow grass”). I can still remember trying to rhyme “grass” and “alas” in my head, and deciding I’d choose the other (prose) option to analyse. I just wasn’t up to it. Maybe, given my suburban Adelaide upbringing and lack of mangoes, I’d not have been able to respond to van Neerven’s poem either. I don’t think it would have occurred to me to abuse the writer, even in my head, so there’s something that’s different from then and now. In the reporting of the nastiness and ensuing debate about what it means to publicly declare a poem is fucked, not many of the online sources actually quote the poem. The abuse is quoted ad nauseam, of course. “Mango” is very good. No wonder it made some teenagers unhappy and ready to kick out. It evokes a lovely moment, a scene of camaraderie, of sensual pleasure. I wish I could look back on my eight-year-old self and hear, taste and see such joy. It was a good question, too, to ask about how the writing evokes delight. Again, a teenager not ready to read the precision of poetry, or one for whom sensual delight is out of reach, may react with anger. If we’re testing capacity for joy at the HSC, this poem does it very well. We’re there, in an instant, with the child under the bridge, in a place that’s never going to make the getaway holiday programs. This is a poem about sharing and the uncomplicated generosity of friends, and about what’s to be gained from listening. I love the details of the tennis ball insides, and the pile of bikes. And while this is a short poem, there’s time unfolding, from the arrival, to the leap into the water, to that mango, a thing mused about as summarising what’s these kids feel, about each other and about their being. Van Neerven’s staccato delivery appears to have upset some of the young readers keen to let her know they don’t approve, but how good is she at varying the pace and rhythm of her 25 lines. The wonder of the boys’ reaction is perfectly captured in the slowed down line, “some have never had one”. This is a poem about sharing and the uncomplicated generosity of friends, and about what’s to be gained from listening. “Listen to the taste”, van Neerven writes, and I love the way the bodies of these kids and their dogs are as one with the luscious fruit, the “squeeze of a cheek / dripping chins”. And then, the surprise ending, so simple, so joyous too: “breeze full / clouds break / they remember my birthday /is tomorrow”. We have looked back with the poet, and we’ve been in the moment with her and the boys and the dogs and the mangoes, and then, with a rising flourish, we feel that excitement of a child’s birthday to look forward to. I chose not to take on the Stein when I was 16, but it’s haunted me ever since, and just a few weeks back, at an amazing event with John Flaus reading poems selected by John Marsden, I was told I really should have another go at Stein. As for that exam, Sandra, who was always better at English literature than I was, did choose to analyse the Stein. And she topped our school’s grades. My point is, some of us are a bit slower than others to find that joy, to learn how to read, to pile our bikes by the swimming hole and listen to the taste of mangoes. Some of us, sadly, never find it, but surely education must give us all the chance. IF WANT TO HELP INDEPENDENT ARTS JOURNALISM THRIVE, GO TO OUR DAILY REVIEW SUPPORT PAGE FOR DETAILS AND A CHANCE TO WIN TWO LUXURIOUS NIGHTS AT MONA IN HOBART [box]Photo of Ellen van Neerven supplied by University of Queensland.[/box] Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Rosemary Sorensen Rosemary Sorensen is director of Bendigo Writers Festival.