Caitlin Maling Reviews Alison Whittaker

By | 27 April 2016

Whittaker, especially in the first half of Lemons in the Chicken Wire, uses deliberate and deft deployment of plain language in order to call into question what is ‘bad’ poetry. There is no less skill or active craftsmanship in these poems than in the more experimental poems that occupy the latter half of the book. Yet perhaps what is most interesting about the question of ‘bad poetry’ in Lemons in the Chicken Wire, is its refusal to accept the role as ‘bridge’ for the nation, with Whittaker continually problematising the interaction of language – poetry – and the political. In ‘Carry the One’ the process of learning English at primary school becomes embedded in questions of colonisation: ‘I before ‘e/ except after sea/ when the freshwater is salted for cooking / or on the plain, my peoples slain / and then ‘e comes before I’. Poetry and the political are continually processed through the body, as in ‘The Body Country’: ‘Tell me about the body colony, then call my thick nose pretty / … Say to me that you won’t forget all the dusky mismatched / pigment, fat flesh, symbols on my mongrel body that survived the frontier ways. / They mark me as Gomeroi, but in the gritty city city city / make me ‘ugly waijine girl’. // Talk to me about decolonising the body then call my thick nose pretty.’

This is bad poetry in a subversive, counter-cultural and queer sense, undermining the colonial apparatus, moving poetry in the direction of something new that we glimpse in one of the final poems, ‘Countrylink X-Plorer: A High School Essay’. In this poem, the speaker first defines culture in a static way as ‘Culture (n), ritualistic / harvest collective experience / the exclusivity of spirals, dots and borders / Rainbows’. Then as the train journey continues:

I said things like: queerness, Aboriginality
would rather turn each other inside out
to make their meaning make me
               than let me turn inside of them
               for any measly, thin security.

And though I cannot pinpoint it
through this quick, imprecise shift
like a flipbook, merged two tired selves
‘til each fed the other.
Now, when I’m on this train
I travel to culture (v) where I land like spores caught on the

Here culture becomes active, incorporating but moving beyond the different discourses that the speaker has struggled with throughout the collection.

This entry was posted in BOOK REVIEWS and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: