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Thursday, March 31, 2016

'Lemons in the Chicken Wire' by Alison Whittaker

From the BLURB:

WINNER – 2015 black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship

From a remarkable new voice in Indigenous writing comes this highly original collection of poems bristling with stunning imagery and gritty textures. At times sensual, always potent, Lemons in the Chicken Wire delivers a collage of work that reflects rural identity through a rich medley of techniques and forms. It is an audacious, lyrical and linguistically lemon flavoured poetry debut that possesses a rare edginess and seeks to challenge our imagination beyond the ordinary. Alison Whittaker demonstrates that borders, whether physical or imagined, are no match for our capacity for love.

‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’ is Alison Whittaker’s debut poetry collection, available from Magabala Books. Alison is a Gomeroi poet, life writer and essayist from Gunnedah and Tamorth, north-western New South Wales.

I’m going to be upfront and say I don’t read a lot of poetry. But there are certain publishers and voices keep me coming back for more – and Magabala is one of them. They published one of my favourite verse novels in Ali Cobby Eckermann’s 'Ruby Moonlight', which I just love intensely. When I heard that the 2015 black&write! winner was again a poetry book, I was really excited and knew I’d seek it out. And I’ve got to say … Alison Whittaker surpasses expectation, and in one book has become another favourite poet of mine, a new voice I’m eager to read more of.

Whittaker isn’t just a poet; she’s also a law student who actually won the 2015 Indigenous law student of the year annual award. But in her debut poetry collection ‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’ she’s mostly taking readers away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, to explore and remember her life growing up on country in rural New South Wales.

This collection of Whittaker’s feels very grounded in some ways – as she observes life growing up on country, with this real sense of place and connectedness to her culture. But in another sense she’s examining big constructs that lift the reader even out of their own pre-conceived ideas and, yes, prejudices … as ‘Lemons’ is largely exploring aboriginality, and dislocation alongside gender, sexuality, and queer aboriginal identity.

And now let me take a moment to recommend that you listen to Whittaker speaking on Radio National about her collection – especially for her honing in on the ideas around queer aboriginal identity. Because she says there is this assumption that the city is the only place to go where you will be accepted as a queer aboriginal person, and ‘Lemons’ for one thing is completely counteracting that idea.   

The entire collection is deliciously audacious – and you really do get this sense that Whittaker revels in the subversiveness of her themes and explorations, countering what many people will imagine aboriginality to be, and where it exists in modern Australia. She is exploring rather weighty themes, but there’s a sultriness to her woks, a cheeky lightness – ‘Wattle in the Dykes’ – and a beautifully languid touch that can turn to biting sting in a few keystrokes;

-ing; -ly 
I sucked her fingers one by one 
where I lingered, rings of lipstick stayed 
on one knuckle, then another 
hot and red and suddenly 
like a surprise cut 
red marks like keen slices 
as if she moved them, presently 
they would split at the joint 
like a doll whose ball sockets rotted 
dislodge into my throat 
and choke me 

As I said, I don’t read much poetry. I know what I like, and I like what I like and I really like – even love – Alison Whittaker’s ‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’. Sometimes it’s her absorbing, precise language that paints such an image;  

The Sticking Place 
Last nights make a gluey bubble 
in thin crepe expansive time 
tonight I watch that lingering bubble 
cloud the moon, and mine the light.  

Here time is halted, as if the earth 
stopped turning to gaze at a lover 
you turn your gaze to country 
mournfully, feet curled into the earth 
aware that dawn waits to prise you. 

But time, it stands back-to-back with you 
and it leans, and sometimes you 
gain momentum with its weight, other times 
it’s a limp carcass whose shoulders dislocate. 

This night, time is still 
a warm, soundless bubble 
shrouds dreads of the morning. 

The last night on country  
you bury yourself in the earth under time’s weight 
to hold this touch 
you gasp it, gasp it, eat it.

… sometimes I just liked that Whittaker was taking me outside of myself, and poking at my own assumptions – cracking them open or squeezing till they pulped. ‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’ just introduced me to a favourite new voice in indigenous and poetry writing, and acts as a reminder of why I seek out these works from the indelible Magabala Books.


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