Poetry review by Carmen Leigh Keates
Magabala Books, Broome, WA
I became aware of Alison Whittaker’s first poetry collection, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, during the 2016 Queensland Poetry Festival. At the panel I attended, Whittaker wasn’t reading from her book but instead (like the other poets on the panel, Justin Clemens, Stuart Cooke and Natalie Harkin) she was presenting a poetic response to Dorothea Mackellar’s “My Country”.
As well as being struck by the robustness of her purpose-written poem, I was taken by the way Whittaker spoke in general. When she offered her perspective, an indigenous perspective, of this ‘monumental’ poem, she mentioned the memorial statue of Mackellar that stands in Whittaker’s home town of Gunnedah and I can’t remember her exact words but I believe Whittaker referred to the statue as something approximating “creepy”.
This type of antagonistic candor, couched in a quite cool diplomacy, is something I get a lot of pleasure out of when it’s done well (Whittaker’s also studying Law, by the way), and when she went on to describe the twee, sycophantic, very white auxiliary that has sprung up to preserve the legacy of a Sydney-born, Scottish-descended daughter of wealthy parents who owned numerous properties, the fact that Dorothea McKellar is still an iconic persona that mainstream Australia insists on associating with “country” was eloquently brought through to us as a genuinely perverse cultural leftover.
This kind of magnetic persuasiveness struck me as so accomplished, and impressive also in that Whittaker is young – not ‘young’ as in adolescent, but ‘young’ relative to what she was saying, which was so precise and clear, and to speak so clearly takes work, or a gift (probably both).
So, at the time, I was actively admiring this self-assurance, this sense of taste, and also the actual sound of Whittaker’s voice – the way she reads – which is velvety soft and very sensitive to the pleasure, the delicious sweep, of her composition. To talk about Lemons in the Chicken Wire here, I knew that I’d have to declare my hearing this voice overlaying the text, because this is not the usual way one looks at a text for review, but there you go.
So, with all that brought through from my secret room of subjective biases, I declare that approached Whittaker’s very tough-voiced poems on the page while hearing her soft voice in my mind.
The book does not have a contents page, which I take as a signal (intentional or not) to read the work through in its presented order. In the first poem “Land-ed”, the speaker seems to pelt through space into being and this reminds me a little of Deborah Levy’s An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell (though Whittaker’s velocity is forward, not down) where a sensual angel falls to earth and shakes up the life of a terminally boring accountant. Many times in such stories, when an otherworldly being comes into our midst and shows us up for ignoring the pleasures of our realm, especially the physical aspects, the response is disapproval – the angel is perceived as an agent of chaos. And, although the motivations of Levy’s book are far removed from Whittaker’s, there is that link of a spirit looking into the physical space and being subject to the automatic projection of guilt and shame by those who do not welcome the questioning of established restrictions.
In the book’s earlier poems there’s a speaker who has, perhaps it is wrong to say plainly ‘an adolescent voice’, because it is definitely a sophisticated choice in these poems to keep this younger bearing; but the point is, there’s a language of transition and of trying to find one’s place. In the later poems, the speaker’s voice matures, is less pummeled by domestic altercations, becomes absorbed in love, in forbidden queer sensuality, and also reacts sensitively to messages in forms as surprising as a bookstore receipt for Gamilaraay language dictionaries and guides in “Sharp Tongue”:
In the first poems, the speaker is frequently being spoken to cruelly, but they are not unequivocally brought down by this. The poems have the deep uncomfortableness of adolescent encounters, but also a persistent attitude (more than once conveyed through the omission or lack of an articulated response) of being secure in an identity despite erosive criticism and relentless external pressure.
Is the adult presence retrospectively informing the adolescent speaker, or does the attitude of the adult identity have its origins in its hyper-aware childhood, or before? There persists this element in the child speaker’s voice of one having cottoned-on very quickly to a pattern of treatment, of and attitude at which they are always on the receiving end, and an attitude that they instantly know is stupid, is thick.
A couple of the poems (“Ext/Int”; “Insider Knowledge”) use script formatting in various mutations; there are stage directions, connoting the speaker’s automatic taxonomy of situations that are so typical, predictable, that they deserve to be ‘templated’. These poems are very effective, even if I had the sense that they sometimes deserved more tightening, because they sum up that the ‘attack’ or ‘result’ in each case as predictable, predetermined, in the script of the present, automatic, and can therefore also be seen through.
Lemons in the Chicken Wire is the first complete poetry collection by someone I think we shall continue to hear from for decades, literally – that’s why I chose to review it – and despite that some poems could have done with further, finer calibrating (as I mentioned earlier), Whittaker is already producing so much more work, more commentary (for example on the Southerly blog just recently) that like the first poem here, she is zooming ahead to yet another arrival, probably just another of many.