This review is part of the AWW2017 Challenge
In Gomeroi poet Alison Whittaker’s debut collection Lemons in the Chicken Wire, language and innuendo become a means of playful subversion.
In ‘O, Eureka!’ a ‘scalp-scab burnt and straw-haired woman’ teaches the narrator that not everyone who can speak the jargon of the Academy need do so: that one can speak a revolution without the aide of a ‘long white theory word’; without the aide of the violent, constraining language of the colonisers.
In ‘Scrag Lit’ it is literature – the first queer book I’d scrounged from the library’ – that opens the possibility of queerness, while in ‘Essay, Dissolved’ it is language – and its associated difficulties – that leads the narrator to fret that they are ‘not passing. Is it how I’m walking, talking, dressing? Is it the way I’m being.’ Words can open possibilities, new ways of being: but they can also enclose, codifying and defining existence.
This is a collection that explores what it means to be Indigenous, to be queer, to be a woman – simultaneously – in contemporary Australia. With a focus on language and a lingering on space and place, poems like ‘-ing; -ly’, ‘[H]earth’, and ‘Re-, In-‘ demonstrate how this is a precarious mode of existence, both pleasurable and painful, with its own spaces of safety and danger; friends and foes – and that those things are not always so easily identifiable; that they are not always the ones you would immediately assume. And in poems like ‘Heavy Tongue’, Whittaker shows that identity – all identities, but especially those of marginalised and minority communities – is a state of perpetual translation and interpretation: one in which we are sometimes clumsy, sometimes foreigners in our own lives and countries.
But, as the eponymous – and final – poem ‘Lemons in the Chicken Wire’ makes clear, this is an existence which, like all human experience, is overbrimming with liveliness, sensuality, and just the faintest tinge of lemon-flavoured sourness.