Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kami (Rare Object No 54, Vagabond Press 2010)
——-, Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books 2012)
Like other Rare Objects chapbooks, Kami is beautifully crafted. A hundred copies were printed, signed by the author, with a small, square, torn-edge print of an Australian desert landscape glued to the cover. I mean no criticism when I say it reminds me of a tasteful bijou hotel, each guest/poem with a room/page to itself. Ali Cobby Eckermann is a Yankunytjatjara woman, and the guests, it turns out, aren’t as genteel as that analogy might suggest. They don’t trash the rooms or anything of that sort, but they raise their voices any way they want. There’s throwaway surrealist satire (‘Pauline Hanson’, about a giant carrot), poignant domestic vignettes that shed light on the stolen generations (‘Comical’ and ‘Sink’), astringent comment on the intersection of sexism and racism (‘Intervention Allies‘), a sweet-sad love song (‘Kami‘ – at the link it’s the first of five ‘Yankunytjatjara Love Poems’), C&W dramatic monologue (‘I Tell Ya True‘ – click to hear Joe Dolce sing his own musical version), and so on. It’s a wonderfully diverse set of poems.
If any one poem out has special resonance for me it’s ‘Wild Flowers‘. It reminds me of Douglas Stewart’s ‘Glencoe‘, one of the few poems I remember from school days. I’ve thought a lot about ‘Glencoe’ over the years: it’s fascinating that an Australian nationalistic poet wrote this lament for the victims of a massacre that took place centuries ago on the other side of the planet (‘Terrible things were done / long, long ago’), as if that’s as close as he could get to acknowledging the terrible reality of our own colonising history, but was impelled to make at least that much. Cobby Eckermann’s poem includes similar imagery of children’s bones, but she can name the event as very much of this place and not safely consigned to the past. An additional, idiosyncratic resonance – you’ll have to take my word for his – comes from the way the poem’s opening lines almost be describing a moment from our short movie, Scar:
Mallets pound fence posts
in tune with the rifles
to mask massacre sites
There’s a massacre in Ruby Moonlight too, though most of the book is about what happens next for the sole survivor. Subtitled ‘a novel of the impact of colonisation in mid-north South Australia around 1880’, the book is a lot slimmer than you’d expect of a novel, just 80 pages all up, and you’ll look in vain for the lecture that subtitle might suggest. This is spare, restrained story-telling. If it wasn’t for the power generated by the flash of imagery, it would feel like notes for a novel rather than the thing itself. It’s a story of ill-starred love. A young Aboriginal woman survives the murder of her community and after wandering for some time with just nature and an ancestor spirit for company, she finds companionship and intimacy with an isolated Irish fur trapper. Their idyll, forbidden by both their cultures, can’t last. You might think you know this story before you open the book. You don’t.
In an interview with Michael Brennan on the Poetry International Website, Ali Cobby Eckermann has some very interesting things to say about her work, including this:
I want to use my poetry to educate Australians, to overcome their innate fear of Aboriginal people. Most Australians have never met an Aboriginal person outside school, sport or work. I want to highlight the benefits that Aboriginal people can provide through friendship and equality, and highlight the dangers of racism and judgmentalism. I have been happy with the heartfelt responses from festival audiences, and the new friendships shown to me and my family.
MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?
Ali Cobby Eckermann: I think it is impossible to be an Aboriginal writer, and be free from a political view. I always use cultural ethics in my writings. Some of my poetry has a unique style, due to my life between my adopted German Lutheran family and my traditional Yankunytjatjara family, who have also adopted the Lutheran religion. I hope my sense of truth becomes my literary tradition!