Geoff Page reviews Inside my Mother by Ali Cobby Eckermann
by Ali Cobby Eckermann
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
Since the appearance of her popular first collection, Little Bit Long Time, in 2009, Aboriginal poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann, has produced five more books including a couple of verse novels, the second of which, Ruby Moonlight, won the NSW Premier’s Prize in 2013. Along with Samuel Wagan Watson and Lionel Fogarty, she is one of the most prominent Aboriginal poets writing at the moment.
According to its author, Inside my Mother, grew out of a period of mourning and overseas travel which proved therapeutic. This fourth collection has a core of powerful and moving poems — and a number of others which are a little less forceful. Eckermann’s family has been affected by the “taken away” syndrome for three generations and the impact of this is the genesis for quite a few poems. “First Born” and “The Letter” are just two of them.
In the latter a mission girl who is learning typing begins: “Dear Mother / The Mission is good. /The food is good. / I am good” before “ripp(ing) the page from the typewriter” and starting a new one which begins “Mummy / Where are you?” It’s all over in twelve lines. The narrative strategy is simple, as is the vocabulary, but the point is indelibly made. Mainstream readers who find this too simple altogether and who demand the “whitefella” sophistication of, say, Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery, are probably missing the point. Cobby Eckermann’s poignant distillation here is just another thing that poetry can do well. There’s no need for a hierarchy.
An interesting, and relatively unusual, dimension to Inside my Mother is how Cobby Eckermann deals with the tensions within Aboriginal families and culture, not just the pressures from “outside”, as it were. “I Tell You True”, for instance, is a dramatic monologue from the viewpoint of an Aboriginal woman explaining her addiction to alcohol. It’s in a stricter form than most of the other poems and is modified by, rather than couched in, Aboriginal English.
The narrator’s reasons for despair, one in each stanza, include a daughter “burnt to death inside a car”, a sister dead who has “hung herself to stop the rapes” and a mother who has been killed, “battered down the creek” — a death for which the speaker herself is partly blamed by her own family. “Their words have made me wild / I can’t stop drinking I tell you true / ‘Cos I was just a child”.
It’s significant that the speaker doesn’t disclose the race of the perpetrators. This is a further sign of Cobby Eckermann’s political sophistication; she doesn’t just keep on hitting easy targets. The poem also ranges more widely by implying that domestic violence like this is not unique to any one group or the product of a single cause.
There’s no doubt, however, about who the guilty are in Cobby Eckermann’s “Kulila”, a poem written entirely in Aboriginal English and voiced by one of the “old people” who still remember the massacres of an earlier century. “don’t forget ’em story / night time tell ’em to the kids / keep every story live // … sit down here real quiet way / you can hear ’em crying / all them massacre mobs “ Dramatic monologues like this one were the forte of Kevin Gilbert, the Wiradjuri poet (1933-1993). Cobby Eckermann (b. 1963) makes good use here of a strategy and linguistic authenticity which non-Indigenous poets can employ only at some risk should they wish to ventriloquise on behalf of Aboriginal people.
Occasionally, as in the beginning of the book’s final poem, “Evacuate”, Eckermann’s language is not strong enough for its task. “today I shall relinquish / my body // I shall process my / dreams of tragedy”. Although we have seen a number of tragedies throughout the book, the phrase “dreams of tragedy” remains unfocussed and over-explicit.
For this reader two other relatively minor shortcomings in Inside my Mother are the lack of a glossary for important words from Aboriginal languages and the poet’s abandonment, for the most part, of traditional punctuation, a strategy now a hundred years old and not as effective as its users are inclined to imagine.
The fact that punctuation is commonly foregone in much contemporary free verse does not, in itself, establish its effectiveness. The small, momentary confusions the reader often experiences through this convention can sometimes be a good thing artistically (analogous, for instance, to the clever use of enjambment) but it can also distract from the main thrust of the poem, a factor even more important when the poetry is political, as much of Cobby Eckermann’s work is.
This reminds us too that the role of politics in Aboriginal poetry has always been an inevitable and a difficult one. Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 —1993) admitted this when she once (inadequately) described her own poetry as “sloganistic, civil rightish, plain and simple”1. Some of her best poetry was when she approached important problems indirectly. Lionel Fogarty (b. 1958), on the other hand, has often, in his idiosyncratic way, turned the language of the conquerors against themselves, using “ English against the English”2. Fogarty has argued that the way Aboriginal poets “write and talk is ungrammatical, because it doesn’t have any meanings in their spirit”3. This can lead to a poetry of strong feeling (often anger) but which may not be as effective politically as it intends to be.
Ali Cobby Eckermann (and, to an even greater extent, Samuel Wagan Watson) steers between these two extremes and her poems, for the most part, tend therefore to work more effectively, both aesthetically and politically, than they might have otherwise done.
Inside my Mother is a worthy addition to Ali Cobby Eckermann’s growing body of work. It is packed with things that non-Indigenous Australians need to know or be reminded about — while, at the same time communicating effectively, I would imagine, with the still-disenfranchised Australians for whom she is increasingly a spokeswoman.
1. Kath Walker, “Aboriginal Literature” Identity 2.3 (1975) pp. 39–40
2. From Preface to New and Selected (1995) by Lionel Fogarty http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poems-book/new-and-selected-poems-0214000
GEOFF PAGE is an Australian poet and critic. He has edited The Best Australian Poems , 2014 and The Best Australian Poems, 2015.