Ali Cobby Eckermann has been on my radar for a while, so when Lisa announced her 2016 Indigenous Literature Week, I decided Eckermann’s verse novel Ruby Moonlight would be my first choice. This novel won the poetry prize and the book of the year in the 2013 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards.
I enjoy verse novels but don’t read them often enough to build up a comprehensive understanding of the form. Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight is the shortest and sparest of those I’ve reviewed on this blog, but its narrative is just as strong. It is set in colonial South Australia – the not-very-poetic subtitle being “a novel of the impact of colonisation in mid-north South Australia around 1880” – and tells the story of Aboriginal teenage girl, Ruby Moonlight, whose family is massacred by white settlers. The novel reads like a classic three-act drama. It opens with the massacre and Ruby’s lonely wanderings, and then moves into a somewhat idyllic phase when Ruby meets the also lonely “colourless man”, Miner Jack. They become friends and lovers, giving each other the company and warmth they both so desire:
in the moonlight
solace is shared
in this forbidden friendship
But it can’t last, of course, not in that place and time, because neither the colonisers nor the Aboriginal lawmen will accept it: “it is the oasis of isolation/that tolerates this union”. Nothing else.
The poetry, as you can see from my excerpts, is spare. There’s no punctuation, not even apostrophes, and no capitalisation except for proper names. Lines are generally short, and description is generally minimal. There’s a lovely but restrained used of repetition, and the rhythm is matter-of-fact, that is, it moves the story along with few flourishes (if that makes sense). The story is told through separately titled poems, each of which occupies its own page, though some only part of it. The titles are simple and to the point – “Ambush”, “Friends”, “Oasis”, “Hate”, “Cursed”, “Sunset”. You could almost track the trajectory of the story through its titles. This spareness, I think, enhances the emotional power. The poems say what they need to say without embellishment.
The excerpts above are from more narrative-focused poems, but there are also poems which provide context, describing the seasons as time passes, commenting on the landscape within which our characters operate, providing a sense of the country’s spirits watching, tending, ready to act. The novel opens on the poem “Nature” which sets the scene perfectly by conveying the opposing faces of nature – “sometimes/turning to/butterfly” or sometimes just to “dust” – which also subtly heralds the coming massacre. And, a few poems in, soon after the massacre, comes one describing nature’s nurturing of Ruby:
chirping red-browed finches lead to water
ringneck parrots place berries in her path
The words “trust nature” are repeated at the end of each couplet in this poem, providing a soothing mantra for Ruby.
Most of the poems are presented in couplets or triplets, but occasionally one uses a different structure, usually to mark a dramatic change. Early in the novel is the devastating, shaped-poem, “Ambush”, in which all lines but one comprise single words (“hack/hack/hack” it starts); and half-way through is another shaped-poem, “Tempo”, which marks both the passing of time and acts as a transition from a short time of idyll for Ruby and Jack to the appearance of others:
Jack knows the remainder of the conversation
before it was spoke ya see any blacks roaming
best ya kill ’em disease spreading pests
(“Visitor”, immediately after “Tempo”)
The irony of it! Who brought disease?
So, Ruby and Jack. One of the delights of the book is the sympathetic representation of these two characters. Bereft after the loss of her family, Ruby stumbles across Jack, a loner who scrapes a living out of fur-trapping. Both are outcasts in colonial Australia, Jack an Irishman, a hated “Mick” (“a music-less man stands aloof at the bar/scowling his hatred for the Micks”, from “Loose”) and of course Ruby, a lubra or black woman. These two cautiously find a “small trust … growing” (“Solace”) between them, but it is a “forbidden friendship”, forbidden from both cultures, so their times together are snatched carefully. Ruby is watched by members of another mob, people who are “slowed by fatigue” and “weary with worry” (“Signs”), and who know the dangers:
camp smoke whispers
tell story of the killings
Jack and Ruby become the target of the aforementioned “music-less man” – a man who’d lost his “music heart” after an act of barbarity – and his hired help, two brothers “with rotten teeth smirks” (“Scheme”). Hatred and greed fuel these men. And so the scene is set, but it doesn’t quite play out the way you expect, because Eckermann wants to focus more on our universal need for warmth, love and companionship, and also on survival.
The novel is imbued with indigenous presence, from the opening where Ruby’s family live in “Harmony” in their environment, through her meeting with the other mob, the Cloud people, “on their winter trek”, to the appearance of “Kuman”, her guardian spirit who guides her to safety.
Ruby Moonlight is a special read that adds another perspective and voice to colonial contact narratives, a voice that pays respect to indigenous law and traditions, addresses the politics of contact, but also recognises our personal and universal need for love and companionship. It’s a warm and generous book, but it doesn’t pull punches either. A good read.