Ali Cobby Eckermann, a Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman, has featured a few times on this blog, including in my review of her verse novel, Ruby Moonlight, and my Monday Musings post on her winning the valuable Windham-Campbell Prize this year. She is now appearing again as I review her poetry collection, Inside my mother, for Lisa’s ANZlitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 2017.
Inside my mother is a challenging read, particularly if you are an occasional reader of poetry like I am, but it’s well worth the effort – for the insights it offers, and for the pure pleasure of reading a skilled wordsmith. As the title suggests, the collection’s focus is mothers – and there’s a reason for this, one all too familiar to indigenous Australians. Cobby Eckermann’s family has a history of children being taken from their mothers – her mother was taken from her mother, Cobby Eckermann was taken from hers, and then Cobby Eckermann had to give up her son for adoption. You can hear and feel the pain of these losses in the collection, but you can hear more too, because while these losses frame the collection, Eckermann doesn’t confine herself to them.
The collection is divided into four parts, which build up in intensity until we reach the last part in which the focus is squarely on grandmothers, mothers and children – and the attendant losses.
The poems, though, are not all grim in tone, they vary in form, and they are held together by recurring motifs or ideas, specifically, mothers (of course), sky, earth and birds, all of which make perfect sense given the author, her culture and themes. The first poem is one of a small number of shape poems. Shaped like a bird’s wing, and titled “Bird song”, it references the power of indigenous spirituality, and ironically comments on how it was so often co-opted by the church. It gets the collection off to a good start. Part 3 starts with another poem about birds, “Tjulpu”. It comprises two-line stanzas, with a separate final last line, and attests to the power of birds for the speaker. “Life is extinct/without bird song”, it starts.
The first indigenous poet I ever read, probably like most Australians around my age, was Oodgeroo Noonuccal (or Kath Walker, as my still loved edition had her). When I started reading Inside my mother, I wasn’t immediately reminded of Noonuccal, but when I got to the devastating poem written in the voice of a woman who drinks too much, “I tell you true”, I immediately thought of Noonuccal’s poems and their effective blend of the personal and the political. The poem is a plea for people to not rush to judge when they see someone “drunk and loud and cursing/Don’t judge too hard ‘cos you don’t know/What sorrows we are nursing”.
This poem looks simple. It uses those traditional rhetorical tools of rhyme and repetition to produce a singsong rhythm which satirically mocks the seriousness of the story it is telling. The effect is mesmerising. The second verse starts:
I can’t stop drinking I tell you true
Since I found my sister dead
She hung herself to stop the rapes
I found her in the shed
Other poems deal with traditional culture (“Vengeance”), political issues (“Hindmarsh Island”, “Kulila”, “Oombulgarri“), love (“Love 22/06/10”), stolen generations (“Severance”, “First born”, “The letter”), to name just a few. The meaning of some of these, particularly those I’ve listed under political issues, depend on knowledge of the politics they reflect. I needed, for example, to look up Oombulgarri.
Some poems are more personal (or, personally political!), such as “Eyes”, to give just one example. “Which eyes will she need today”, the speaker asks? Those of terror, or submission, or of “wonder or contempt”. I won’t tell you which ones she chooses, but they’re appropriate for the overall tone of this collection, reflecting its sorrow and its grit.
And then some, as usually happens with poetry collections, I found a little obscure, although, as I reread many for this review, more of them fell into place. You can’t rush poetry.
While it’s not my favourite poem in the collection, the last poem in Part 1 is appropriate to end on because it addresses the theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week. It’s called “Lament”, and is another poem featuring two-line stanzas, and repetition. Of the six stanzas, three are the same: “I can not stop/must sing my song”. And why can’t he stop? Because he’s the “last speaker/of my mother tongue.” Language. So important.