Tina Giannoukos Reviews Ali Cobby Eckermann

18 July 2013

Love dreaming & other poems consists of forty poems that range across the personal and historical terrain of Aboriginal reality, and unfold through observations and events. What emerges is a lyrical but powerfully rhetorical voice in control of the diverse terrain of these poems. The poems become affective outpourings of the utmost necessity. There is time to linger, even to enjoy, but the urgency of history as lived reality reverberates: a poem such as ‘Wildflowers’ disallows any facile European appreciation of landscape as pure. The very country is haunted. In three short but intense stanzas, Cobby Eckermann refigures white Australian appropriation of Indigenous space as brutal in hope and intention: murder and misappropriation affect everyone. The final stanza demonstrates how ‘Wildflowers won’t grow / where bone powder / lies’.

Cobby Eckermann articulates the trauma of cultural negotiation, even as she moves in a white world, not as the loss of her Aboriginal identity but as its utter necessity. Thus, in ‘Tears for Mum’, she asks:

Mum can I cry at your funeral, can I wail
Like I do out bush, can I walk the aisle in ochre
Can you tell the other kids that this is okay, this is
What I need, the way we grieve, proper way out bush

However, Cobby Eckermann is no articulator of idealised connection to country and language. She picks at the scab of overdetermined connection. For Cobby Eckermann, disconnected at birth from her own family network, reconnection becomes a series of meaningful events. Yet not all happenings are meaningful connections to culture. The poem ‘2 Pelicans’ suggests the over-determination of naïve connection, the anxiety of connection. It is an initial separation from the natural arc of one’s connection to kin that lies at the root of over-connection; it is the alienated damage that only division in the first place inflicts:

I drive out to Amoonguna to tell family he is right
I sit down with his Aunty, round the campfire, in the night
I ask her to explain the pelicans and the meaning of the sign
She laughs and whispers ‘Arrangkwe just 2 pelicans in the sky!

Cobby Eckermann also considers how this process of naïve connection works in the other direction, where others assume an idealised stance of smug innocence in relation to Indigenous dispossession. Thus, in ‘Killing Fields’, a guide’s voyeuristic attempt at facile connection with the speaker becomes an ironic comment on insistence and refutation and the bankruptcy of denial. Space is so saturated in Aboriginal dispossession that lack of killings in a particular place is no measure of blamelessness:

why? do you
feel something?
she asks with 
nah! I say
it’s just that
they got killed
every other place
I been to.
not here
she smiles
with pride.

Throughout Love dreaming & other poems, Cobby Eckermann pushes what poetry can do: the lyrical mode is as much emblematic of hope as affective. The lyrical outpouring of ‘Messages’ ends: ‘Every wild flower that blooms in this desert of red / is a signpost of hope / for my People’. In this ending, there is the spatially marked reality of utter connection and absolute resilience. This resounds more personally in ‘First Time (I Met My Grandmother)’:

I understand my feelings now, tears push behind my eyes
I’ll sit on this soil anytime, and brush away them flies

I’ll dance with mob on this red land, munda wiru place
I’ll dance away those half-caste lies, ‘cos I got my Nana’s face.

The collection also explores the continuing paternalism of Australian political intervention in Aboriginal life through such strong poems as ‘Intervention Allies’, ‘40 Year Lease’ and ‘Intervention Pay Back’. As I have said, other poems such as ‘First Time (I Met My Grandmother)’ and ‘Circles & Squares’ – remarkable poems in a lyrical yet forceful language – explore a personal journey of reconnection. Poems such as ‘The Mountain’ articulate a spatial connection unfolding:

That mountain is watching me,
always dragging my eyes back around
to grasp its view.

What is it showing me?
What do I learn?

To try to interpret such a poem in some reductive epistemological fashion is to miss an opportunity to let this and other poems in the collection, such as ‘Shrine’ or ‘Dingo Eye’, speak in their own language. There is a relationship that must be allowed to rest between the speaker and the mountain. Something is beyond the reach of western epistemology. It is not an instant of a romanticised ego disappearing into the landscape, but of a profound listening in which the speaker says:

I sit


I watch


I wait.

While Cobby Eckermann does not write wholly in Aboriginal English, she certainly uses it in Love dreaming & other poems in poems such as ‘First Time (I Met My Grandmother)’, ‘Little Bit Long Time’, and ‘Town Camp’. She draws on Aboriginal language in poems like ‘Ngankari’ and ‘Sunrise’, and combines linguistic registers in poems like ‘A Parable’, ‘Intervention Pay Back’ and ‘Yabun’. These poems show how her poetry crosses the monolingual border of Australian English – itself exceeding the borders of British English – to perform Aboriginal identity at the level of language itself. It is a fluidity of language that appears across all three works.

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About Tina Giannoukos

Tina Giannoukos is a poet, fiction writer and reviewer. Her first book of poetry is In a Bigger City (Five Islands Press, 2005). Her poetry is anthologised in Southern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek Australians (Arcadia, 2011). Her most recent publication is the sonnet sequence in Border-Crossings: Narrative and Demarcation in Postcolonial Literatures and Media (Winter, 2012). A recipient of a Varuna Writers Fellowship, Giannoukos has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne and has read her poetry in Greece and China.

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