Tina Giannoukos Reviews Ali Cobby Eckermann

18 July 2013

Love dreaming & other poems and Too Afraid To Cry traverse similar territory. They demonstrate how separation from one’s Aboriginal family permeates the spatial imaginary of one’s life. The affective power of Cobby Eckermann’s work, in prose and poetry, lies in its voicing of an inconceivable strength that comes from a yearning for reconnection with her Aboriginal family and culture so deep that language itself becomes the carrier of a child’s desire: ‘So I can fly away from here / And all the nasty words’ (‘Grade One Primary’ in Love dreaming & other poems and Too Afraid To Cry). With lyrical beauty and rhetorical vigour, Cobby Eckermann maps a deep commitment to Aboriginal identity even as she negotiates a white world of negative relationships, notwithstanding a caring home, wondering ‘Where do I fit in?’ (‘Grade One Primary’). The rhetorically affective entries of Too Afraid to Cry and the highly beautiful poems in Love dreaming & other poems, such as ‘Anangu Love Poems’, demonstrate a poet and writer of deep aesthetic commitment.

In ruby moonlight, Cobby Eckermann extends her considerable powers of observation – the vanishing details that makes poetry out of a life’s commitment to the truth of experience – to murder and transgressive contact between a young Aboriginal woman and a white man. The opening poem, ‘Nature’, demonstrates Cobby Eckermann’s facility for double meaning. In spare lines of sensual detail, the poem becomes retrospectively a metaphor for Aboriginal killings:


     	 a falling 


             turning to 

or bereft on the ground

              turning to 

In the rewriting of Aboriginal space as European, the bankrupt assumption is that Aboriginal space never existed. Through a sensual language of subtle observation and worldly compassion, Cobby Eckermann shows how Australian space at the time of European appropriation was saturated in Aboriginal presence. In the story being told from an Aboriginal perspective – scenes of tribal harmony rather than European triumph open the narrative – it recalibrates space as Aboriginal in ‘Harmony’:

in warm afternoon light
a family group rove the plains
murmur delight as
landscapes become familiar

Where once there was an historical loss of space through appropriation – ‘there is danger here’ – there is contemporary recuperation through story telling (‘Morning’). It is a narrative recuperation whose undertow reveals how Aboriginal space, in light of the violent European intrusion in ruby moonlight, speaks of its trauma, carrying its memories of invasion as a remembrance of malevolence. As Cobby Eckermann says in ‘Silence’ after the murder of the family group:

the ambience of the morning is ruined
the stench of death fills the air
                       love will exist here no more

Cobby Eckermann highlights in fact the continuation of Aboriginal life and hence its spatial resilience. In the face of death, the sole survivor carries out the necessary ceremonies that mark this, despite intrusion and murder, as always Aboriginal, and not European, space. Ruby moonlight challenges white narratives of possession of an empty land. After Mabo, with its rejection of the notion of Australia as terra nullius, such narratives are not sustainable at any rate. But it is marked space: a space alive with Aboriginal presence is now marked by Aboriginal absence. In onomatopoeic fashion, Cobby Eckermann re-enacts the murder of the tribal group in ‘Ambush’:

the clan slaughtered

In ‘Shadow’, Cobby Eckermann asks whether ‘in their passing / will anyone notice?’ The narrative of ruby moonlight does precisely that. Poems such as ‘Shadow’ show how European space is forever haunted by a shadow space, the story of a people ‘who have lived here / since time began’. Yet ruby moonlight brings more broadly into spatial focus how, ‘senses shattered by loss’ (‘Birds’), the survivors of such European massacres wander, neither rootless nor lost in this intruded-upon space. Such survivors follow ancient signs; thus, Ruby Moonlight, the young woman who survives the massacre of her group, does not wander aimlessly but ‘follows the emus’ (‘Birds’). This is meaningfully Aboriginal space. Ruby Moonlight performs all the necessary rituals for the dead in ‘Ochre’, but disallows memories in ‘Wander’:

awakening from the deep trauma of tragedy
      she whispers away the nightmares
         drives out forbidden memory with smoke

In these lines of reflection, Cobby Eckermann highlights the continuance of Aboriginal life; in death, the sole survivor carries on with the necessary ceremonies. In other words, and despite violent interruption to life, Aboriginal markers of space persist, not as ghostly traces, but as active markers of obligation and counter-obligation. All Ruby Moonlight’s skills of living continue until one day, ‘from within the wattle bush hide / she observes a smoking ash ghost’: the estranged white man who will become her lover (‘Smoke’). She has no compass for him: ‘from behind trees she peers / at mystery man or monster’ (‘Bunyip’). But ‘it is the oasis of isolation / that tolerates this union’ (‘Oasis’). Their liaison – a tryst – is ultimately prohibited ‘by a law stronger / than the white man’s’ (‘Spear’), marking the spatial continuation of Aboriginal life through Aboriginal law even as, in ‘Sunset’:

the silhouettes of four
will not be seen

in this land again
for ninety years 

in this country
there is sadness

in this sunset
a ruby moonlight

Over these three works – a memoir, a poetry collection, and a verse novel – Cobby Eckermann demonstrates how space itself is saturated by Aboriginal reality. In ruby moonlight, she articulates the tensions of first contact in South Australia, tensions that we can see from Love dreaming & other poems and Too Afraid to Cry continue deep into the contemporary period.

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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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