Spell­bound by liv­ing, breath­ing lan­guage

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

LOVE Dream­ing con­tains Ali Cobby Eck­er­mann’s sit-up-and-take-no­tice poem In­ter­ven­tion Pay Back, which Robert Adam­son in­cluded in Black Inc’s Best Aus­tralian Po­ems 2009. If po­ems can be im­por­tant, this one is; yet it feels a lit­tle buried at page 47 of this collection. Eck­er­mann prob­a­bly wouldn’t want to set the tone by plac­ing it at the be­gin­ning, how­ever (it is Love Dream­ing, af­ter all).

The poem is an ap­par­ently desul­tory nar­ra­tive, by a male nar­ra­tor, which grad­u­ally ac­cu­mu­lates govern­ment in­ter­fer­ence, leading to the threat of a lit­eral punch­line. It’s a sub­tle per­for­mance that we get again and again in this book. Though some­times lines ap­pear over­stated or in­con­se­quen­tial, on re-read­ing there is usu­ally some­thing more go­ing on. There’s also an un­self­con­scious­ness and open­ness that has a pow­er­ful ef­fect when mixed with per­cep­tions of per­sonal and so­cial dam­age.

An­other stand out-poem, for its coun­try hu­mour mixed in with bleak cri­tique, is Empti­ness: “The big black bird struts proudly/ de­fi­antly/ along my front fence gar­den./ ‘Fark’ it screeches loudly.// I sit in­side/ think­ing ex­actly the same thing.” In a sense it’s a rue­ful up­date of Oodgeroo’s No More Boomerang, where all that’s left at the end is ex­pres­sion: and that far­ing badly in com­par­i­son to the os­ten­si­bly limited crow.

Eck­er­mann is con­tribut­ing some­thing new to Aus­tralian po­etry with the range of her po­ems and their points of view. Sev­eral demon­strate the sur­vival of a dis­tinct Abo­rig­i­nal English. In Town Camp, for ex­am­ple, she writes: “You call it 3 bed­room house/ I call him big lotta trou­ble// You call it elec­tric­ity/ I call him too much tv.’’ There are nu­mer­ous indige­nous words used also; not, as far as I can tell from the glos­sary, ex­clu­sively from one lan­guage, but per­haps ac­quired by Eck­er­mann in her trav­els.

Her po­ems have the sense, then, of lan­guage ecolo­gies and live ex­change. Yet there is ten­ta­tive­ness and, at other times, forced­ness to Eck­er­mann’s English, as if the lan­guage doesn’t quite have the strength or flex­i­bil­ity to do what she wants it to. The word “smile’’ is overused: it doesn’t have the ef­fect it sug­gests. The po­ems tend to be strong­est when Eck­er­mann uses Abo­rig­i­nal or coun­try English; indige­nous lan­guage; or a con­ven­tional rhyme scheme. The ti­tle poem is an ex­cep­tion: here she uses rhetor­i­cal ques­tion­ing ef­fec­tively; in a com­plex con­clud­ing move she drops the ques­tion mark and shifts the ad­dress, so a poem that is partly about Daisy Bates might fi­nally be ad­dressed to her.

In con­trast, Lionel Fog­a­rty makes English do more than it should be ca­pa­ble of. His lin­guis­tic world has noth­ing to match it: think of Jean-Luc Go­dard’s Sym­pa­thy for the Devil fea­tur­ing Ned Kelly, or David Gulpilil’s ca­reer con­densed into a loop.

Mog­wie-Idan: Sto­ries of the Land should be on the HSC/VCE, or at least be to­day’s bumpocket equiv­a­lent of On the Road. We en­ter through the shouty front door of the po­ems of CON­NEC­TION RE­QUITAL (from a pre­vi­ous chap­book). Un­like Eck­er­mann, who has an edit­ing credit on this book, and whose ti­tles are gen­er­ally per­func­tory, the ti­tles of Fog­a­rty’s po­ems prom­ise po­etry, of­ten de­ploy­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of an anti-gram­mar. Con­ducted at Na­tive Re­li­gion is a hymn be­fore it gets started. In this poem a ‘‘prob­lem’’ is an ac­tive sub­ject;

Ali Cobby Eck­er­mann,

left, and Lionel Fog­a­rty

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