Spellbound by living, breathing language
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