aus­tralian po­etry

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ali Jane Smith is a poet and critic. ali jane smith

Ali Cobby Eck­er­mann’s In­side my Mother (Giramondo, 104pp, $24) is a re­minder that fam­ily, at the heart of ev­ery­one’s per­sonal story, is also at the heart of our na­tion’s history. For the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions, as for oth­ers who have sur­vived the trauma of sep­a­ra­tion, the word fam­ily has no easy mean­ing.

In her 2013 memoir Too Afraid to Cry, Eck­er­mann told of her ex­pe­ri­ence, one of the many sto­ries of the breakup of fam­i­lies that has re­sulted from the forced re­moval of chil­dren, as well as from ex­treme so­cial dis­rup­tion, and the poverty brought about by in­sti­tu­tion­alised and ca­sual dis­crim­i­na­tion.

In­side My Mother is a more kalei­do­scopic ac­count of Eck­er­mann find­ing her mother and other rel­a­tives, and of the on­go­ing process of moth­er­ing her own chil­dren. She writes about the pain of sep­a­ra­tion and the dif­fi­cul­ties, as well as the joys and sat­is­fac­tions, of build­ing con­nec­tion.

The po­ems are nei­ther de­press­ing nor fatu­ously up­lift­ing. They are con­sid­ered, thought­ful, un­du­lat­ing, so close you can feel breath, then pan­ning out for the bird’s eye view. She writes in such a way that read­ers with vary­ing de­grees of in­sight into the cul­tural place from which she writes can find a way to read the po­ems.

Her im­ages are clear and suc­cinct, but also dense, as a seed or bulb is dense with its fu­ture as a tree or flower. In the poem Tjukur­rpa, frag­ments of a birthing story are told: a carry bas­ket is wo­ven from reeds bas­kets are wo­ven with story bas­kets are wo­ven with song my bas­ket is heavy with history out of sight like su­per­sti­tion

The con­trast of story and song with history and su­per­sti­tion con­tained in the im­age of the bas­ket is a suc­cinct de­scrip­tion of what it might be like to ex­pe­ri­ence a com­pli­cated kind of be­long­ing, though the speaker in this poem is se­curely lo­cated in terms of both land and kin­ship. The short cou­plets are vis­ual echoes of the carry bas­ket, an ob­ject si­mul­ta­ne­ously prag­matic and sym­bolic, as is Eck­er­mann’s ap­proach to po­etry.

This po­etry is in­tended to com­mu­ni­cate, and to pro­voke an emo­tional re­sponse from the reader. Sub­stan­tially, Eck­er­mann’s lan­guage is in­ven­tive but not dif­fi­cult to fol­low. Once or twice a piece of word­play falls flat or a last line sum­marises to the ex­tent that the poem loses the fish­hook abil­ity to catch and pull at you af­ter you’ve fin­ished read­ing.

The ten­sion around how much to say is in­her­ent to writ­ing po­etry that is in­tended to com­mu­ni­cate clearly. Lines that, for one reader, are en­joy­ably com­pre­hen­si­ble will, for another, lack com­plex­ity or res­o­nance. Eck­er­mann’s sin­cer­ity and the qual­ity of her writ­ing mean the emo­tional power of her work can’t be avoided. This provo­ca­tion of emo­tion is de­lib­er­ate, a strat­egy used in the ser­vice of the work she does to fur­ther the process of heal­ing for those who share her ex­pe­ri­ence of trauma, and to in­stil in­sight and un­der­stand­ing into those read­ers who have not en­coun­tered or en­gaged with the kinds of ex­pe­ri­ence she writes about.

The po­ems in In­side my Mother fo­cus on re­la­tion­ships, fam­ily and cul­ture. Eck­er­mann writes about pain, sad­ness and rup­ture, but she is also writ­ing about sur­vival and heal­ing. Im­plicit in all this is a po­lit­i­cal con­text the reader is left to in­ter­pret for them­selves.

Chris­tine Tow­nend is another who writes with an in­ten­tion to com­mu­ni­cate per­sua­sively with the reader, her in­ter­est be­ing in our kin­ship with an­i­mals. Tow­nend has ded­i­cated her life to the care of an­i­mals and to ad­vo­cat­ing for an­i­mal rights. She is a co-founder of An­i­mals Aus­tralia, has run for par­lia­ment and lived in In­dia, work­ing in an an­i­mal shel­ter in Jaipur be­fore found­ing two other an­i­mal shel­ters in that coun­try.

She has writ­ten a novel and sev­eral works of non­fic­tion, but Walk­ing with Ele­phants (Is­land Press, 96pp, $20) is her first book of po­etry. Tow­nend’s po­etry goes be­yond the close study and ob­ser­va­tion of the more tra­di­tional na­ture poet. The an­i­mal is al­ways the point of the poem, rather than a metaphor or an op­por­tu­nity to ex­am­ine a feel­ing or idea. What can be sur­pris­ing, even chal­leng­ing, in this for­mally con­ven­tional work is the po­si­tion in which she places her­self in re­la­tion to her fel­low crea­tures.

Even in The Dalai Llama’s Brother’s Dog, a sus­pense­ful de­scrip­tion of be­ing bit­ten by a dog, she main­tains her philo­soph­i­cal po­si­tion, though the poem has more to of­fer than that:

The world went through a key­hole. I was in church vaults with bare feet sound­ing softly on old tiles.

The poem hur­tles along, as com­pul­sive as any thriller, with its vivid de­scrip­tions of the nar­ra­tor’s own phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.

Tow­nend writes with just as much con­vic­tion from the an­i­mal’s point of view, seek­ing to de­scribe how the sub­ject of her poem ex­pe­ri­ences the world. How suc­cess­ful such an at­tempt can be is a mat­ter for philo­soph­i­cal, rather than aes­thetic ar­gu­ment, and is be­side the point when Tow­nend’s in­ten­tion is to present her read­ers with op­por­tu­ni­ties for em­pa­thy with species other than our own.

Luke Beesley favours sur­real, col­lage-like, play­ful, some­times pun­ning po­etry in his book

Jam Sticky Vi­sion (Giramondo, 88pp, $24). He’s clearly a reader of other po­ets and a keen par­tic­i­pant in cul­tural life, a film-goer, a mu­sic lover, of the al­ter­na­tive, art house kind.

Along­side the lyric po­etry are prose po­ems, and his dis­rupted style is com­mon to both forms. There are plenty of choc chips of in­ter­est that de­serve to be en­joyed, though Beesley’s work at times could ben­e­fit from be­ing cut back.

Even po­etry that does not set out to make sense ben­e­fits from a var­ied dy­namic, a sense of propul­sion, or rhyth­mic power that turns the loose lan­guage and syn­tax into a pat­terned, en­gag­ing poem. When Beesley’s writ­ing feels de­lib­er­ate he can draw to­gether a sharp, mem­o­rable phrase. The sound of the words is some­times enough, as in the open­ing lines of

Type Slowly: Con­crete walls were a back­drop to the panic anorak she wore. Tues­day. In the present.

Quot­ing more lines won’t make more sense of this open­ing im­age, so let’s just en­joy that panic anorak, let it un­zip into as­so­ci­a­tion, into mem­ory and spec­u­la­tion. There are an un­count­able num­ber of rea­sons to write a poem. This may be one that has been writ­ten just for fun.

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