Ali Cobby Eckermann
marionette: notes toward the kife and times of miss marion davies
Jessica L Wilkinson
One of the apparent paradoxes of modern poetry has been the persistence of the epic, narrative verse and the long poem in the face of the proliferation of increasingly shorter and more condensed lyrics. How is it that very long, book-length poems continue to be written and published despite the overwhelming preoccupation with either short closed forms (the sonnet is proving rather popular with some Australian poets) or minimalist wordplays by more experimental writers? Two new books provide very different but equally convincing answers to this question.
Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha poet Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight is one of the best manifestations of the Australian narrative verse since the earlier works of the late Dorothy Porter. As with Porter’s Akhenaten, Cobby Eckermann’s book – her fourth since her breakthrough 2009 debut chapbook little bit long time – is situated in the milieu of historical fiction. And, much like Porter’s, the precision and sharpness of Cobby Eckermann’s lines penetrate the facade of a linear plot to reveal the personal, the intimate and the sensual.
Set in late nineteenth-century South Australia, Ruby Moonlight follows the journey of its eponymous heroine, a young Aboriginal woman whose tribe has been massacred by a roving party of European settlers. Cobby Eckermann narrates Ruby’s precarious survival from the immediate aftermath of the atrocity to her joining another tribe by way of a romance with an Irish outcast called Jack. This story would have been sufficiently engrossing had it been written in generic, narrative prose, but in Cobby Eckermann’s sparse, haunting verse, the tale comes to life with musicality, vivid nuances and emotional resonance:
she is glad Jack is
a man of few words
Jack is glad she is
a woman of few needs
in their remoteness
they are heaven
in their remoteness
they are earth
remoteness is essential
in their merger
it is for forbidden for Europeans
to fornicate with blacks
Rhythm, repetition and consonance, among other things, provide these lines with their poetic elegance and semantic unity. But Cobby Eckermann’s poem is not simply a skilful fusion of narrative and verse; what makes it a unique, almost groundbreaking, work is the poet’s ability to create a new space within the genre of Australian historical fiction that expands on the existing concepts and preoccupations. Novels about colonial-era conflicts and interactions between the Indigenous and white settlers have come to constitute an identifiable literary genre – thanks to the recent successes of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, among others – and Cobby Eckermann’s book is both a contribution to and in some ways a subversion of this genre.
Ruby Moonlight portrays fictional characters drawn out of the country’s violent colonial history, as sympathetic or at least understandable figures. Her style, however, does not lend itself to exceedingly contemporary answers to the dilemmas of the past. If, simply put, the narratives of the abovementioned novels conclude with a desire for the remedy to the traumas of history, the urgency and immediacy of Cobby Eckermann’s story – perhaps a result of her using poetry in place of prose – produces a discourse driven by the need to live with love, intimacy and dignity in the here and now. Ruby Moonlight is not a tale haunted by the nightmares of history; it is the story of a woman who wakes up from these nightmares. Despite her life’s immense and enduring sorrow, Ruby personifies her people’s extraordinary will to survive. In the words of the book’s final stanzas:
in this country
there is sadness
in this sunset
a ruby moonlight.
Melbourne poet Jessica L Wilkinson’s fascinating debut chapbook marionette: notes toward the kife and times of miss marion davies is also a sequence of poems with a historical female protagonist, but her work cannot be adequately described as either narrative or verse. While many facts known about the life of the early Hollywood actress Marion Davies – such as her relationship with the infamous newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst or her appearance in a number of silent movies – can be gleaned from the cycle of poems presented in marionette, instead of telling a simple biographical story, Wilkinson focuses on the underlying theme of the actress’s reification by and struggles against patriarchy. Hers is a fragmented, experimental poetics that directly presents, and refuses to narrate, explorations into the life of her central character, using a variety of modernist techniques such as concrete poetry, automatic writing and prose poetry:
THE HOLLOYWOOD REVUE OF 1929 and we’re singin’ in the rain MARIANNE sure I hear you am I blind? Care if I see I’m a bad girl for like you Baby, it’s on the level a harmonica ukulele twelve piece band and chorus she is pumping water it’s a bonk she takes upon herself a moustache cigar I’ve got an awful queer feeling and she goes for the fling with her pig in his stomach she’s NOT SO DUMB you wish she’d keep in being a nuisance …
Significantly, marionette can be distinguished from most other examples of linguistic idiosyncrasy in today’s experimental Australian poetry. In addition to its actual, non-fictional subject matter, Wilkinson’s chapbook is at its heart a serious and committed exercise in engagement with film history, with gender politics, and, indeed, with anti-lyrical aesthetics. This commitment makes for a far more engaging and provocative poetics than what one may expect from rather conventional postmodernist playfulness. The poem ‘The Red Mill’, for example, has all the appearance of an abstract minimalist poem à la Robert Lax, but seen as an evocation of Davies’1927 comedy The Red Mill, it invites the reader to both contemplate the singularity of this episode in the life of the book’s protagonist and engage with the unsettling implication of this particular literary technique in the formation of a biographical text:
Who c r i e d t h e v i o l i n w h i t t l e d to a t w i g
marionette is a terrifically promising debut publication, and I greatly look forward to reading the entire long poem (only some of which appears in this publication) in the form of a full-length volume. It is a testament, alongside Ruby Moonlight and a number of other recent long poems (such as Luke Davies’ Interferon Psalms and Kristin Henry’s All the way home), to the health and vibrancy of one of the most exciting genres of contemporary Australian poetry.