Poetry: Two new long poems

Ruby Moonlight
Ali Cobby Eckermann
Magabala Books

marionette: notes toward the kife and times of miss marion davies
Jessica L Wilkinson
Vagabond Press

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.

Ruby Moonlight coverYankunytjatjara/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.

marionette coverMelbourne 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
                                                      to a

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.

Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh's latest books are Towards the End and Marx and Art. He's a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University.

More by Ali Alizadeh ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Ali, wonderful review of one book that is assuredly a fascinating panoply of visual and syntactic processual experiments, I think Jess’s book is significant, and of another that I know little about, Cobby Eckermann’s, which sounds enticing, and it’s actually the sobriety and angularity of that excerpt you use, rather than emotional resonance, that stands out to me.

    Your isolation of Jess’s willful deviation from narration is a fine one, the figure of Marion Davies by this effect developed into all sorts of, though informed, non-biographical (and instead perhaps voices instead, a Bakhtinian polyphony), and in particular of the disqualified aspects of expression from a Randolph Hearstian monolithic capitalism, demonstrated for example by the grotesquerie of objects in the excerpt you use here. The figure by this repertoire of experimental techniques instates something that appears to me more human than history lends, and I’m so glad you emphasise here, Ali, the seriousness of techniques that for some appear etiolating of figuration or, even, personality, when as in the case of this chapbook it seems to me they do nothing but work in territories of thought disregarded (or suppressed, as the case may be) by conventional narratological methods, history, and even sociality. This is what Herbert Marcuse means by “counter-consciousness” as provided by poetry, by art.

    This leads me to my only reservation, the critique of playfulness. To me what Wilkinson proves is just the seriousness of playfulness, the very same, automatic writing as you quote after all a process of invocation of ghosts practised in ritual settings but exemplified in literature by Yeats’s transcribing the trances of his wife George Hyde-Lees, i.e. serious in the conventional sense only to transcendentalists. That’s another discussion. To poets, this are ‘means’. Then there’s the contingent seriousness of bricolage, and so forth. As is apparent with these methods, one cannot be “more serious” because they cut-up the newspaper or a book of philosophy than if they cut-up Babar or a car manual, it is the curatorship (the conceptual-sensible framework) and the process itself which are serious or non-serious. I only pose it since I think it’s the chance encounters interposed by the techniques effected by Wilkinson and the seriousness with which she goes about this “play” (what is deemed play for Randolph Hearst, play for a utilitarian-realist demand, play for the putative objectivity of the historian), and the degree of risk lent this, which is valuable. That and the apparent consistency of this polyphony of modes.

    I’m sure we ultimately agree, Ali, I just wanted to, I suppose, reflect on this and ask for your elaboration.

  2. Thanks for the very interesting, thoughtful comment, Corey. I think the nuance that didn’t come through in the review — and which requires a greater theoretical investment than what a review permits — is that these techniques as such (and certainly upon their advent by the modernists, etc) were/are indeed quite serious, precisely as you’ve said. My issue is with the fetishisation of these techniques by subsequent (post-modernist) poets which has created, in Badiou’s precise formulation, an avant-garde without the avant-garde (Badiou is here paraphrasing Robespierre’s famous dictum on revolution) which is exactly what i admire about Wilkinson’s work: her taking these techniques seriously (useful) after (or perhaps in the mist of) what I see as a rather long period of ‘experimentalism for experimentalism’s sake’. This discussion is in fact quite big and, in my view, very important, and would be definitely worth having at greater length. (And it’s one of the main points I’ll be trying to address in a book I’ll be writing soonish.) Thanks again, Corey.

  3. “would be definitely worth having…”

    A discussion of what a contemporary political experimental poetics might be may be worth having, but to what end I wonder, given the multiple teleologies and political positions sure to be taken (as evident in discussions of Lehmann and Gray’s Australian Poetry Since 1788 – unless it’s a polite like-minded left that’s having the discussion, where my point would hold) and the modal imposition used to suggest a present in future warping discussion.

    As to the point which raised the need for the discussion, a critique of playfulness in the marionette review, I didn’t read one, other than in a positive register, which makes me wonder even further.

    We’ll know it when we see it, so skipping the discussion may be the go. Whosoever has the wherewithal and drive to forge a contemporary political poetics should do so. The results will bring on the discussion.

  4. Possibly, Dennis. But the results — particularly in rather marginal cultural scenes like poetry — do not always promote discussion; they could simply get ignored, or, at best, be subjected to positive/negative feedback in a review. Reviews certainly have their place, but advancing discussions of contemporary poetry is not their raison d’etre. As for the value of such discussions, well, I think you’re right to question their merit since, exactly as you’ve put it, ‘it’s [usually] a polite like-minded left that’s having the discussion’. But there really are some fundamental disagreements around, for example, the extent to which a poem (e.g. a textually innovative one such as Wilkinson’s) could have a discernible ‘content’, or even the extent to which something as palpably wonderful as Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight can be appreciated not only as a narrative but also as verse, all of which would then affect the poem’s evaluation and recognition by other poets and readers, publishers, prize-givers, and so on. I feel poetry is, perhaps more than any other literary genre, subject to the whims of (to borrow Stanley Fish’s term) an ‘interpretive community’; so the methods/philosophies/ideologies of interpretation, reception, etc, are, i feel, worth discussing. Anyhow, thanks for the comment.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.