Hearing Australian poet Ali Cobby Eckerman reading her verse, one feels wounded under anesthesia. Muting the sirens, car stereos, and general chaos of evening in the Lower East Side with the bravura of her words, Eckerman gave her debut New York reading at the Marc Strauss Gallery on Friday night. Between the hypnotic verse and the traditional Aboriginal artwork of Margaret Loy Paula adorning the walls, the interior of the Marc Strauss gallery seemed worlds away from Manhattan.
Paula’s paintings are an abstract exploration of the bush potato – a significant source of sustenance both physical and spiritual for Australian Aboriginal people – that take the form of large, swirling patterns composed of tiny, multicolored dots. Paula’s work mimics the natural form of the bush potatoes disparate biological structure, yet simultaneously suggests aerial views of swirling landscapes. The form of Paula’s paintings were a perfect setting for Eckerman’s reading.
Eckerman herself was in the United States to receive the incredibly prestigious Windham-Campbell writing prize at Yale University. She’s the first Indigenous Australian to win this award, and said that she accepted the prize not for herself, but for the entire Aboriginal people. Eckerman, a Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha person and native of South Australia, faces the discrimination levelled against Aboriginal Australians – and the accompanying destruction of their sacred landscapes – head on in her poetry.
Eckerman’s haunting poem “Thunder Raining Poison” hones in on the ecological devastation wrought on the Australian bush by the Maralinga Bombs – a series of nuclear weapons that the British government detonated on indigenously occupied lands in the outback. Her recent book of poetry Inside My Mother speaks not only to the unique pain felt by Australian Aboriginals scarred by on-going forced assimilation into mainstream society, but also to her own experience of meeting her biological mother for the first time as a result of Australian government policies. Eckerman’s mother was part of the Stolen Generation, a national tragedy whereby an entire generation of Aboriginal people were forcibly taken from their families in Australia, and the sins of this (and ongoing, subtler, perhaps more insidious assimilatory efforts) loom large in the poet’s work. She punctuated her poetry readings with personal anecdotes and explanations that came through, in Eckerman’s chirpy South Australian accent, near as elegantly as her prose.
Eckerman herself trod an incredibly difficult path to success. After being sexually abused by a white foster uncle as a child, bearing a child of her own as a teen, being repeatedly displaced from her family and struggling with inner demons, she found her poetic voice “not in school, but in the land.”
And what a voice Eckerman has: there is deep ecological and human pain contained in her words, a sense of transcendence defiled by the racism and recklessness of late-capitalist culture, that conveyed moments of near-tactile intensity. Expansive visions of the bush glassed over in the aftermath of nuclear tests and the sense of entire human landscapes populated only by the ghosts of their former inhabitants come through both phantasmagorically, yet loud and clear. In spite of all the pain, however, a hoarse and resilient humor runs through Ali’s work. There’s a ragged laughter implied in her words, a kind of cheeky lamp she keeps lit in homage to the indefatigable spirit of her people.
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