A review of Inside my Mother by Ali Cobby Eckermann

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Inside my Mother
By Ali Cobby Eckermann
ISBN: 9781922146885, July 2015, 96 pages

It’s perfectly possible to read Ali Cobby Eckermann’s new poetry book, Inside my Mother, without being aware of her history as a stolen child, or her Yankunytjatjara and Kokatha heritage. The poetry is universally evocative, delicately wrought, and linguistically powerful even taken out of context, or published individually, as many of the pieces have been. However, knowing the personal and political backdrop on which the work is developed not only adds depth, it becomes another story – the story within the story – that informs and enlivens the work further. There are poems that take their shape and rhythm from the absence that underpins them, such as the visual poem, “Severance”, which sends tendrils of smoke to the sky, stretches like hands reaching for a child, or leaving gaps of longing as the very universe becomes suspect. There are poems that are designed from  the places they evoke, such as “Pira”:

we are penniless
muffled in low light
the moon chuckles

Some of the poems in this collection are suffused with the heaviness and inevitability of anger and grief:

My mother is a granite boulder
I can no longer climb nor walk
around (“Ngingali”)

The word “mother” has all sorts of connotations in this work, and each of those is built as layers that pick up and expand the themes of the work as the poems progress through the collection. There is the mother tongue – a language that has had to be submerged but which remains as a ghost through the work. The work is written in English but there is a combination of vernacular, the ‘voice’ of the natural world: birdsong, water, rock, tribal music, and the collective sound of a nation:

the rightful season is now
sing your love towards the sky
play them clapsticks my sister
the song exists in your heart (“Clapsticks”)

There is the notion of mother as mother country or homeland with all of its the cultural history, law and the lore. This is the land to which the poet belongs – her heritage, and by implication, the land to which we all belong (and to which we will all return). It’s the mother-lode:

my father is the sand dune
that rock is my mother (“Tjukurrpa”)

Most poignantly, for me at least, is the literal mother. The mother-daughter connection is explored beautifully in this book, with all of its connotations and multi-dimensions. There is dramatic tension as Eckermann explores the rupture and the connection – those things that have been taken away, in a very literal sense by removing children from their mothers, by death, by physical distance, and those things – love, genetic inheritance, and spiritual connection, which remain in spite of those rifts. The poems explore these elements, tracing the links between grandparent, mother, daughter, son. Sometimes the work is very simple, but no less powerful for that, as in “The Letter”, where a child writes a letter to her missing mother from a mission, ending a litany of false I am goods responses with the plaintive cry: “Mummy/Where are you?”

Sometimes the longing is more complex, involving transformation, the illusory nature of time, totems and referents:

there’s a whole ocean filled with sand
between what was and what will be

where fish grow wings to climb the sky
and water birds revert to earth (“Australantis”)

Above all, the poetry about the literal mother is tender. There is a warmth and inclusiveness that pervades the work, reminding us that love is forever, and that healing, reunion and understanding is possible, even if it comes very late:

my eyelids flicker
as I wait for eagle

only then can I
return to myself (“Evacuate”)

Inside my Mother is a beautiful and moving collection, full of gritty pain, transcendent joy, celebration of the land and its animals, grief for all that has been lost, and a transformative reconciliation, both in its political sense and in terms of coming to terms with personal wrongs.