Inside My Mother
Heartsick for Country
When I started work in the Pilbara a family friend of mine spoke to me about mourning in the region. I remember him painting a vivid picture of the first time he saw women hitting their head with rocks until they bled, crying and wailing to show respect for the dead. Although the practice is far less common now, it came to mind when I read the title poem of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Inside My Mother.
Without doubt, it is a powerful and enduring poem – one with evocative imagery, plain speech complicated by judiciously placed line breaks, and relatable, important content. It is nothing short of a brilliant piece of writing and readers should seek the volume out simply for this work alone. It is also, to some extent, symptomatic of the collection as a whole in terms of style as well as content.
I want to consider, for this review, how land, soil, earth, clay, dirt, ground are represented in Inside My Mother. One could have chosen sky or water, but to me, land is at the root of this. That all of them, and more, are part of "country" is important and in separating out this particular expression I do not want to assume that there is a metonymic relationship. Rather, I want to highlight land because it is central to the cosmology, part of a dynamic multiplicity and playfulness, and because of the ongoing politics of mining. Land is fundamental to Inside My Mother and it is fundamental in understanding us as a people. Afterall, as Eckermann repeats, her mother’s "mother is the earth" (20).
Land in Inside My Mother refers both to specific places ("Ooldea Soakage", "Hindmarsh Island", "Oombulgarri", "Lake Eyre") and is a generalised "thing" ("Clay", "Mining", "Unearth").
Consider for example "Ooldea Soakage", which reads:
the big sand hill is
smaller now reduced
in the memory of
digging down into
the waterhole no
water remains for
overhead the sky
continues to shine
mother and daughter
at the tribal camp
we gather old coals
history trapped inside
rubbing charcoal on skin (15)
The specificity of location reminds one of Philip Hall’s Sweetened in Coals, as does the very literal use of "coals", and there are gestures to Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s "We are Going". This is about history and historicication, about witness and ritual, about mother and daughter as indeed the whole volume is. The line breaks give it a lilting irregularity that undermines the fact that this could simply be good prose – no $64,000 words for example – with expected pauses if in the wrong (safe) hands. This is particularly pronounced in the lines ‘smaller now reduced’ and ‘the waterhole no’. There are echoes throughout too, in the form of specific words, certain vowels and the sound shape of language - waterhole/water, sky/shine, together/gather, coals/charcoal. We hear the past (endogenous and real), but a little differently each time. Eckermann is updating our knowledge with each variation. All of this enables the reader to be entranced but not in some altogether derivative way, and not in some blithe comforting way. This sense of history, this return of the oppressed is expressed even more starkly in the poem "Unearth", a powerful primer on history as a discipline and of Indigenous peoples, with its final stanza reading:
boomerang bones will return to memory
excavation holes are dug in our minds
the constant loss of breath is the legacy
there is blood on the truth (37)
Consider now, a poem that is not specifically located. "Clay" reads:
the world is turning to clay
its muddy weight dry on my skin
drags me down below river banks
reducing the sky to a sliver
all peripheral vision is blocked by earth
the sky allows a sight that does not end
only my eyes reveal the myopia secret
my desire to live in the sky
the sky remains free from blemish
the depth of this view reduces me
shrinking me back into the earth
only the whites of my eyes suggest clouds
the clay on my skin has dried and cracks
its earth voice hoarse, now drowned in mud
I retreat to myself encased in knowing
truth is bigger when reduced in size (19)
This work is located in the body, locates itself in corporeality and we get a familiar sense of being underwater coupled with a more concentrated and specific idea of the cultural importance of clay on skin. Like "Ooldea Soakage" we have reference to an epidermal covering. We are embodied and smeared. It is as if the body joins with the earth, surface to surface. One will note too the similarity of voice and style, and the ending that seems to undermine a talking about clay as general thing. That is to say, place "is bigger when reduced in size". As many readers will be aware, clay as ochre, and other forms, is often used in rituals and rites. In the Pilbara, the area I am most familiar with, different language groups have different body markings for different rituals. Here though, clay is coupled with an individual sense that one is overwhelmed by the world and allows us to read the poem with overlapping cultural, emotional and personal possibilities. Eckermann builds a bridge between herself and the audience and we relate to each other on several different axes.
It is not that Eckermann forces non-Indigenous people, including people of colour such as myself, to acknowledge their occupation, perhaps bringing with it an idea of guilt or illegitimacy or un-sovereignty. It is that Eckermann creates a world in which these questions may surface for the reader. As such Inside My Mother is less a work of harassment or protest than a piece of piercing subtlety, even sometimes approaching parable, that approaches difference and voice. As she writes in "Footprint":
the moment you jumped from your boat
and landed on the shore
your footprint stood next to mind
in the morning my footprint had disappeared
and yours remained
it would not leave
the incoming tide betrayed me
wallowing in water I am drowning
I spy my footprint on the moon
the reflection on the shore is boundless
like a warrior sure under the moons glow
your footprint trapped now in a shallow pool (39)
This is you as reader, you as arrivant, you as the reason for my disappearance, you is the one "trapped in a shallow pool", drowning, superficial, unable to swim or leave. This is Eckermann speaking to us, acting as a angel of history and a harbinger of future calamity.
For those who find Lionel Fogarty difficult at the level of aesthetics and politics, or consider Samuel Wagan Watson’s changes in register to be a sign of inconsistency, but want to engage with issues of occupation, land, self, emotion Inside My Mother might be more amenable. It’s plain speech and nuance cannot be simply dismissed as common, or anything less than finely crafted and impressively idiosyncratic. Eckermann has technical skill and a commanding voice that enable us to come at important issues in everyday language with a deft touch. That is a rare ability and one we can only be thankful for.
Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside My Mother. Artamon, NSW: Giramondo, 2015.