Windham-Campbell award win affirms Eckerman’s strong poetic skills

Australian Indigenous poet Ali Cobby Eckerman has won a Windham-Campbell prize—a US literary prize worth US$165,000 (A$215,000).

This is wonderful news.

Eckerman is a marvelous poet and her most recent poetry collection Inside my Mother is a tender and moving work: largely a love song to the mother that she was separated from for 30 years and a lament for generations of family trauma.

I received the book for review some time ago and read it immediately but the months flew by so fast I didn’t get the chance to write about it.

What I would have said then, I’ll say now: It is a collection I think more Australians should read. Why? Because it offers rich insights what it means to be a member of the stolen generation. And because it shows that the veins of suffering run deep (Eckerman’s mother was also separated from her mother) but also how important it is not to let the pain of such injustices crush the spirit.

Eckerman is a Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha woman and the book is dedicated to her ‘mothers’—those who strengthened her, she says, ‘to know who I am’. This knowledge and strength permeates the collection.

Eckerman’s work to date includes four collections of poetry, a verse novel, Ruby Moonlight, and a ‘poetic memoir’, Too Afraid to Cry. To win a Wyndham Prize, administered through Yale University in the US, authors and poets are nominated by appointed members of the literary community.

Inside my Mother is a book of sorrows. It is also a graceful show of fortitude from one of Australia’s most gifted Indigenous writers.

It’s a book I’ve turned to when despair hovered, as there is a wisdom and a beauty in the words that I find soothing. The suffering it explores is of a type and an intensity I will never know—but I feel grateful to have been given this glimpse inside it.

Sand, seeds, smoke, trees, rocks, birds, moon, weeds, blood, crosses … Eckerman uses these and other seemingly simple elements to weave a profound song of grief and survival.

Her song has the soulfulness of ceremony. And, to quote from her poem ‘Lake Eyre’, with its ‘objects of splendidness’, I hope:

the warriors will comfort the sick / near journeys end / the lame will walk to join the dance // we will build a synagogue at Kati Thanda / multitudes of birds the choir / the feathers stretched in praise

Eckerman currently lives in a caravan in Adelaide. She told The Guardian that she will use her prize money to help find a home where she can gather her family together under one roof—as she has not been able to gather them before.

I can already hear the birds singing …

Inside my Mother
Ali Cobby Eckerman
Giramondo $24

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