Few recent books of poetry by an Indigenous author have made such headlines as Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books, 2012). In truth, I can’t think of another. Eckermann was awarded a black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship by the State Library of Queensland in 2011, which comes with a $10,000 prize in addition to the promise of publication by Magabala. Once published, Eckermann received the 2012 Deadly’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Literature. She then completed the hat trick by winning not only the New South Wales Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize for poetry in 2013, but having Ruby Moonlight walk away with the competition’s overall Book of the Year.
Described as a “verse novel” (but in length, truly more like a short story), Ruby Moonlight is comprised of sixty-nine short, lyrical poems (none exceeds a page in length) that tell the story of an Aboriginal girl who survives the massacre of her family in northern South Australia during the 1880s. In the aftermath she wanders alone until an encounter with Jack, an Irish immigrant miner turned trapper, blossoms into a silent, furtive, but loving relationship. Complications ensue as the claims of a another family of Aboriginal people and the mistrust and hatred of encroaching whites come into play. I won’t spoil the story by telling you the outcome of this clash of civilizations. I’ll say only that the characterizations of Ruby, Jack, the old man who wants to claim her as his wife, and the hate-filled, beery band of white villagers are all handled deftly and are among the chief pleasures of the story.
The early poems in the sequence, describing Ruby’s family before the massacre and her devastation following the attack, are among the loveliest in their lyrical and brutal evocation of a world under threat. Here is the opening poem, entitled “Nature.”
There is wonderful economy here in the simplicity of the images, in the suggestion of the fickleness or randomness of fate, of the unpredictability of our lives. The fall of the leaf is inevitable; the outcome is not. It can be a thing of beauty and grace, or it can be nothing more than the loss of vitality, and the confirmation of an inescapable sadness. The twirling of the leaf, the fluttering of the butterfly, and whirling dust-devil mimic one another. Does fate determine the outcome, or does man interpret the meaning in these motions?
Eckermann is at her best when she relies on these metaphors of the natural world that Jack and Ruby inhabit to tell us about their souls. Here, in “Ochre,” Ruby mourns her family:
There is a lovely, chromatic structure to this little elegy. It turns on the arc of the resonant metaphor of the rainbow, which is explicitly evoked in the central, fifth line of this nine-line miniature. The first half of the poem rises to that point with imagery of vitality and movement; it seems to begin on a happy, lively note. The colors are drawn from the blue-green end of the spectrum. In the latter half of the poem, the arc falls away towards death in yellows and reds. It is an amazingly understated piece of work.
Elsewhere, in “Shack,” Jack returns to his creekside hideaway and “now footsore and flagged he falls / asleep on a rabbit skin rug.” The imagery creates a vivd sense of place and feeling. The alliteration reinforces the sense of the repetitive and bruising work that has taken Jack out across the country and then back to his primitive home.
At other times, the rhythms of the language are broken to good effects, as when the other white men appear on their vile mission, in “Visitor.”
But sometimes I feel that Eckermann stumbles. The chief villain of this visiting mob is identified in later poems as “the music-less man,” surely the most unmusical of epithets, and not especially evocative. Immediately after the slaughter of Ruby’s family we are told that “the desert of her mind has determined wanderings / longer than forty days and nights,” a Biblical metaphor that seems wholly inappropriate to Ruby’s experience and as inelegant in its own way as, later in the same poem, the line that informs us that “tradition meanders a well-worn path.”
Happily, these lapses are infrequent. Indeed, close attention to the language of the poems repays the effort. The narrative element of Ruby Moonlight is compelling, and on a first reading, I was swept along by the story, only occasionally noticing a fine turn of phrase, a strikingly visual metaphor. It was only as I dipped into the book more randomly, reading individual poems at texts in themselves, that I began to appreciate the craft, the structure, the poetry of the book.
One final recommendation: shop carefully for this one. The paperback original lists for A$27.95, but Magabala Books is now publishing all their titles (except children’s picture books) in both electronic and print editions. Ruby Moonlight is available in a Kindle edition from Amazon for US$21.99; but the Apple iBook version can be purchased via iTunes for US$14.99/A$16.99. Whichever choice you make, the investment will be worth it, even if you ordinarily think that poetry is not your thing. The tale of Ruby and Jack will ensnare you with its song.