2013 NSW Premier's Literary Awards: Kenneth Slessor Prize

winner

Ruby Moonlight

Ali Cobby-Eckermann (Magabala Books)

Ruby Moonlight

A verse novel that centres around the impact of colonisation in mid-north South Australia around 1880. Ruby, refugee of a massacre, shelters in the woods where she befriends an Irishman trapper. The poems convey how fear of discovery is overcome by the need for human contact, which, in a tense unravelling of events, is forcibly challenged by an Aboriginal lawman. The natural world is richly observed and Ruby’s courtship is measured by the turning of the seasons.

Judges' Comments

Ruby Moonlight is a verse sequence imagining a specific incident in mid-north South Australia, in the late nineteenth century. Through a series of interconnected poems we follow the story of a young girl, Ruby, who survives the massacre of her entire family; wandering through Ngadjuri land, ‘she staggers to follow bird song’ and trusts in nature to guide her to safety. Through a minimal style, absence of punctuation and deeply emotional yet understated and refined storytelling, Ruby Moonlight recounts an unforgettable series of experiences and illuminates parts of the Australian natural world that are often forgotten, ignored or altered. It is the kind of powerful narrative that has often been silenced.

Cobby-Eckermann writes the history of Ruby but also of Indigenous people who were victims of massacres around Australia during colonisation. The writing conjures up violence and loneliness, isolation and death, but within this darkness is a healing brightness that resides both in the descriptive power of the language and in Ruby's journey. The writing is not didactic or angry but generates discussion; it offers the reader a chance to understand more about this country’s past and its impact on our present.

In Ruby Moonlight, Ali Cobby-Eckermann has written a series of interconnected poems, a verse novel really, that describes first contact from an Indigenous point of view. It is personal, historic and profoundly human. These innovative poems take up traditional narrative voices, bringing past conflicts vividly to life with short and agile lines that are lucid, refined and luminous. Colonialism and survival are set against the natural world, love and the desire for human engagement. The writing is delicate yet strong, the tone is pitched so well the reader is not distracted by the agile technique that carries the narrative forward. Ali Cobby Eckerman has created a new language that holds the reader's attention from beginning to end, this reflective narrative is an outstanding achievement that will, with its skill and elegance, deeply enrich Australian poetry and whoever reads it.


 

Shortlist

First Light

Kate Fagan (Giramondo)

First Light 

First Light observes the details of the world with curious and restive attention. It explores the threshold between things and words, seeking out places where music and language are equal in charting human experience. Some poems sample from other writers to create new works, often as gifts for friends. Some meditate on the tipping point between poetry and prose, or revisit established forms, such as sonnets and love letters, to stage a conversation between poetry and song. Alongside these more experimental sequences is a series of discrete lyrics, ‘Authentic Nature’, which responds to specifically Australian habitats – political, cultural and ecological – while asking about the role of ‘nature’ in poetic writing.

judges' comments

Kate Fagan writes like a composer arranging intonation and modalities into a musical score. In First Light she is keenly aware of the cadence of language as she skilfully intertwines formal attributes with gently warped syntax to make an exacting poetic experiment tempered by lyricism. This superb set of poems is imbued with a relational aesthetic like a group of often-sensuous, mesmeric love letters.
The title section comprises 10 centos, inventive clusters of recombined poems, where each one is dedicated to, or written for, friends and family. This book is steeped in fearless openness and feeling, alongside keenly cognisant and ultimately optimistic thought, as Fagan examines what private and public temporality might mean as we inhabit our constructed world. Her meticulously intimate and generic examining of human relationships with nature and technology confirms poetry’s place as an important instrument of philosophical enquiry. The poems are pellucid, various and joyous; domestic and worldly. This substantial and complex collection offers far more than solace in a difficult world; it is poetry that offers possibility.


 

Open Sesame

Michael Farrell (Giramondo)

open sesame 

Michael Farrell is highly regarded for the unique rhythms and the gestural and comic qualities of his poetry. His poems set language, syntax and punctuation in motion, heightening the expression of wonder, drama, attitude: or simply relishing the richness and resonance of each new word situation. His new collection, open sesame, includes sonnets derived from Edna St Vincent Millay (‘saints & or’) and from the British police drama The Bill, a sestina on John F. Kennedy set in a laundry, an improvised parody (‘et tu supermarket’), an Oulipo poem (‘debit of a pirate kino’), and four long poems on friendship. The book concludes with a series of collage poems, including one which takes its cue from the legendary Phar Lap.

judges' comments

An astonishing collection, this audacious and generous book creates a space of transformative potential. The poet playfully reimagines and explodes received or calcified notions of subjectivity and authorship. The collaged narratives are carefully made to appear aleatoric (as if they happened by some kind of inspired chance), and as they jump-cut from scene to stance to a chiasma of wordplay, they are permeated by a specific ‘Australianness’.

Farrell’s references draw widely from both popular culture and classicism. Serious in intent, these poems are painless in reception and often very witty. There’s a sense of magic about the poet’s collection, as the title, Open Sesame, suggests. Upon entering the collection, the reader surrenders to a space of bifurcated wonders, of unique rhythms, hysterical syntax and vibrant, dynamic song. There’s a surrealist absurdity to the strange placements of horses, British pop bands, and presidents in launderettes. A contrasting romantic sensitivity brings us gentle conversations with friends and lovers, reinterpretations of sonnets, and moments of love and loneliness in the jumbling snippets and cuttings that comprise an urban life.

The Welfare of my Enemy

Anthony Lawrence (Puncher & Wattman)

Welfare of my Enemy

 

Blending verse novella and book-length poem, The Welfare of My Enemy is a ground-breaking, haunted portrait of the phenomenon of Missing Persons. At times disturbing, always captivating, this new book showcases Lawrence's marvellous imagery and spellbinding rhythms in a work that highlights a dark, prevailing underside to Australian society.

judges' comments

The Welfare of My Enemy is a haunting record of loss and disappearances conveyed through the memorable figures who chart the sad and scary landscape of the missing: families left behind, perpetrators of the crime, the dead, the law, those looking. Other Australian poets have written crime fiction, but Lawrence is markedly different. He challenges the darkness to be its most rotten. He doesn’t use humour or invent likeable villains to make the subject easier on the reader. Lawrence’s use of rhyming couplets brings no lilting relief from the tales he weaves; rather the rhymes lure us deeper into the poem.
Lawrence’s poems are compressed and then broken to emphasise how missing never ends, how vanishing is inconclusive. Like the unknown identities of those who are missing, the poems have missing titles. An asterisk announces a new voice and we are hooked on his descriptions and snippets, and engaged with the activities of the missing and those who miss them, their chilling and honest confessions.

Ladylike

Kate Lilley (UWA Publishing)

Ladylike

The title poem of this collection (‘Ladylike’) draws on pamphlets associated with the notorious case of the bigamist Mary Carleton, who was executed in 1673, and texts contemporary with it; women from Sigmund Freud’s case studies provide the material for the series of poems, ‘Round Vienna’; and the poem ‘Cleft’ is dedicated to Kate Lilley’s mother, Australian literary giant Dorothy Hewett.
Throughout this collection, Kate mines the areas of her scholarly specialisation – the early modern period – as well as contemporary popular culture and matches it with some of the twentieth century’s enduring interests such as psychoanalysis and Freud.

Judges' comments

Intelligence and observation shine from Kate Lilley’s Ladylike. These trim poems linger in thresholds between the material world and otherworlds of slippage and under-sound. Lilley is an expert analyst of female identity and, in this scintillating collection, all kinds of women and girls — wayward, proclaimed, scandalous, diminished, wronged — are recovered and redeemed. She adroitly melds the seventeenth century with the nineteenth and the twentieth (with its cinema classics and Freudian psychosexual dreams and neuroses) and the televisual synthetics of the twenty-first.
Lilley’s poems are clever, sly and often very funny, especially in her erudite critique of Sigmund Freud's penis-envy theory. In the elegiac and emotional poems for her late mother, mother and daughter coalesce imperceptibly and mourning is immense, demonstrating the extraordinary reach of Lilley’s art. Lilley is an adept mistress of formal poetic considerations in her distinctly artful wordplay. Her poems are compelling and exquisite. This collection is a unique and noticeably bold intervention in the current field of Australian poetry.

Here, There and Elsewhere

Vivian Smith (Giramondo)

Here, There and Elsewhere

Transparent in their openness, they point gently to what remains unspoken. The poems in Here, There and Elsewhere draw on memories of life in Hobart and Sydney, travels in Europe and South America, old friends and respected writers, and the poet’s years as a teacher of French and Australian literature. They look back at youth from age, they reflect on paths not taken, and those that were, they consider the influence of death.

There is a strong sense of the poet, presented in a very personal way, ‘searching for the sense of what is real/ the truth of what I am and what I feel’.

judges' comments

Here, There and Elsewhere opens with a sequence of rhyming poems brimming with finesse, in which Ern Malley answers back and doesn't want to know about his legacy. The rest of the collection is totally assured and reflects the poet’s deep relationship with French and Australian literature. Memory, travel and literary poems, and poems for absent friends, are enjoyable and informative. The two poetic essays are concise and lightly instructive.
Writing about international influence on Australian culture, Smith says ‘there should be constant fruitful interaction [with overseas] to combat entropy and stagnation’. Those are two conditions he seems to have eschewed naturally in his long cultural life. There is such an ease in writing here that everything in the collection is a pleasure. Accomplished, no shouting, no showing off — this book communicates to any reader.

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