Trying to work out where to start analysing the six poems by Ali Cobby Eckermann set for the HSC? You’ve come to the right place! This ultimate cheatsheet breaks down all six texts and breaks down how to approach the unifying themes.
Module A is part of the Year 11-12 Standard English course. The clue is in the title: it focuses on Language, identity and culture.
“Language” refers to the words writers use and the way they organise them into sentences and paragraphs.
“Identity” is determined by a combination of how we see ourselves and how other people see us. Our identity can be described based on physical features like our age, sex and race, as well as things like our sense of humour, our interests and what makes us happy.
“Culture” refers to the group (or groups) we belong to. Cultures can be large and diverse (for example,
“Australian Culture”) or much smaller (for example, the culture of an individual family). Still confused? We break down all the Module A syllabus dot points in our Year 12 English Standard Module A Guide.
Now that you know what Module A is all about, let’s take a look at each of the poems by contemporary Australian writer Ali Cobby Eckermann and see where they fit in.
Note: You only study six of the poems from the anthology Inside My Mother for Module A.
Inside My Mother: Summarising the six poems
Before we look at the techniques used and themes explored in the poems, we first need to establish what Eckermann is exploring:
This poem is in two sections (labelled ‘1’ and ‘2’). In the first, an old woman prepares to enter a trance. Several clues suggest that she is Aboriginal Australian: this is her cultural context.
In the second section, the poet describes the experience of her trance state in which she ‘floats in a pituri haze’ (pituri is made of leaves and ashes; it is traditionally chewed by Aboriginal people as part of spiritual rituals). The trance helps the old woman to feel closer to the natural world around her.
The poem reveals that she was once in love, but that her lover is dead and that she misses him. These clues help to shape her identity: someone who now looks back on love as a thing of the past.
This is a poem that works on two levels.
Literally, the poet is describing an excavation that brings to the surface the bones of the long-buried dead.
Metaphorically, she is commenting on the way in which an ancient culture (the repetition of the word ‘boomerang’ implies that this is a reference to Aboriginal people) has been ‘suppressed’ by a new culture and will one day rise up to combat that suppression.
The poem’s tone is negative and critical: the final line, ‘there is blood on the truth’, reads like a warning that a time of reckoning will come. The poem builds slowly to this point, beginning with inclusive language (‘let’s dig up the soil’) to involve the reader on the side of the excavators.
The image of the boomerang is important – it stands for the idea that you can attempt to destroy a culture, but if it is strong enough it will always return.
The Aboriginal community of Oombulgarri (sometimes written ‘Oombulgurri’ or ‘Umbulgarra’) was a small settlement in Western Australia. In 2011, the state government closed it and required the residents to move elsewhere.
This poem reflects on the deserted town they left behind, which acts as a metaphor for their disheartened community.
Like in ‘Unearth’ there is an angry tone in this poem, especially in the lines: ‘the town is empty now / as empty as the promises / that once held it together’.
This somewhat abstract poem describes a woman deciding which pair of ‘eyes’ she will ‘wear’ today. It is clearly implied that the different pairs of ‘eyes’ she is choosing between each represent a different attitude.
She considers attitudes like ‘wonder’ and ‘contempt’ but, in the end, chooses ‘rage’.
The speaker in this poem sees a tree on the horizon and wonders if it is her father.
The poem functions on two levels:
She is a child of nature, but,
She also uses natural metaphors to explore her sometimes distant relationship with her father.
She indicates that, even though she does not know him well, their common culture and shared family identity bring them together as part of the same ‘story’.
Like ‘Leaves’, this poem is a meditation on the relationship between a girl and an older relative. Whereas ‘Leaves’ was concerned with the speaker’s father, ‘Key’ is focused on the girl’s relationship with her grandmother.
The grandmother’s bedroom is a private place, and the girl is fascinated by what goes on in there: ‘sometimes she smells the faint hint of smoke / hears the slight crackling of fire / on those days she hears laughter’.
She is never allowed in and, as she grows up, she realises that there are some sides to her grandmother that she will never understand. The ‘key’ of the title could be understood as a metaphor for the ability to access or understand her grandmother’s perspective on the world.
By the end of the poem, she has realised that she will never fully achieve this, despite their shared family identity.
Want to learn more about poem analysis?
At Matrix, our specialised HSC English teachers are here to help guide you through the ins and outs of textual analysis and essay writing!
Ali Cobby Eckermann is an Aboriginal Australian poet with a complicated family history. Born in 1953 and named Penelope Rae Cobby, she was adopted by a family with the surname Eckermann after being tricked away from her mother.
She is a member of the Stolen Generations, and was not reunited with her mother until she was 34 years old.
Her identity has been influenced by many different people: her biological family, her adoptive family, her Aboriginal ancestors, and her German-descended adoptive parents. The poem ‘Key’ touches on these different influences, showing Eckermann herself standing outside a door – on a threshold between different worlds.
In her poems, she belongs to many cultures but also experiences a sense of loss and exclusion from them.
Between 1905 and 1967 many children of Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander descent were removed from their families by the Australian government and church missions. The number of children affected is disputed by historians, but may have been as many as 100,000. This group of people – many still alive today – are known as the Stolen Generations.
When you study Eckermann’s poems, consider how her personal experience and background may have influenced her artistic choices.
Major themes and examples
Now that we know a bit about these six poems, it’s time to consider the major themes which they explore.
Theme #1: Tensions between Aboriginal Australian communities and other Australians
Both these poems begin by describing the land once inhabited exclusively by Aboriginal people and then go on to imply that a proper reckoning for their displacement has not yet occurred.
The tone of ‘Unearth’ is angry and threatening, whereas ‘Oombulgarri’ – while it contains similar ideas – is more melancholy. Here are some examples where the poems explore these ideas:
1. The metaphor of resurrection in ‘Unearth’
let’s dig up the soil and excavate the past breathe life into the bodies of our ancestors when movement stirs their bones boomerangs will rattle in unison
The first thing to notice is the inclusive language: ‘let’s’ is a contraction of ‘let us’, inviting the reader to take the side of the persona.
The image of ‘breathing life’ into the dead is a metaphor for remembering them and reassessing their importance as a part of our shared Australian history. Since poems are often intended to be read aloud, this image contains a double meaning:
By speaking of the dead, the poet is metaphorically ‘breathing’ them back into life.
The image of a ‘boomerang’ is also important, since it immediately brings to mind Australia’s ancient Aboriginal civilizations. Significantly, the boomerang always returns to its owner. We could interpret this to mean that Australia will someday return to the guardianship of Aboriginal Australians. Note that ‘boomerang’ also appears in the final stanza, reinforcing this idea that it always comes back
2. Pathetic fallacy in ‘Oombulgarri’
echoes of laughter roll like distant thunder but unlike a storm cannot pass by hysterical energy whips and wails and wails
The simile at the start of this stanza is eye-catching because it links ‘laughter’, with its positive connotations, to ‘thunder’, which often implies power and destruction. The implication is that this once thriving community has been destroyed and so laughter has given way to resentment and ‘hysterical’ grief.
Although the thunder is ‘distant’, it is significant that it cannot ‘pass by’. This indicates that more and more anger is gathering around Oombulgarri, ready to be unleashed in the future. The weather itself seems to be revolting against the expulsion of the residents from the land of their ancestors.
The repetition of ‘wails’, coupled with the alliteration (with ‘whips’) in the third line is unsettling and gives the impression of many voices crying out in pain. The contrast between the ‘laughter’ at the start of the stanza and the ‘wails’ at the end is intended to demonstrate how extreme the treatment of Aboriginal people has been in the poet’s view.
Comparison of the poems
Both these poems allude to the complex tensions which continue to exist between those who belong to Aboriginal communities and Australians whose ancestors came from elsewhere.
‘Unearth’ contains a warning (‘there is blood on the truth’) and encourages the reader to be part of the solution to these tensions, not the cause (‘let’s dig up the soil and excavate the past’).
On the other hand, ‘Oombulgarri’ does not hesitate to place the blame for what has happened on those who drove the population of the town away (‘the town is empty now / as empty as the promises / that once held it together).
So, how does this theme relate to Module A: Language, Identity and Culture?
The way these poems use language reveals the connections which the poet has drawn between land, history, belonging and community.
The identity of the speaker in ‘Unearth’ is connected to that of her ‘ancestors’. She is setting out to draw the reader’s attention to how badly treated they were, and it is implied that her own life has been shaped by what happened in the distant past.
Culture clash is a key theme of both poems, with Aboriginal communities losing out in both cases, but the poet implying that the story is not over. She also indicates that the identity of non-Aboriginal communities is defined, in part, by how they relate to their Aboriginal neighbours.
Theme #2: Changing relationships to other family members as we grow up
It is tempting to assume that the persona in ‘Leaves’ and the girl in ‘Key’ are both Ali Cobby Eckermann herself, however, we need to be careful not to jump to conclusions. Although both poems have been influenced by her own experience, there may also be some fictional elements involved.
1. Personification in ‘Leaves’
that lone tree on the ridge is that my father? it stands like him
Throughout this poem, the persona uses the image of the tree on the horizon to explore her relationship with her father. By comparing him to a tree, she suggests that she does not know him well – he lacks human characteristics in her mind. In another sense, however, this metaphorical identity makes her father seem strong, solid, reliable and in tune with the natural world.
The adjective ‘lone’ in the opening line is important – he stands on his own, and we wonder whether he is lonely. Given the spiritual connection which Aboriginal Australians traditionally feel with the land, we might also wonder whether the rhetorical question in the opening lines of the poem is intended literally: has the persona’s father really been reborn as a tree? If so, will the same thing happen to her in the future?
At the end of the poem, the persona speaks of her need to be ‘consoled’ (which means, comforted after suffering loss). We can infer from this that she misses her father and wishes to be reunited with him somehow.
2. Standing on the threshold in ‘Key’
the girl stands at Grandmothers door there is no key hole to the future and no vision to the past
Thresholds (when you are just about to pass through a door) are often symbolic in literary texts. In this poem, the fact that the girl can stand right outside her grandmother’s room but can’t enter symbolises the fact that she knows her grandmother really well, but there is still a part of her identity which remains hidden.
Throughout the poem the girl has been trying to understand her own identity based on her grandmother’s, but in this final stanza she realises that she will have to make her own decisions as she grows older.
Theme #3: Facing the world from a woman’s perspective
Each of these poems concerns a woman who has suffered in the past. While ‘Trance’ has a reflective, soothing tone, ‘Eyes’ ends abruptly with an image of ‘rage’
1. Abstract imagery in ‘Trance’
During the trance, the old woman’s thoughts stray to her former lover, who is now dead.
heat was a grip with fingers entwined the firmness of his torso the instrument of his voice his smile missing in her empty hand
The trance state appears to allow the old woman to appreciate her senses more vividly.
Flashes of her past relationship pass before her. She not only visualises her former lover, but also feels his presence in different ways – the ‘heat’ of his grip, the sound of his voice (the word ‘instrument’ implies that it was musical and pleasant).
The final line contains synecdoche – where one part of a person (his ‘smile’) stands in for the whole person. By focusing on his smile, the poet shows us what the old woman remembers most clearly about him: the smile connotes happiness, satisfaction and security.
The lack of punctuation at the end of the line could suggest that the trance goes on, but because it is so private the poet now withdraws.
2. Implications of loss and sufferings in ‘Eyes’
the eyes of terror she has thrown away the eyes of submission are blinded now she avoids the eyes of shame
Like the old woman in ‘Trance’, the persona here has suffered in the past.
The nature of her suffering is less clearly stated, but this stanza indicates that she has previously experienced terror and has now overcome it; that she has previously had to submit (give in), but now refuses to do so.
There is something positive and decisive in her refusal to feel ‘shame’.
Each of these lines tells us a little more about her identity: she has grown stronger, and perhaps harder, because of her past suffering. She is not innocent, but rather experienced.
In the remaining two stanzas she considers feeling ‘wonder’, ‘contempt’ or ‘compassion’, but decides instead to feel ‘rage’.
The poem is ambiguous: should we celebrate this woman’s strength, or regret that she chooses rage over these more positive emotions?
Written by Brian McMahon
Dr McMahon completed his PhD in English at Balliol College, University of Oxford (UK). Brian has been tutoring English, Politics and Drama since 2012 and delivered lectures and seminars to undergraduate students.