Ali Cobby Eckerman reads “Black Deaths in Custody”

August 20, 2018

Curtis Fox: You’re listening to an archival episode of the Poetry Magazine Podcast from May 2016. This episode was hosted by associate editor Lindsay Garbutt and Poetry Magazine’s editor Don Share, with additional commentary by consulting editor Christina Pugh.
Don Share: Ali Cobby Eckermann is a poet and memoirist who grew up in a white Australian family. She reconnected with her Indigenous birth mother when she was thirty-four.
Lindsay Garbutt: She recounts her story in her memoir, Too Afraid To Cry. Her latest collection of poetry is called Inside My Mother. We have two of her poems in the May issue and one of them is called “Black Deaths in Custody.”
Ali Cobby Eckermann: The Black deaths in-custody issue in Australia is long going. Many Aboriginal people have died in custody and as yet no police officer has ever been charged for these killings.
Don Share: Eckermann told us that these deaths in custody are often from neglect. A recent case involved a young Aboriginal woman in her twenties...
Ali Cobby Eckermann: ...who went to jail for unpaid fines. She was ill. And for four days she was pleading for help. She was taken to the local hospital, and the medical staff let her down too, because they said she was well enough to return to the cell, and she died of blood poisoning, I think. So she was in agony for four days and was just left to die in the cell.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here is the poem.
Ali Cobby Eckermann: Black Deaths In Custody

despite the cost a new gaol has been built
it seems the incarceration rates are trebling
I only came here in the role
of a Deaths In Custody inspector
all the cells are stark and spotless
blank screens watch from the corner
the offices have the highest technology
the faces of the staff still look the same

when I walk down this wing and peer
into this filthy room the door closes behind me
the feeling in my heart is changing
from a proud strength of duty to fear
all the stories I have ever heard
stand silent in the space beside me — 
a coil of rope is being pushed
under the door of this cell

Lindsay Garbutt: Wow.
Don Share: You know, she says “I only came here in the role / of a Deaths In Custody inspector” and for me, what’s interesting about that is that there is such a role to come in, and it could be a kind of officious routine kind of work to be doing, this kind of inspection. And what the poem really underscores is how there is no, like, routine in this job that you can make any sense of. That those stories go silent, that if there is a role for somebody inspecting these things, then that work is terrifying and unfinished and awful.
Christina Pugh: Yeah. Here again, we have fear coming in, near the end of the poem.
Ali Cobby Eckermann: The feeling in my heart is changing / from a proud strength of duty to fear.
Christina Pugh: Again, I am feeling this incredible shift in perspective. We still have the eye but it’s almost as if the eye is able to feel the empathy of being in this cell.
Ali Cobby Eckermann: All the stories I have ever heard / stand silent in the space beside me.
Christina Pugh: What I liked about it, or found compelling about it, was the sense that you could be— anyone of us, potentially, could be—that person, you know, on the other side of the cell door. That your role of, as she says, “Deaths In Custody inspector,” which seems so terrible, so preposterous in some ways, that it is a role, only. Do the wrong thing, commit the wrong crime: you too could be in the cell in that moment in which she feels that.
Don Share: What’s chilling is that the inspection process omits the victim. In other words, this poem in other hands might well have conveyed a narrative or two, some stories, of who it was, whose deaths are being inspected. And the poem doesn’t do that. That victim is erased with great finality here, which is sort of the point of it, so that you don’t even... in the poem, get the story. That person is gone and the inspector can inspect things and there can be the wing of the prison and a filthy room and all this stuff the poem talks about. But what it can’t talk about is the person who is lost in this process.
Lindsay Garbutt: Right, she writes it’s “stark and spotless” in that first stanza. There is no trace of anyone left when she is doing the inspecting and I think the other thing that makes it so frightening to me is the change from the first to second stanza in tense. It says: “a new gaol has been built” and “I only came here,” but then in the second stanza it is…

Ali Cobby Eckermann: the feeling in my heart is changing

Lindsay Garbutt: ... “is changing” and…

Ali Cobby Eckermann: a coil of rope is being pushed

Lindsay Garbutt: … “is being pushed”...

Ali Cobby Eckermann: under the door of this cell

Lindsay Garbutt: ... and so you’re left, kind of, in the middle of this action occurring.

Don Share: Well, and there is not even human agency.
Christina Pugh: Right, exactly.
Don Share: There isn’t even a person, an individual person whose name you can call out doing the pushing.
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm.
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Don Share: It’s just this inexorable, well—it’s made to sound like an inexorable process but of course it isn’t. It is an indictment of that, kind of, presumption of blind justice. Here, justice is too blind.

Curtis Fox: That was an archival Poetry Magazine Podcast from October 2016. You can read “Black Deaths in Custody” by Ali Cobby Eckermann online at We’ll be back next week with another summer archival episode, with new episodes coming in September.

An archival episode in which the editors discuss Ali Cobby Eckerman’s poem “Black Deaths in Custody” from the May 2016 issue of Poetry.

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