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Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry Past Winners

Year Winner Judges' comments

Ruby Moonlight by Ali Cobby-Eckermann

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. 


New and Selected Poems by Gig Ryan

This is a formidable collection of poems comprising a selection from six books published between 1980 and 2001, as well as many uncompromising, intelligent and sophisticated new poems. Ryan's poetry is dense, enraged, satirical and smart. She uses language to engage with the complex contradictions in relations between men and women and to respond to the anomie of the world-at-large. Her formally disruptive compositional style is distinctly unpredictable. 

Gig Ryan's new poems highlight her confident and often startling use of rhetoric, metaphor and simile. There’s no showing off and yet her work dazzles with its shocking, unexpected and daring profiles of people, their habits and habitats. Ryan meshes the ancient classics with contemporary portrayal and in doing so, creates her own tradition. Her poems captivate the reader with their compassion whilst being acerbic, idiomatic, confronting and disorientating. Every line is worked, layered, argued for and nothing written is incidental. Sentimentality is absent from her writing and yet she manages to focus our attention on human relationships, on the loneliness that underlies existence, and the worldly-wise experience of living in cities that operate on money, machines and material things.

Ryan has made a profound impact on the work of her readers. Echoes of her uncompromisingly inquisitive irony, her provocative depictions of gender and class, and her unabashedly cutting edge, modernist aesthetics, can be heard across the work of many an Australian feminist, political or experimental poet. New and Selected Poems is a testimony to Ryan's remarkable achievements as a major Australian artist.