from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Inland Sea’ by Brenda Saunders

Saunders, Brenda. Inland Sea. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2021. RRP: $26.63, 86pp, ISBN: 9781761091445.

Monique Grbec

Inland Sea is the fourth poetry collection from Wiradjuri writer and artist Brenda Saunders. Glistening with award winning poems including ‘Windorah’ (2016 Banjo Patterson Award), ‘Scarred Landscape’ (2018 Joanne Burns Award) and ‘Quondongs’ (2018 Oodgeroo Noonuccal Prize) this collection explores the natural and unnatural transformations of desert Country, and the postcolonial culture of Aboriginal Australia.

With quiet determination and the keen eye of a birdwatcher, Saunders’ Inland Sea unfurls as a love story to Gidgi-Djaru Country, a wondrous world that evolves with the languid pace of millennia. Where the Country is shaped by the patterns of existence, the mild and extremes of weather and the ‘silent echoes’ (9) of the Echidna who walks through the landscape. 

Her engrossing imagery and rhythmic pace work together so that Country breathes through its thriving ecosystem. The spinifex ring is worshipped as home and temporary host to creatures seen and unseen: gnats, beetles, moths, spiderlings, termites 

hold on through changing seasons, their span
of life slowed down to desert time. Stillness.

A grassy ring holding their world in place. (11)

The luxurious flow of organic interconnectedness is stymied with the poem ‘Dead Centre: notes from Expedition to Central Australia, Charles Sturt, 184446’. Saunders presents excerpts from Sturt’s diary, where manicured English is a jarring contrast to the natural curiosity and relaxed observations of Country men. Trespassing as ‘civilised man in to an uncivilised region’, Sturt regrets the inevitable ‘misfortune to those living here / the original inhabitants’. While accepting water, he rejects Kullila medicine that would heal his scurvy riddled accomplices. He describes the Country men’s generosity as ‘timidity and prejudices of the natives’ (14).

A timelessness where existence is priceless is colonised and Saunders’ imagery moves from microscopic observations to aerial views of grand-scale excavations where mining machinery moves across the land like ants. Building on the imagery, the pace and lyricism evoke the idiom of a clock ticking. Time is running out in this ‘epic world where everything is possible’.

The Caterpillar Man, Yeperenye, moves across the land,
his spiky backbone folds, softens in Namatjira sunlight.
He goes under the Sheraton, drinks the Todd River Dry. (17)

‘Men with prospects ignore the warning’ (22) and progress destroys living and sacred places. ‘The blight of conquest’ (9) is the displacement of people, culture and loss of language. ‘Mining grinds their stories away’ (23), leaving scarred lands and ghost towns.

In Silverton, Saunders follows a solitary kingfisher navigating a treeless landscape of a silver trade ghost town: 

phone lines

going nowhere
now the people have moved on
rusting roofs
the General store boarded up for decades
a courthouse built to serve diggers’ justice

Wild days on the moving frontier, financed
by men rich with success
Long years of prosperity, promises made
before the mines ran out. (34)

Saunders creates a reprieve from the shame and desolation with captivating visions of thriving bird life: their vibrant colours, dawn chorus and love serenades; how they dash, fly and soar through skies and rain, and past rainbows; how they feed, dazzle and bewitch; how they wade through water and dive deep. In ‘Canopy’ the ecosystem cycle is a carnival of happiness: the 

warbler’s song line
carries the sound of a leaf
falling from sunlight
a fig parrot flashes red
to green, screams delight
in a bush cherry tree

a spray in one claw
he nibbles, tears
calls ‘caw caw’ to the sky

in this throwaway world
fruit drops delight a beetle
working the leaf litter

an ant balances a seed
staggers under a load (38)

While prospectors hold the balance of power over land leases, small parcels of culture from scattered clans are capsuled like vitamins and sold to tourists. Saunders joins the Aunties to collect ingredients for patty cakes that they cook in a bush oven. The taste lingering on her tongue is a glimpse of the millennia, the lightness of being that is interconnectedness. 

‘Singing the land’, the final poem in Saunders’ collection, summarises the different stages of colonisation through music. The Yolŋu buŋgul, the sacred cultural ceremony of a songspiral that reaffirms the interconnectedness of people with land, animals and the elements, is followed by the tour de force that is William Barton: his award-winning blend of traditional music with European music ‘carries sound patterns of the Yolngu / through concert halls across the world’. And finally 

Along the quay painted Kooris
play the didge add clapsticks
chant to sell their CDs
Amplified the music thunders.
 under my feet
wakes the yidaki spirit  first music
 singing the ancient land (81)

Monique Grbec is a writer, critic and text-based multidisciplinary artist. They have written for Westerly, Blak & Bright, IndigenousX, Koorie Heritage Trust, The Saturday Paper, Witness Performance, Yirramboi Festival and Kill Your Darlings. They are currently working on ‘The Wall Remix’, a First Nations reinterpretation of Pink Floyd’s 1979 rock opera ‘The Wall’. Monique Grbec is a child of the Stolen Generations and a producer at Blak & Bright First Nations Literary Festival.

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