Ben Hession reviews Inland Sea by Brenda Saunders

Inland Sea

by Brenda Saunders

Gininderra Press

ISBN 9781761091445

Reviewed by BEN HESSION


Inland Sea is the third full collection by Brenda Saunders, a Wiradjuri writer, following a somewhat lengthy hiatus. Saunders’ last collection, The Sound of Red, was published back in 2014. Her debut volume, Looking for Bullin Bullin, had won the 2014 Scanlon Prize for Indigenous poetry. Like that collection, Inland Sea, provides a particular focus on Aboriginality, although doing so via the intimate connection with Country through which the impact of colonization is also examined. The title, itself, is an ironic play on that body of water which had eluded the expectations of the English explorer, Charles Sturt. We see in Inland Sea Saunders conducting her own explorations from an Aboriginal perspective and throughout the collection, her poems are infused with energy and precision, marking a welcome return.

Importantly, Saunders is not solely a writer, but is also a visual artist, with ekphrastic poetry being a significant feature of her work generally. The Sound of Red, for instance, had seen Saunders respond to paintings by Rothko, de Chirico and Goya among others. Ironically, with ‘Reinventing the landscape’ Country is viewed through the literal and figurative framing of a non Aboriginal painter, Fred Williams. Yet, as the concluding stanzas show, there is a kind of retrieval of an Aboriginal perspective through an intensely personal response to Williams’ portraits:

I move through rooms of golden summers, smell the sun
in scumbled oils. A patch of yellow becomes a sway
of native grasses. Across a field his stunted bushes
hold the horizon against the white heat of the sky.

If I could reach out. I would follow the fence line
finger my way through a patch of scrub. Rows of acacias
in scabby dots, the stumps of trees felled after a fire.
Feel charcoal under my nails, bush crackling as I pass.
(76-7 The Sound of Red)

Arguably, for Saunders, this is a continuation of her interpretation of five portraits of Aboriginal people by Russell Drysdale, another non-Indigenous painter, in Looking for Bullin Bullin, where also, there have been acts of retrieval, with the most overt being in ‘Mother and Child’

Subtle fingers control her son ready
to leave this three-minute sketch.
Her eyes look out to a distant time
when the tribe roamed freely
out of the white man’s gaze.
(69 Looking for Bullin Bullin)

And in ‘Sketch of a girl’, as well:

She looks up, her stance demure
Uncertain under the artist’s scrutiny.
His pen scratches bold lines,
captures her image as ‘exotic other’
framed to a white man’s needs.
(70 Looking for Bullin Bullin)

With Inland Sea, the poem ‘Figures in a Landscape’ has Saunders continue this practice of retrieval, as well as re-inscribing the Indigenous history of place as she responds to Charles
Conden’s painting, Sydney Harbour:

I am not in this picture. Invisible, I fall
easily into shadow, watch the ladies walk
float as white sails on water. Ignore
the man waving from the house.

They wander, as dark clouds mass above
peer into rock pools, where we once
collected guatuma, a fishing site
of the Gadigal we still call Banarung. (67)

In ‘At the Falls’ I and II, she goes further, detailing the impact of settler presence on Country:

This is no place of wonderment or renewal.
There is no magic, no sprites to leap from
the bower. Darker forces half-revealed
hide behind the weight of water. Whispers
of ancient rites surface on shallow ponds.
Below the falls, stories of desecration
and death flow on through tribal memory. (71)

For the most part, however, in this present collection, Saunders has eschewed the white Australian filter in re-tracing identity. What comes first in the collection – and what puts these latter ekphrastic pieces into context – are the direct responses to Country that Saunders paints with vivid detail. As we see in ‘Spinifex rings’:

These creatures hide in rasping folds
of hummock grass, hunt with night vision
for invisible gnats breeding in shadow

caught off guard by a cloudy moon.

Corellas fly low over lignum bush, swing
and dip on a spinifex stalk. Sharp eyes
spy a beetle or moth in their path (10)

Here, a crisp lyricism of action highlights the vitality of Country, raising it from abstraction and affirming its essence. With the poem, ‘inland sea’ Saunders, again, focuses on a ‘micro cosmos/ teeming with life’:

Red-finned gobies
flash a miniature flame
through tiny succulents
carnivores varied as coral
wave vivid flowers
trick insects
to their water garden (12)

With short lines and sans punctuation, Saunders allows a greater sense of flux among the depicted activities. From this perspective, the inland sea reveals itself as something brimming with promise, rather than an appellation for disappointment. What this poem demonstrates also, as does ‘Spinifex rings’ and others in this collection, is a kind of Imagist restraint, with ‘presentation rather than representation’ (Jones 31) being at the fore. It is perhaps no surprise that we find in the second part of ‘bird brain’:


he kisses
at his lover
in the cold glint
of mercury (48)

The direct treatment of phenomena allows the life within Country to appear as an innate language and voice within itself. Yet, Country is not solely a physical presence, as Saunders observes from the start in ‘Echidna Chasm’, it is necessarily born from the Dreaming:

She leads us through a narrow cleft
sheer walls scraped clean
with her spiny back a gorge red hot
bounces from white light to shadow
the sky a blue slit above

Rounded sockets mark her journey
the ball of a heel a trail left behind
as she rushes through mud shaping
Bungle Bungle Country (9)

The acknowledgement of the Dreaming offers a holistic understanding of place, where the land, and the world it supports, are viewed as a single entity. This is contrasted in the collection with the European empiricism and its consequent logic. In the poem ‘Dead Centre’ Saunders quotes Sturt’s observation that the ‘scrub without a break in its monotonous surface’ should be necessarily indicative of an interior coastal shore. Thereafter, she juxtaposes Aboriginal perspectives of Sturt’s expedition with those of his own. Finally, we see Sturt defeated, his thoughts pooling in an intermittent stream of consciousness:


a promised sea
shimmers the horizon

a wooden boat
rides waves
of disbelief

tests mortality
dead centre

drives every footstep
of the valiant (15)

Elsewhere, the settler colonial perspective that quantifies Country is also shown to commodify it. One of the central themes in Inland Sea is the conflict between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal conceptualisations of land – somewhere to find harmony within it versus exploiting its resources, especially for individual or corporate profit. In the poem,‘Inland Sea’, for example, farming competes with wildlife for water (13). In ‘Scarred Landscape’ ‘ Moving like ants, giant loaders dredge the inside out of the iron ore plain’ (16). Against this, we may compare ‘Black boys’, ‘Wild Honey Tour’ and ‘Mulga stories’. Here, in this latter poem, we can see:

He speaks fondly of this ancient tree
of many cycles yielding flowers
and seeds, a steady food always
ripe for picking. Shows us bark
easily shed for a woman’s carry-all
wood that burns brightest, cools
to a white ash, good for Ceremony (59)

The poem, ‘Red Centre’, notes with a laconic sense of humour the treatment of cultural connection as a spectacle:

Mpartntwe springs lie reflex blue in a rim of rock
From the camp nearby women shuffle red earth
Dance a mulga ant story. Amaze the drop-in tourists. (17)

The sad impact of this, however, runs deep, as does the consequent irony:

Some take souvenirs, send them back, complaining
of bad luck. The Mala woman’s grief weighs down stones
in their pockets. She sighs, finds her tchurunga stolen,

stored in a city museum, for safety and prosterity. (17)

The tension is more pronounced where, in ‘Cullen Bullen’, the violence inflicted on Country, is mirrored by that suffered by local Indigenous people:

This working mine has cut a swath for miles
worked underground ‘til the last seam is spent
Up close, I find a hill sliced in two, the cliff-face
                                  left gaping red

Remember fragments passed down. Generations
              of hillside burials, ground slaked
with the blood of Ancestors after ‘the Round Up’ (73)

The poem reflects on the attempted erasure of history and connection:

The web reports on wealthy Developers
              building roads over hunting tracks
Woodland cleared to mine the black rock
              in the name of progress

Has nothing to say on our history. First People
living, thriving here, who left without a trace
Driven off Country. Lost in plain sight. (74)

In Poor fella Country connection and erasure are particularly current concerns:

Scattered clans can no longer care for Country
Without Language, the Elders have no power
Over young ones living the white man’s dream

I see sorrow in our people sitting on Country
Wasted in spirit, they suffer, hold a sickness
inside, as mining grinds their stories away. (23)

In an article for the Writing NSW website, Saunders, herself, says she seems to have been writing for her community all her adult life. (Writing NSW) This may not have always been obvious in her previous collection, but it is certainly clear in Inland Sea, where it finds expression replete with skill and confidence. In the same article, she adds: ‘Our cultural history has survived dispossession: ties to Country continue to sustain Aboriginal people today and, as a poet, I feel impelled to write to this power.’ (Writing NSW)

The final poem of this collection, ‘Singing the land’, echoes this statement, where there connection remains, there is a vibrant continuity and an intrinsic sense of hope:

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
      sings this ancient land. (81)

As we see here, the politics of identity is not without passion. This is true throughout Inland Sea. More than retrieval, perhaps, the collection is about reclaiming and a re-affirmation of Indigeneity. In this it may be viewed as a return to first principles, and articulating the voice of Country, which, despite the referendum result, as Saunders shows, will not be silenced.

Imagist Poetry, ed. Peter Jones, Penguin Classics, London, England, 2001
Saunders, Brenda. Looking for Bullin Bullin, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne Victoria Australia 2012.
Saunders, Brenda. The Sound of Red, Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, 2013.
Saunders, Brenda. ‘Feature Articles/ Brenda Saunders on writing about, for and within communities’, Writing NSW, March 29, 2022,

BEN HESSION is a writer and critic based in Wollongong, south of Sydney, Australia. His poetry has been published in Eureka Street, the International Chinese Language Forum, Cordite Poetry Review, Mascara Literary Review, Bluepepper, Marrickville Pause, The Blue Nib, Live Encounters: Poetry and Writing and the Don Bank Live Poets anthology Can I Tell You A Secret? Ben Hession is also a music journalist and is involved with community broadcasting.