‘Poems made him conscious of his breathing. A poem bared the moment to things he was not normally prepared to notice.’
– Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis

Kirli Saunders’ debut collection Kindred offers a sequence of poems that shift seamlessly between the concrete and country, the tangible and the spiritual—and, like the best poems, they bare us to moments we’re often too busy, too distracted to notice.

The Wollongong-based poet anchors us with bright details: Mentos wrappers under couch cushions, a yellow bike kneading Glebe pathways, a walk home that smells of childhood piano lessons dipped in jasmine.

But Ms Saunders is not afraid to step beyond the known, to grasp for and allude to a deep and old knowledge that’s just beyond reach.

In ‘Disconnection’, a poem addressed to an unnamed little one, the proud Gunai woman muses on what it’s like to grow up when your roots have been wrenched from the earth. Ms Saunders writes,

I watch your
trembling limbs
ache to shake
in dance
and hear your lungs
as they gasp with songs unknown.

The poem falls into the first part of the book titled ‘Mother,’ which Ms Saunders said is about connection with culture.

“This first section of the book is about my mother being removed from country, and me trying to learn language, to learn about culture, and to learn how I fit in that landscape,” Ms Saunders said.

Not all the landscapes in Kindred are benevolent. The poem ‘Dharawal Country’ sends shivers through the skin, and Ms Saunders writes with power about the way country remembers.

She observes ants ‘like homicide crime scene cleaners’, bloody sap leaking secrets and ‘pine in place of eucalypt’.

“It’s important for poetry to tell the truth. I was struck by this beautiful landscape. But a massacre had occurred so close to where I was writing. So, I used the innate beauty of poetry to tell the truth about what was there.”

Ms Saunders is the founder of the Poetry in First Languages project and she’s passionate about weaving language into her work.

“First Nations languages are very lyrical, melodic. They change as the landscape changes. There’s a synergy between language learning and poetry. Hopefully we can see more writers starting to write in language.”

No woman is an island entire of itself, and the journey to the publication of Kindred hasn’t occurred in isolation. Ms Saunders credits her family and the beautiful people around her for helping grow the wisdom which is finally distilled in this book.

Alison Whittaker, a Gomeroi woman and poet, advises prospective readers to not ‘mistake [Kindred’s] tenderness for gentleness. Kirli is fierce in her protection of kin and love.’

For Ms Saunders, the creative process involves being fully present and aware of one’s surroundings.

“When I’m not listening, I miss things … To write poetry, you have to show up in order for it to pass through you. I have to show up with a pen and paper.”

Ms Saunders said she hopes her readers connect with the poems in Kindred.

“I want people to find themselves in these pages. To see parts of themselves and hopefully move in new directions.”

Kindred was released by Magabala Books, Australia’s oldest Indigenous publishing house, in May this year. It’s her second major publication—the first, was a children’s picture book titled The Incredible Freedom Machines, illustrated by Matt Ottley.

More information can be found at: https://www.magabala.com/kindred.html

By Madelaine Dickie