Nandi Chinna, SWAMP: Walking the Wetlands of the Swan Coastal Plain. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2014. ISBN: 978 192208948 9
Recently at a poetry workshop someone asked what most common recurrent feature/theme appeared in our poems. It wasn’t a question I had ever asked myself although I have been writing on and off for fifty years. But then with reflection it came easily: water. A stream, a river, a puddle; nailing one image was the struggle, for each one that slipped into my eye was overtaken by another. Rain in all its formulations as it fell, as it hit and bounced. Slipping over the lid of a water-butt or when it cascaded off a broken gutter. The dew, as melted frost, as jewels clinging to a spiders web. The colours and reflections in water, off water, through a glass to finely sparkling water. The life of a river and the sea that meanders along a frothy beach or sucks gloriously at the sand as it heaves back upon itself. The ripples of near-becalmed, the chops hitting a galloping sail-boat or the spume churning at the bows or a ploughed fantail, a fantasy jet-stream from the Princess of Nowhere. Or the beads of sweat, the tears, the single droplet domed on the table.
Yes, maybe water is my recurrent theme.
So I was delighted to discover this collection. The title alone drew me in. The author’s introduction explains her planning for the journey on foot. In her introduction Chinna explains her personal need to walk for the comfort of the rhythm of walking and its ability to immerse you in the landscape. This collection is full of passion and observation. Not offering any better ways to live on the planet but pointing out in mostly objective fashion what is, the ruination of what was and by the fact of omission what it might have been. Always understanding the reality of the natural world. Composing on the hoof and after reflection, with real focus on relaying the truth of the damage done to the balance of nature by generations of development.
From the UK the Swan River is a different world of colour, shape, flora and fauna, even smells, but our senses follow those ways walked and watched by Chinna. Each poem gives a tremendous sense of place. We can taste the water, acrid or salty, feel beneath our feet the mud or the tremor of lost, piped rivers. Floating into my mind were the lost rivers of London or the wetland fens and fields John Clare walked for thirty-odd years and wrote about with such distinctive passion and clarity. All the while being dazzled by the quality and rhythms of Chinna’s poems. Written as free verse you can feel the regulation, the rhythms of movement in the lines, even the standing and watching observations have their own timings. Sometimes half-rhymes hit the ear which may or may not have been written instinctively. ‘Cut and Paste Lake’ is a cross between travel and science and another variation of poetry on environmental change.
From the first poem, ‘Writing on Water’, the elements of the environs, information and potential danger are ticked in the opening line:
First you must wade through the minutiae
and throughout to the last two lines
Until it dries out you may not be able to understand
what water has to say.
And poems flow on: history, information and illustration. Of time spent following, walking the remaining and once-wetlands of the Swan Coastal Plain. We meet places and people. Poems acknowledge what is lost and, mesmerically at times, the author recreates scenery within, as well as the physical presence around her.
I like to recommend poems; here the choice is almost random as each one has something to say, whether of ‘The Ghost Road of a Cartographer’ or ‘The House of Mercy’ or ‘The Earth Closet’. Especially the scenic: ‘Beautiful Weeds’:
The beautiful weeds are blazing on Clontarf Hill;
yellow, white, cream-veined, purple gold.
Three butterflies are jousting in the bluest air
Everywhere flowers and wildlife are highlighted in the landscape, escaping confinement. For example, finding the clash of today’s traffic surrounding a run-off pond being retaken by nature, or is it clinging on?
There is no compromise with Chinna’s journey. Her footsteps relive the past with the views and memories of others, conjure what was and thrust it into the present with the grit, grime and beauty of Australia. No humour but honesty for that world she was rediscovering. Those places unknown to me this side of the world: the Swan River Canyon (larger than the Grand Canyon!), numerous reserves, walks, swamps, roads and constructions have highlighted how thoughtless humans can be.
I will remember, ‘The Eye’ and ‘The Furthest Shore’ as a culmination of her journey and remarkable use of language.
From ‘The Eye’:
At night the river hones it’s craft,
creaks and groans as it scrapes the hulls of vessels,
tugs at moorings and deposits versions of itself
further and further out to sea
She feels the pores of the overheated ground
opening like manifold breaths inhaling,
as cool air falls into the earth.
And in ‘The Furthest Shore’:
I leave this at your ear for when you wake
will recall the swing and stride of footsteps,
Will follow these, will know the way
rivers and creeks flow towards that great lake
a multitude of birds arriving
SWAMP is memorable as the journey of a poet, an indictment of current environmental damage, what we have lost and how we are all responsible for what remains, no matter where we live.
David Smith worked mostly at Longman and later for other publishing houses. Now lives near Letchworth, U.K. and works as an occasional bookseller plus editing and writing for Poetryparc his eclectic online blog. He writes fiction, reviews and poetry as J Johnson Smith also published in recent Poetry ID anthologies.