Nandi Chinna, The Future Keepers. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2019. ISBN: 9781925591842
Nandi Chinna’s The Future Keepers is a text firmly situated in space, constantly aware of and moving towards the many sites of geography that influence it: forest, wetland, city. Its intensely personal lens on ecology is also deeply attentive, and for me, the poems are particularly enjoyable because of the water-clear vision of Chinna’s writing. In one of the earliest poems in the book, Chinna writes, ‘Down through the peppermint forest / and the body’s long hours, / bees hum between marri and grape / sap is rising in the arteries of the vine’ (11). Already, the body of the human is also conflated with the earthen body and the awareness of ecological time. The lyric quality of the writing helps us, the readers, also to be attentive to the importance of time: the rhythm of the ‘long hours’ and the ‘rising sap’ begin to define Chinna’s lens as one focused on restrained poignancy.
The Future Keepers’ awareness of time is often also a hearkening back to history, a choice to walk through memory and time. In ‘An Older Country’, the poetry situates itself in a place that remembers who walked upon it, and when,
…as we leave Australia and enter an older country,
pause upon an island of bark and leaves
that has been forming for centuries;
The poetry reminds us that Australia as a conceptual space and nation is still relatively quite new. While I read this poem, it feels as though a forest is unfurling itself around these lines, an ancient forest that the poet acknowledges and moves through. The attention to the flora and fauna makes this ancient forest come to life increasingly vividly, as Chinna notes the ‘banksia cones mauled by ngoolyark / ignite along blackened branches’ (17). This reminder of other heritages, through the act of what and how a local bird name is named, is also necessary. Ngoolyark is the Nyoongar name for Carnaby’s black cockatoo, a beautiful greyish-black cockatoo with a short crest. I think of naming and the vast difference in the names of ngoolark and Carnaby’s black cockatoo; the latter name a mark of colonising language, lost territory. From the corner of my eye, the ngoolyark’s plumage shifts in colour as the name shifts.
Chinna draws our attention to this bird again later in the book, in a poem titled ‘Ngoolyark’ and then in subtitles, italicised ‘Carnaby’s black cockatoo’ (25). Once again, the names are juxtaposed, held against each other in sharp relief, for us readers to draw our own inferences. In a startling image reminding us of time’s vagaries, the poem speaks of their existence as ‘a tiny puff of breath exhaled against a flapping / of shiny feathers burnt black by the thousands / of years of their becoming’ (25). The metaphor is simultaneously tender and violent, contrasting the bird’s ‘tiny puff of breath’ with the ‘shiny feathers burnt black’, also reminding us of the ongoing violence against these birds, and endangered species en masse. The poem underlines the violence, also, of human gaze, as the birds are ‘wired to a length of tuart wood in a glass / display case… their plumes fading under scrutiny’ (25). Mired away from their freedom, enclosed in spaces for human study, review, and painful inspection, the birds are stuffed, dead, watched for their potential extinction. In this interesting scrutinising of human scrutiny, the poem also calls for the evasion of the human gaze for wildlife: the right for them to live without being constantly studied, watched, observed. Although Chinna acknowledges that the study and subsequent celebration of the birds (‘fine new artwork / sculptural representation of their habitat’) is what prevents their extinction, the poem also laments this scrutiny, asking ‘what data will record the unravelling … when we see the ngoolyark / in a now-rare formation’? Scrutiny alone cannot do the work of letting the birds live in undisturbed peace in their natural ecosystems.
Chinna’s The Future Keepers is an urgent call to attention for the area and the ecosystems around around Perth / the traditional territory of the Whadjuk people, one of the Noongar peoples. Frequently, the book makes reference to Indigenous sites: for instance, the book reflects extensively on Kings Park, which is referred to by the Noongar as the Karra katta (‘Kaartdijin Noongar’). These names dwell in the fissures between losing ecology and losing territorial land; with the loss of the land, there is also the loss of names, habitats, traditions, lore, balances of ecosystems. While reading about Noongar culture and lore, I read that in order to maintain biodiversity the Noongar work alongside the natural world to protect the continuity of food supplies and the environment (‘Noongar Lore’). Although The Future Keepers does not go into much depth about Noongar histories and the different ways of approaching human/ecological relationships, this fact is nonetheless deeply significant, brought to the fore by Chinna’s subtle highlighting of Noongar names. Indeed, as Chinna reflects on the loss of biodiversity, the increase of data-keeping, scrutiny, and tracking, there are also crucial questions raised about how ecological nonhuman relationships can be formed and maintained in a way as to minimise loss and damage to biodiversity. Thus, it becomes crucial to look to those who have historically used and maintained conservation methods as a way forward.
‘Noongar Lore’, Kaartdijin Noongar, https://www.noongarculture.org.au/noongar-lore/
Pratyusha is an Indo-Swiss writer based in London. Her latest pamphlet, Bulbul Calling, was published with Bitter Melon Press in 2020. She co-edits amberflora and writes poetry, prose, and reviews.