Bruce Dawe 1999
“Drifters” is from the book No Fixed Address, Bruce Dawe’s first book of poetry. Over the years, Dawe has become one of Australia’s most popular poets. He is credited with bringing about a cultural shift in Australian poetry. Australians had previously considered their language to be a slight alteration of the English spoken in Britain, much as Americans did in the mid-1800s, but Dawe, like Mark Twain, showed with his writing that a particularly Australian idiom had developed, separate from Britain, spoken in a way that only people in his country spoke. Dawe combined his mastery of Australian English with his deep understanding of people on the outskirts of society and a sense of rhythm that owed more to common discourse than traditional poetic forms, and the result was a surprisingly direct style that captured the public imagination.
Donald Bruce Dawe was born in 1930 in Geelong, Victoria, which is just outside of one of Australia’s largest cities, Melbourne. He did not care much for school and was poor at his studies, leaving school at the age of sixteen and working as a gardener and a postman. In his twenties, he finished school through a series of equivalency courses, and in 1954 he entered the University of Melbourne. Although his career at the University was brief—just less than a year—Dawe made a lasting impression on Australian poetry through his association with other writers who went on to be counted as the greatest names in Australian literature, including Vincent Buckley, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, R.A. Simpson and Andrew Taylor. This was an educated group, well-versed in their command of English, and Dawe stood out in his use of the vernacular and his command of dialect as it was used in his particular area of the country at that particular time in history.
Dawe left the University of Melbourne, worked for a few years in a factory, and then joined the Royal Australian Air Force, where he served from 1959-1968, rising to the rank of Captain. During that time he began his literary career, publishing poetry collections (including No Fixed Address, which this poem is from), continued his college studies, and married Gloria Desley. He received a Bachelor of Arts from University of Queensland in 1969; a Master’s in 1975; and a Ph.D. in 1980. He taught until the early 1990’s at University of Southern Queensland, and upon retiring from there was awarded an honorary professorship. Dawe continues to write, is published frequently, and is recognized as one of the leading literary voices in Australia. He has received numerous awards for his writing, including the Myer Award for Poetry in 1965; the Patrick White Literary Award in 1980; and the Order of Australia, for his contribution to Australian literature, in 1982.
One day soon he’ll tell her it’s time to start
And the kids will yell “Truly?” and get wildly
excited for no reason,
And the brown kelpie pup will start dashing about,
tripping everyone up,
And she’ll go out to the vegetable-patch and pick
all the green tomatoes from the vines,
And notice how the oldest girl is close to tears 5
because she was happy here,
And how the youngest girl is beaming because she
And the first thing she’ll put on the trailer will be
the bottling set she never unpacked from
And when the loaded ute bumps down the drive
past the blackberry-canes with their last
She won’t even ask why they’re leaving this time,
or where they’re heading for
—she’ll only remember how, when they came 10
she held out her hands bright with berries,
the first of the season, and said:
’Make a wish, Tom, make a wish.’
This poem begins in the middle of some lives that are already in progress, without indicating who these people are or what has happened to them in the past. The references to “he” and “her” in the first line are left unexplained, so that readers only come to know these characters through what happens in the poem. Similarly, there is no further information given about why “it’s time to start packing,” about where they are or why they have to leave. To some degree, they are leaving because, as the brief title of the poem states, they are “drifters,” and as such it is in their nature to not stay in one place. As the details of the poem are going to explain, though, the entire family does not agree with the idea of leaving just for the sake of leaving. The mother, for example—the “her” of the first line—has hopes of establishing some permanence here. She is willing to leave in order to be supportive of the father, which is an aspect of their relationship that is clear in the poem’s first line, when a major decision for the family is made by him alone, without discussion, and told to her.
All of the activity in these lines serves to show how unexpected the decision to move is. The narrative voice makes a judgment on this activity by commenting that the children’s excitement is “for no reason,” but the poem has not yet established its point of view. It would seem to be the man’s perspective given by the narrator. To the children, there is quite a good reason to be excited, and to people who lead stable lives it makes sense that moving would cause some turbulence, but the man is the one who is calm about the decision he announces, and so the excitement would seem to him to be “for no good reason.” It is not until later that the poem attaches itself to the woman’s point of view, and that gives this phrase new meaning: instead of meaning that the children shouldn’t be excited, it means that she wished they wouldn’t.
The scene around the house is chaotic, a sense that Dawe adds to by having the dog run around barking. A “kelpie” is an Australian sheepdog, descended from the breed of collies, but in Scottish the word also refers to an evil water spirit that takes the form of a horse and drowns travelers. This cross-meaning gives the poem a sense of danger, implying that the family is not only traveling with a puppy for the children but also an omen of bad luck. The unexpectedness of the move is conveyed by the fact that the tomatoes are still green on the vine; the mother’s reluctance about leaving is clear in the fact that she picks the tomatoes even though they aren’t ripe, having become too attached to them to drive away and leave them.
These lines are the first three of eight in a row that begin with “and.” This is a technique that helps the poem’s style imitate the chaos in the family’s life. By starting with “and” over and over, the thoughts presented in each line seem to be added with no large scheme in mind, as if the speaker of the poem is just realizing important details while going along, feeling finished at the end of each line but then finding that something else needs to be mentioned.
The attitudes of the two daughters represent the attitudes of the parents: the older one has been happy living there and is upset to be leaving, while the other is glad to go. Although these are the only two mentioned, the implication is that there are more children, enough to create a hectic situation while running around. Lines 5 and 6 are not only about how the daughters react, but about the mother noticing their varied reactions, even though the poem does not tell readers what this information means to her.
Australians use the word “bottling” the same way that Americans use “canning.” The woman in this poem has a kit to make preserves out of the vegetables that she has grown in her garden, but is forced to leave before they become mature enough to be useful. In Australian slang, a “bottler” is also something that is excellent. The extent to which she thinks her vegetables will be excellent is a reflection of the hope that her garden raises in her. This family is poor enough to count on the crop of their small vegetable garden, and they probably would be much more comfortable with those canned vegetables than without them, but, to her disappointment, they have not been in that place long enough for one crop cycle.
“Ute” is Australian slang for a utility vehicle. The shriveled fruit on the blackberry vines that is
- Dawe can be heard discussing his work on a cassette recording made in 1989 for ABC Radio, in Sydney, Australia. The title of the tape is Bruce Dawe in Conversation.
- Another audiocassette, titled Bruce Dawe Reads His Poems, was released in 1983 by Longman Cheshire of Melbourne, Australia.
- Dawe is featured on a 1973 recording from University of Queensland Press at St. Lucia, titled Australian Writers on Tape.
- Some Poems of Bruce Dawe is a 1973 audio-cassette released by A.B.C. of Sydney as part of their “Poet’s Tongue” radio series.
- The most comprehensive website about Australian literature is OzLit, which can be found at www.vicnet.net.au/. This site has reviews, biographies of authors, and updates on recent articles in Australian literary publications.
mentioned in line 8 is a foreshadowing of the memory to come at the end of the poem, which takes the woman back to the time when the fruit was new. There is a sense of weariness and despair in the way that the woman decides, in line 9, to not ask why they are leaving or where they are going; these would be natural questions, but she apparently knows from experience that asking will not change the man’s mind or make any difference whatsoever. The hope that she may have once had, symbolized by the garden and the bottling set, is so far gone that she lacks any strength of will to make her own wishes known.
This flashback presents the hope that the woman once had, which has been hinted at throughout the poem. The woman’s hands are mentioned, showing readers her physical connection to the place in a more tangible and personal way than if the poem only mentioned that she “held” the berries. In addition, her hands are “bright,” while brightness usually indicates hope and optimism, a goal that one can see beyond the dismal present. In line 12 the berries that are dying at the time of the poem are fresh and new, “the first of the season— all looks encouraging for her plans to reap the bounty of the land and to capture the sweetness that is just beginning in jars or cans, so that they can not only see it, or experience it, but keep it too.
This is only the second time that anyone in this poem speaks—the first is in line 2, when they children ask “Truly?” with just as much optimism about leaving as the mother had about arriving. It is only in this line, when the woman is most enthusiastic about life, that anyone in the poem is given an identity. When she looked forward to what life would bring them at the new location, he was “Tom,” but when they are leaving after a few months without having improved their lives at all she knows better than to think that their lives will be any better in the new place. Her mind is so deadened that in the present she does not even think of him by name anymore, as if “Tom” were someone from a different time, with whom she wanted to share life, and not the man that she blindly, reluctantly follows.
“Drifters” is about a family that regularly packs all of their worldly belongings into their car, driving off to a new home. In the scene presented here, the mother, anticipating the pattern, imagines that they will not stay at their latest location for the tomato harvest to ripen in the garden. She knows that the odds are great that the father can come home and announce at any time that “it’s time to start packing.” There is no evidence to show why they have to leave, whether it is because of his job, or legal complications, or just because he is the type of person who likes to change addresses often. There is also no evidence that anyone in the family expects any more stability to life than theirs offers. The oldest girl is displeases because she has been happy where they are, and the mother appears to be vaguely dissatisfied about leaving her garden crop unfinished, but the basic idea of having a permanent address does not seem to enter into their thoughts. These are people who do not know what permanence is and cannot imagine what it would be like, who only have a general feeling that it would be better to linger at any place a little longer than they do.
Cycle of Life
’For the woman in this poem, time is measured by the blackberries that grow at the end of the road. She remembers that the first berries of the season had just ripened when the family arrived, filling her with hope, prompting her to tell the man to “Make a wish” in anticipation of a better life to come. She expects him to want to leave before the end of blackberry season, her withered hopes symbolized by the unripe fruit that is left to ripen on the vine and rot. There is another method used to measure both the length of time that the family has been in one place and the hope that they had and then lost; the vegetable patch, where, unlike the blackberries, fruit was cultivated by the family when they arrived. The tomatoes there are green, not having been given a full cycle to mature, but the woman is willing to pick them prematurely, to cut them down like her hopes, before they reach their fullest potential. Without the plant-growing cycle to measure how long they have been in one place, the woman’s disappointment about having to leave so soon would be nothing but a vague sense of discontent; when held up against the cycle of life, her feelings become much more real for readers.
This poem raises the question of why, if she is so dissatisfied with the life that the man forces her family to leave, this woman does not just leave and pursue a life that would make her happy. One answer might be that she is bound by social convention, that whether they are married or not society would still judge her harshly if she left. This social pressure would not, however, be as strongly felt in a family of drifters as it would be felt in a stable situation. An even stronger motive for her loyalty is presented at the very end of the poem, where the woman is shown sharing her hope for the future with the man. When she says, “Make a wish, Tom,” it is clear that the future looks bright to her, and that she wants him to experience that same feeling. The poem does not record his response, whether he felt the same way she felt upon arriving, but the important thing is that she thought, if only for a short time, that she could stir in him the believe that life was going to be better. When she anticipates his plans, the poem explains, “she won’t even ask why they’re leaving this time or where they’re headed for.” In spite of her disappointment, she is
Topics for Further Study
- Study an occupation that would have migratory workers and report on the lives they lead.
- Find out what services are available in your community to help people who have just arrived there. Interview someone from one of these organizations to find out what they have to offer transients.
committed to staying with him and possibly making him happy.
The thing that the woman in this poem fears— that her life will be uprooted once again, that the stability she had hoped for will dissolve without warning one day—does not happen here. This detailed account of how the family’s next move will come about is not her reality, it is only what she fears is going to happen. “One day …” the poem starts—she has no way of knowing for certain that this will actually happen, but her sense of inevitability reflects how much she fears that it will come about. She thinks of these future events as being a foregone conclusion so that she can come to grips with what she fears and start learning to accept it even before it comes to pass.
“Drifters” is written in blank verse, which means that the ends of the lines are not rhyming words. Often, blank verse will be written with a regular rhythm, such as alternating stressed and unstressed syllables, with the same number of syllables on each line. In this case, though, there is no distinct style given to the meter (which is the term poets use for the rhythmic pattern) or to the lengths of the lines. Dawe has not organized this poem around any poetic style, but has given it the natural structure that occurs in speech.
Instead of holding this poem together by using repeated sounds at the ends of the lines, as a traditional rhyming pattern would do, Dawe uses repetition at the beginnings of the lines. Of the thirteen lines, seven begin with the word “and,” and another three begin with “she.” The effect of this is to give emphasis to those particular words—repeating “and” makes the poem seem spontaneous, as if the speaker is tacking on new thoughts while going along, while saying “she” often makes readers more aware of the woman’s consciousness. It also serves to hold the poem together, to give the whole piece a sense of unity and order. A clear-cut rhyme scheme makes readers aware of the controlling hand of the author, while this sort of repetition achieves the same purpose to some degree, while appearing to occur within the natural boundaries of speech.
The history of Australia is often associated with the history of the United States, because both were British colonies that developed their national characters by ignoring the rights of their indigenous people and prevailing over rugged geographical conditions. The comparisons between the two countries are valid, but they are also limited. Australia became known to Europeans on 1770, just as tensions in America were leading toward the War of Independence. It was in that year that English captain James Cook found a port near what is now Sidney that was useful for docking his ship, claiming the southern coast of Australia for England. Following the American Revolution, England needed a place to send convicted felons, and so in the 1780s prison camps were established in Australia. Governors were sent from England to manage the new land, and former convicts who had earned their freedom formed a middle class, while the convicts were used as slave labor to build roads and buildings in the rugged terrain. Unlike America, which has vast tracts of fertile land available for farming, Australia is mostly made up of barren, rocky ground that is unfit for growing. There was no tradition of hopeful expansion, as there was in America; the prison camps along the periphery of the continent were the end, not the start, of growth. Also, this heritage as a prison colony has left a lasting impression on the country’s cultural identity. Before the penal colony there was closed in 1887, the number of people sent there to serve out prison
Compare & Contrast
- 1962: The United States sealed the island nation of Cuba after its spy satellites revealed that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was being supplied with Soviet nucelar weapons. After tense negotiations, the Soviets removed their weapons from Cuba. Historians recognize the Cuban Missile Crisis as being the closest that the world has come to nuclear war.
Today: The Soviet Union, which was the only superpower that could match the United States in the 1960s, collapsed in 1990. Cuba is still a Communist state and still ruled by Fidel Castro.
- 1962: The first K-Mart stores and the first Wal-Mart stores were opened that year. K-Mart grew rapidly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but Wal-Mart caught up in the 1980s and eventually became the highest grossing department store.
Today: Increasing numbers of people are staying away from large stores and shopping online.
- 1962: Philip Morris Company started a new advertising campaign aimed at making people associate its top-selling brand with the rugged, outdoor masculinity of cowboys. The “Marlboro Man” campaign eventually was to make Marlboro cigarettes the top-selling brand in the world.
Today: In an effort to reduce teenagers’ infatuation with cigarettes, the government has restricted the use of advertising images such as the Marlboro Man.
- 1962: The United States was still largely segregated, particularly in the south. James Meredith, an Air Force veteran, was faced by thousands of angry protestors when he tried to attend class at the University of Mississippi. Federal guards stayed at Meredith’s side for ten months, and his life was in danger every moment.
Today: Laws against discrimination due to race, disability, or gender give victims of discrimination a chance to sue for their rights.
sentences topped 160,000, and it was mostly their descendants who make up the modern population. Some parts of the island, such as Dawe’s native Victoria, were settled by Europeans who were not involved in the penal system, and these areas carried a sense of pride over the western colonies, which developed an identity of half-civilized toughness. In Australian literature of the late-1800s and early-1900s, the struggle against nature became a dominant theme, just as it had been for American writers when the country was being settled. Among the stereotypes that became popular in Australian literature were the drovers (whose job it was to drive herds of sheep across great distances) and swagmen, who were transient workers who went from job to job with their belongings in blanket rolls (“swags”) on their backs.
Unlike the United States, Australia did not fight to get out from under the rule of Britain, but instead was generally content with being a British colony. Australian culture reflected English culture, so that the emerging national identity was overshadowed for many years whenever it contrasted with the European way of seeing things. It was not until 1901 that Australia became an independent federation, and even after that the country still maintained close ties with London, technically but not spiritually separated. A wedge was driven between the two during World War I, when Australian interests became more clearly defined as something distinct from European interests. One famous turning point in the growth of Australia’s self-identity was the famous battle of Gallipoli, in Turkey, during which British strategists sent Australian troops into a senseless attack to their certain death; this incident highlighted the courage of Australian soldiers and the foolishness of following British rule. In World War II, England concentrated its defenses against Germany, which was just across the English Channel in France. Australia, on the other hand, was much more concerned with possible attacks from Japan, which was not far away in the Pacific Ocean. This war, in the 1940s, pushed Australia into the global community as a completely separate political entity.
In the United States, the late 1950s and early 1960s are seen as a peaceful time curing which the country enjoyed economic prosperity and stability, in part because it had become the world’s leading economy after the nations of Europe and Asia had suffered the destructive effects of World War II. As the trauma of the war receded into the past and the economy grew, Americans became uneasy with comfort and complacency; the social conformity of the 50s led to social revolutions in the 60s. Australians picked up American social values, mostly through the visual media, such as television and movies. The country did not have a film industry, and these media mostly showed products that were made in the United States. Thus, a poem like “Drifters” shows influences of the Australian swagman tradition, of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, of the independent spirit of American “beat” poetry of the late 50s and of the independent spirit that defines both countries.
Bruce Dawe is associated with a small, intellectual group of poets who worked at or around University of Melbourne in the late 1950s. Writing in 1967, Clement Semmler categorized these writers for their sense of irony, identifying Dawe in particular as a “sardonic urban poet,” depending upon “the native ironic shrug to counter a tendency toward sentimentality” in his work. History has shown that this postmodern irony was not unique to Australian writers, and that Dawe was not very unique in his urban toughness, when looked at from a global perspective. Still, Semmler’s focus on Dawe as a leader in his field has withstood the test of time.
Dawe is one of the most popular poets to come out of the Australian movement of the 1960s. One of the reasons for his popularity was that he made his mark in the public’s conscious early, with his first collection, No Fixed Address, which included the poem “Drifters.” While the other young Melbourne poets of the day were intellectual and showed at least some debt to English and American literary tradition, Dawe wrote in a new style, practically rewriting the rules of poetry by himself. Thomas Shapcott, an Australian writer who assembled the volume Contemporary American & Australian Poetry, credited Dawe with bringing about “a very real re-thinking”: “at once vernacular and expressive of the new, post-war, outer-suburban hinterland,” was the way that Shapcott characterized Dawe’s work. “It was the language of a culture previously untapped in our writing, and Dawe gave expression to it with humor and very considerable skill.” No one had captured the way Australians talk so exactly, nor recognized the beauty of everyday Australian life. Dawe was the first writer to face the new reality of Australia’s poor as they shifted from a country to an urban background.
“Drifters” is one of the most influential poems from Dawe’s early period, standing out not just for its theme but for its humanity. “‘Drifters’ is a poem to compare with Hardy and Larkin,” Vivian Smith wrote in The Oxford History of Australian Literature, putting Dawe in league with two of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, both known for their understanding of ordinary people. She further praises “Drifters” not only for the empathy it shows toward the underclass, who Smith refers to as the “down-and-outers,” but for presenting its empathy with a calm and controlled tone. “The remarkable achievement of this poem is in its dynamic movement,” Smith explains: “it moves forward and upward rather than drifting down, to show how in a life of drifting, the elation of hope and happiness and surprise are sustaining elements. This capturing of a sense of unquenchable hope in an otherwise hopeless situation adds to the poignancy of the poem.”
Since the 1960s, Bruce Dawe’s reputation as a major Australian poet has been solidified. Having made an early reputation for writing in an innovative style, he has remained fairly consistent throughout the decades, growing in compassion, not inventiveness. His early, immense popularity led some critics to initially make light of his artistry, but over the decades those writers have come to respect his work. He is still considered one of his country’s greatest poets, and is considered an innovator who opened Australian poetry up to a new awareness of the lives and verbal style of the ordinary people.
David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and composition at two colleges in Illinois. In the following essay, he examines aspects that make “Drifters” a distinctly Australian poem.
““Drifters” offers a picture of hopelessness and ineffectuality that taps one strain of the Australian personality without capturing the nation’s good humor.”
Because of the similarities of experience, Americans can generally pick up Australian writings without much background, aside from the definitions of a few words that are exclusively theirs. Much Australian poetry, if it is not concerned with specific natural conditions, reflects life and sensibilities that could be our own. This has been especially true since World War II, when the bonds between Australia and the United States became closer as we fought a common enemy.
Bruce Dawe’s poem “Drifters,” which comes from his 1962 collection No Fixed Address, is accessible to American readers. On the other hand, this is a particularly Australian poem, and if we look at where it came from we can see that, though it fits our circumstances, it fits its own land even better.
Geography tells the tale most eloquently. Australia is a huge island that, like America, is thousands of miles away from Europe. Much has been written about the country’s roots as a prison colony, a dumping ground for England’s criminals for nearly a hundred years. Such a history is undeniably important, and will show a residual trace in nearly all things Australian, such as the deep-seated, almost maniacal struggle for freedom hinted at in “Drifters.” Even more important, though, is the topography of the continent.
In America the wilderness is lush and fertile, and going into the wilderness in our literature may be dangerous, but more often than not it means beginning a new and better life. American expansion moved in one direction, from east to west, with some of the most fertile soil in the world found in the Great Plains of the center. Australia’s center, on the other hand, is a desert, barely inhabitable and certainly not a garden of prosperity. The penal colonies were so successful because they offered nowhere to escape. Prisoners left on the western edge of the continent stayed there. Over the generations, the descendants of former convicts and their jailers developed a civilization, but they certainly did not plunge into it with the optimism that drove America’s settlers.
It is not pessimism, exactly, that hangs over the lives of the people in “Drifters,” but they do see life as a cycle of hope followed by hope’s abandonment. America has its share of idealists, always pulling up stakes to look for something better, and its share of desperados who are always on the run, but “Drifters” comes from a more subtle frame of mind than that. The people it shows are not going anywhere; the reader knows that as well as the wife in the poem does. The phrase “make a wish” at the end of the poem means different things to Australians than to Americans. An American speaker could, even in the circumstances given, imbue this phrase with a greater belief that prosperity actually is just over the next ridge, but Australia, settled around the edges of a harsh island, offers the drifters only three possibilities: somewhere like where they are, or the ocean or the desert. Of course this is a generalization that ignores all of the beauty of the land, but it applies to the poem in a general sense.
“Drifters” offers a picture of hopelessness and ineffectuality that taps one strain of the Australian personality without capturing the nation’s good humor. Dawe captures a feeling of what life is like for his characters by using the language that he uses. This poem is specifically, pointedly, as “un-poetic” as the unhappy lives it presents, relying on the strength of its well-placed images to keep readers’ attention. Dawe does not let his technical skill draw attention to itself, but it is all over the piece, such as the alliteration of “how,” “happy,” and “home” and assonance of “tears,” “she,” and “here” in line 5. He makes it read like the kind of poem that might have been written by the kind of people that it talks about.
Dawe was considered a master of rendering common lives in their own terms, of seeing poetry in the ordinary. In the early 1960’s, when his work first started to appear, Dawe was considered a pioneer who ignored Australia’s cultural ties to England and America and developed an Australian voice to present Australian people and their concerns. His direct relation to the people of his land was ground-breaking, but it was also long overdue.
A reader does not need to know anything about the society or circumstances a poem like “Drifters” was written in to understand or appreciate it. The kinship between American and Australian poetry is a close one, maybe even closer than our relationship to other Western civilizations, owing to our nations’ similar histories, but there is also much that makes Australia different. The sort of people in a poem like this are in fact universal types, but there will always be assumptions in the culture they came from that require a slightly deeper examination.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Erica Smith is a writer and editor. In this essay she explores Dawe’s “Drifters” as an illustration of the poet’s social concerns.
Bruce Dawe’s “Drifters” begins with a simple declaration—“One day soon he’ll tell her it’s time to start packing”—given without an explanation. That simple statement brings a surge of theoretical consequences, tumbling out in a rapid-fire series of images that comprise the poem. Over the course of the poem the reader comes to a full realization of the tensions inherent in a family of migrants.
In the beginning of the poem the reader feels the electricity of the anticipated announcement travel through the house: “the kids will yell ‘Truly?’ and get wildly excited for no reason, / and the brown kelpie pup will start dashing about, tripping everyone up.” It is significant that the reactions of the children and the dog are mentioned first, for the reader can most closely identify with them. A reader, like a child or an animal, can sense commotion, and react to it, without yet knowing the full spectrum of what exactly is going on. For now, the poet chooses to withhold the reason for the announcement.
The following lines depict the more contemplative reactions of the wife and two daughters. First the wife goes into the garden and picks the green tomatoes, presumably saving them because she needs to conserve her resources. Then the poet asks, “notice how the oldest girl is close to tears because she was happy here, / and how the youngest girl is beaming because she wasn’t.” This double-snapshot of the two sisters is both a nostalgic look at childhood’s ups and downs, and a serious portrait of two children who are thrown into upheaval. The lines carefully bring out the daughters’ inner thoughts, and a phrase such as “she was happy here” further implies that “here” is but one in a chain of places in which the daughter has lived.
“… We seem either too smug or too shy to have a good hard look at the world we live in … the suffering, poignant and necessary world.”
That recognition, when made by the reader, can be deeply saddening.
Along those lines, it is interesting to note that the poet positions the “announcement” as a foregone conclusion, setting it sometime in the future. Thus, as with the girls’ reactions, the reader senses that the family has been through this upheaval numerous times already. The poet can imagine, down to the last emotional nuance, what will happen when the inevitable comes to pass.
The action of the poem then turns back to the wife: “And the first thing she’ll put on the trailer will be the bottling-set she never unpacked from Grovedale.” This detail indicates another crucial element of the family’s life. Not only does the family move on a regular basis, but they move so frequently that they do not have time to unpack their belongings. The last thing to be removed from the trailer is the first to be put back on.
Suddenly the action of the poem jumps ahead. The family is already packed and leaving, the trailer bumping down the drive, “past the blackberry canes with their last shriveled fruit.” The image of the shriveled fruit mirrors the family’s circumstances: the family’s time of thriving in this home, and town, has passed.
As the family is leaving, the focus of the poem turns again to the wife’s thoughts: “she won’t even ask why they’re leaving this time, or where they’re heading for.” This is a harrowing reality. Still, the reader does not know exactly why the family must go. The reader may surmise that the father is a tenant farmer (suggested by the image of dying fruit), or perhaps he is another kind of laborer who is hired only long enough to complete a specific job. Like the wife, the reader remains unable to ask why.
Despite the terror of having to leave, and quite possibly of having nowhere to go, the wife’s
What Do I Read Next?
- One of the most recent studies of Dawe’s poetry is Peter Kuch’s Bruce Dawe, published in 1996 by Oxford University Press. Kuch examines Dawe’s poetry using post-Structural and post-colonial theory.
- Ken L. Goodwin’s 1988 biography Adjacent Worlds: A Literary Life of Bruce Dawe is considered one of the most influential works about the poet, although it is difficult to find in America.
- One of the most famous and influential books about migrant farm workers in the United States in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. This influential book, describing life during the Great Depression, fills in ideas about the transient life that are hinted at in “Drifters.”
- “Drifters” is included, with many other significant contemporary Australian poems, in one of the best anthologies available, The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry, edited by John Tranter and Philip Mead. Published in 1991 by Bloodaxe Books, England.
- Judith Wright is the most respected Australian poet of the generation before Dawe’s (she was born in 1915). Her poetry is sharp and amusing. One of her best collections is The Double Tree: Selected Poems, 1942-1976, published in the United States by Houghton Mifflin.
thoughts are presented with a tone of resignation rather than fear. It is likely that the wife feels this resignation after having moved so many times already. But rather than communicating with her husband, she yields to her own inner thoughts. It is indeed alarming that she does not even know where they are going, and reader is left to wonder if the husband knows, either. The wife’s train of thought then trails back into the past:
—she’ll only remember how, when they came
she held out her hands bright with berries,
the first of the season, and said:
’Make a wish, Tom, make a wish.’
Here, the wife’s introspection turns bittersweet. She remembers that, upon arriving at this home, the future seemed promising. The same berries that are now shrivelled were once full and ripe, and she was full of hope. The woman holding out her hands, full of berries, to her husband was both giving a gift and issuing a plea. She entreated him to “make a wish,” and she may have made a wish herself. Most likely both of them wished to stay, prosper, and be happy. The wish is now unfulfilled with their leaving. As the poem concludes on this poignant note, the reader is left hoping that the family will find the prosperity they desire.
This poem embodies many of the concerns that have prevailed in Bruce Dawe’s work. An Australian poet, cited by Thomas W. Shapcott in Contemporary Poets as “the most central and pivotal poet in Australia during the decade of the 1960s,” Dawe is known for portraying the ordinary lives of those in his country. Within Dawe’s body of work the migrant family of “Drifters” coexists with residents of the suburbs, soldiers in Vietnam, and a raped girl, and many others. By shining their lives in the light, Dawe demonstrates a deep empathy for these people. In fact, the title of his 1999 volume A Poet’s People is both an acknowledgment of, and an ironic spin on, his distinction. He remains one of Australia’s most popular, and most widely taught, poets.
Despite the presence of Dawe’s poetry in the schools, the poems themselves are not literary or academic. Instead, they are precise and compassionate pictures of outsiders—“battlers,” Dawe has called them—communicated in plain language. Dawe merges these pictures with his overarching conscience. This conscience is comprised of a deep commitment to political, social, and religious concerns. In 1964, early in the course of his work, Dawe spoke at a Commonwealth Literary Fund lecture, elaborating his views on this aspect of poetry:
[There is a] a painful lack of social awareness in our poetry … So few genuine poems reflect directly or indirectly an awareness of the social problems of our country … those which concern people everywhere one way or another … I mean such issues as graft and corruption in government, business and industry, spiritual wickedness in high places. I mean the never-ending tussle of State versus the individual … There are the lost people in our midst for whom no one speaks and who cannot speak for themselves … We seem either too smug or too shy to have a good hard look at the world we live in … the suffering, poignant and necessary world.
“Drifters” indeed, is a portrait of what goes on in that “necessary world.” It is the empathy of the poet that keeps his ideologies, when depicted in a poem, from becoming overzealous. One of the beautiful aspects of “Drifters” is that the reader is left feeling as if he or she has witnessed a stark and melancholy moment. Others of Dawe’s poems have a similar effect. Consider these lines from “Phantasms of Evening,” concerning the Vietnam War:
Light fails. From here
it’s hard to see
whether those young men ghost-dancing into there
are Viet Cong or Sioux …
Say, are those plumed shadows
Flying Horesemen of the First Air Cavalry
or Hittites bringing the gospel of iron
to confound the Egyptians?
Whose war are we up to now?
Whose mourning is it?
These lines passionately and concisely covey the poet’s moral stance, and the result is aching. Likewise, of the poem “Home-coming” the critic Geoffrey Lehmann of the Bulletin wrote: “There is a tolerance point where excruciating pain becomes angelic singing, and this poem exists at that point.” To strike such a note of purity is a major accomplishment.
One of the wellsprings for Dawe’s conscience is his Christian belief, although few of his poems are overtly religious. Interestingly, though, selections from Dawe’s 1999 volume, such as “Some Old Testament Characters with Big Problems Get the Latest Treatment” (presumably by negotiating with one of the new gods: psychiatry), do use religious themes to expose perceived hypocrisies in society.
If one were to search for a salient criticism of Dawe, it would be that his effort to make his poems sound like everyday speech (through use of the vernacular) at times comes across as affected. However, one might argue that that is a far less grievous fault than the transgressions of academic poetry.
Dawe takes on personal and cultural issues full throttle, and remains a force to be reckoned with.
Source: Erica Smith, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Lehmann, Geoffrey, “Beyond the Subdivisions,” review, in Bulletin, May 2, 1970, p. 56.
Martin, Philip, “Public yet Personal: Bruce Dawe’s Poetry,” in Meanjin Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1966, p. 21.
McLaren, Greg, “I Think I Must Write This Down,” review, in Southerly, Spring-Summer, 1999, p. 403.
Semmler, Clement, Twentieth-Century Australian Literary Criticism, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 350-51.
Shapcott, Thomas, “Introduction,” in Contemporary American & Australian Poetry, University of Queens Press, 1976, pp. xxiii-xxxiii.
Smith, Vivian, “Poetry,” in The Oxford History of Australian Literature, edited by Leonie Kramer, Oxford University Press, 1981, pp. 269-426.
Australian Literature: An Anthology of Writing from the Land Down Under, edited by Phyllis Fahrie Edelson, Balletine Books, 1993.
This overview has examples from the greatest writers in all periods throughout Australian history. Edelson’s introduction gives an especially concise and helpful chronology of the country’s civic and literary growth.
Buckley, Vincent, Essays in Poetry, Mainly Australian, Books for Libraries Press, 1969.
This collection is out of print and a little dated, but it still provides a good analysis of the Australian literary scene at about the time “Drifters” was written.
Clark, Manning, A Short History of Modern Australia, Mentor Books, 1963.
Published at about the same time as this poem, Clark’s book concentrates on the country’s history as a prison, with plenty of interesting tales that illuminate how the Australians came to be who they are.
Tranter, John, “Australian Poetry 1940–1980: A Personal View,” in Poetry, October-November, 1996, pp. 86-93.
This essay, published in Poetry magazine’s special Australian issue, is written by one of the most influential writers on the Australian poetry scene.