Drifters By Bruce Dawe Essay

Bruce Dawe is one of the most inspirational and truthful poets of our time. Born in 1930, in Geelong, most of Dawe’s poetry concerns the common person. His poems are a recollection on the world and issues around him. The statement ‘The poet’s role is to challenge the world they see around them’ is very true for Bruce Dawe, as his main purpose in his poetry was to depict the unspoken social issues concerning the common Australian suburban resident. His genuine concern for these issues is obvious through his mocking approach to the issues he presents in his poems.

‘Drifters’ is about a family who move from place to place, as the father needs to move by the demand of his job. Dawe wrote this poem in a very casual language; however, if you read it carefully you would be able to see the seriousness of what he is saying. The young children are growing up to learn no other way of life except the life of continuously moving, as they are all waiting for the day they shall move again.

The children get very excited about moving from place to place ‘and the kids will yell truly’. The eldest is becoming aware that their roaming lives may never change ‘the oldest girl is close to tears because she was happy here’. She is becoming frustrated with her life. Dawe shows pity for the wife, as she has to gone through this so many more times before ‘she won’t even ask why they’re leaving this time’.

Dawe writes sympathetically about the wife, like when she asks her husband Tom to make a wish in the last line of the poem ‘Make a wish, Tom, make a wish’. Because this is a continuous event, the wife is getting frustrated, as at the time of packing once again she finds that she has not unpacked from there last move.

Even though this poem is written in a happy tone Dawe is being serious about the issue of how a family gets upset about being stuck in a life that is continuously moving around and not being permanently settled anywhere.

‘Homecoming’ was written in 1968 during the Vietnam War with the intent of making its audience aware of the senselessness and tragedy of war. The poem deals with the numerous stages of bringing the dead home for there ‘homecoming’, a supposedly joyous occasion worthy of great celebration. The title serves as a constant reminder of what may have been. Rather than coming home celebrating their Heroic survival, they are being bought home dead.

‘They’re bringing them in, piled on the hulls of Grants, in trucks, in convoys;

they’re zipping them up in plastic bags’.

Dawe uses a number of clever poetic techniques in order to express his feelings towards war. The repeated use of ‘they’ and ‘they’re’ in the first section hints at the impersonal relationship between the bodies and their handlers. Dawe shows his audience how this is the harsh reality of war, if people allowed the usual human compassion to overcome them every time they saw yet another dead body, it would be too unbearable.

Rhythm is also used a great deal in the first section, making it sound almost chant-like through the use of pauses that form a direct beat. This rhythm suggests a slow, mechanical process, almost like an assembly line.

Interestingly, Dawe goes against conventional methods of breaking his poem up into different stanzas. Despite this, it is evident that the poem exists in three main sections – the gathering of bodies in the jungles of Saigon, the flight back to Australian for the dead soldiers, and finally the bodies returning home.

In the second phase of the poem, this monotonous rhythm is abandoned. Gone is the ‘human touch’ from in the jungles of Saigon, now the bodies are being lifted ‘high, now, high and higher’, suggesting that the bodies are being taken to be laid to rest in heaven.

Words like ‘noble’, ‘whine’ and ‘sorrowful’ are used to express the sorrow and regret that Australian’s will feel as their dead youths are bought home. Through the use of the personification of the planes, Dawe voices the sadness and futility of the situation, ‘tracing the blue curve of the Pacific with sorrowful quick fingers’.

In the final phase of ‘Homecoming’ Dawe focuses on the soldiers finally coming

‘home, home, home’.

The tone changes, and the lines echo the feeling of homesick Australian soldiers. As the planes approach Australia ‘the coasts swing upward’ to meet the planes. This is the coastline that would have been so familiar to the soldiers had they been coming home alive, yet now they don’t have the opportunity to see the ‘knuckled hills, the mangrove-swamps, the desert emptiness’, an environment vastly different from the jungle they had fought so valiantly in.

‘A Victorian hangman tells his love’ is about a man who enjoys what his job consists of. His job consists of hanging criminals as a punishment for the crimes they have committed. Bruce Dawe writes this poem from the hang mans perspective, it tells the audience how he feels about execution. Dawe explains that the hangman is ashamed to wear his hangman clothes in front of his wife. ‘Two piece tracksuit, welder’s goggles and a green cloth cap like some gross bee- this is the states idea…’. He thinks of a hanging as a nuptial, and by reading these lines you can tell how special hangings are to him. The tone is of this poem is ashamed and proud, the hangman is ashamed because of the cheap clothes he has to wear when it is so special to him and proud because -=—— Dawe writes about the hangings as if they are a ritual, ‘This noose with which we’re wed is something of an heirloom’, the hangman feels as if the hanging gives them some kind of special connection.

The human condition is explained throughout this poem, the way people feel towards these hangings and the way the hangman feels about these hangings. This was the last hanging to take place in Australia, it was very controversial and Dawe writes about it as if the hangman is very upset, as this will be his final hanging. It is very Australian in setting as it is a defining moment in our history as Australia. It was the last life taken for capital punishment in Australia. Dawe writes this poem in a controversial way as it describes how the hangman enjoys ‘ hitting the door lever, you will go forth into a new life’ this hangman thinks that he is doing these men a favor by taking their lives.

‘On the Death of Ronald Ryan’ is about a man who is going to be executed for a crime he supposedly committed. Dawe writes this poem in Ronald Ryan’s wife’s or lover perspective. The reader can feel her sadness towards Ronald’s execution, and her respect for him dying ‘most horrifyingly like a man’. The human condition is undeniably Australian as there is the sign of a true fighter ‘annealed un-tranquilized, scorning a final statement’. Dawe writes of the wife as if she wished Ronald died ‘with far more dignity than the shabby ritual which gave you credit for’.


This is a carefree natural poem about an Australian phenomenon of transient or nomadic workers.  Not quite as reviled as the gypsies of Europe, transient workers originated as shearers, rouseabouts or sundowners in early colonial times.  Not willing to settle down in predictable settings, the transient workers preferred the adventure of new surroundings and meeting new people.  Its attractions today extend to global citizens who regularly migrate to new continents.

Nomadic or itinerant people are always on the move, searching for adventure, novelty, chasing dreams and opportunities

1Dawe preferred lower case letters for his titles but was overruled by Publishers.


Soft, smooth consonants and gentle vowels.

Onomatopoeic “bump”.


This poem depicts the inevitability of restlessness in the life of a transient, gipsy like, rouseabout family. The poem illustrates the fatalistic impermanence of the family’s existence.

III. THEMES Subtle suggestions

     Brevity of happiness; the transience of life, nothing gold can stay

Uncertainty in life of the drifter; “One day soon..”


aimlessness, shiftless, feckless. Unpacked bottling set.


Unfulfilled dreams; “Make a wish, Tom, make a wish.”


Maturity and parental responsibility vs. Childhood’s infectious excitement “for no reason” puppy also dashes about.

Younger daughter “beaming” anticipating new possibilities; Older daughter “is close to tears” maturely craving stability?

Wife acquiescent, defeatist and subservient to husband’s whims or realistically accepting of Tom’s valid sixth sense of what is best? “she won’t even ask why they’re leaving this time..”


The family is unable to establish roots because they keep moving house/communities.


Some people in the family like moving from place to place, but others don’t (the kids are ‘wildly exited’ and the oldest girl is ‘close to tears’).

The mother has abandoned control of where the family is headed.


Belonging to a place is closely tied to belonging in a family. All people in this family areaffected by the father’s decision to relocate. To belong in this family, movement is necessary,despite individual wishes.


Family members often have to compromise or sacrifice what they want in order to belong intheir family. Some members wish to establish a permanent sense of place and others don’t.


This is demonstrated through the juxtaposition of the differing perceptions of moving based onhow they belonged in the place they were living – the oldest girl is on the verge of tears and theyoungest girl is ‘beaming’. This is also shown in the mother’s acceptance of her ‘drifter’lifestyle through the image of the ‘bottling-set / she never unpacked from Grovedale’.


A lack of permanent place to live can provide for a spontaneous lifestyle – anything canhappen. This is shown through the repetitive dialogue from the mother, ‘Make a wish, Tom,make a wish.’ The spontaneity of the lifestyle and the excitement caused by the announcementthat they will be moving on is shown through the unusual ending of certain lines – ‘…tripping /everyone up’ and ‘…she was / happy here’. The position of the lines echoes the exited movement of the dog, getting in the way of the family packing.


Dawe very much the detached observer - resists making any judgements.

Subtle questions raised, no attempt to provide answers.

Anonymous woman, central character; ordinary, common, not typical?

Contrast of childhood (kids, puppy) and maturity, older sister, parents of hands bright with berries and shrivelled berries at end.


green tomatoes” - pre—mature, preparing for uncertain future?

“bottling set. .never unpacked” fatalistic acceptance of instability.

“ute bumps down the drive” life is not smooth (easy)

“blackberry canes” foreboding of death

“shrivelled fruit” unfulfilled dreams

“hands bright with berries” hope of new situations


Only two sentences, use of parenthesis; “for no reason”, and; She’ll only remember how, ...“

Future tense, realistic expectation but not an actual event. “soon”

Australian colloquialisms: “brown kelpie”, “ute”

Connective - “And” repeated ____ times.


An outstanding example of Dawe depicting a typical Aussie modern day rouseabout.  His matter of fact style with its lack of tone gives us an image of the man indirectly through his family. The economical depiction is cleverly done through laconic expressions and ellipsis.

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