Drifters Bruce Dawe

drifters #

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.

The stark contrast in earlier more sedentary times is illustrated by the novels of Thomas Hardy, where most of the characters had never travelled more than twenty miles from the place where they were born.

Drifters shares many of the descriptions of Henry Lawson or Banjo Paterson’s characters who roamed the outback of Australia in the 19 th century. Today we find some workers who work in a variety of countries commuting around the world.

Nomadic or itinerant people are always on the move, searching for adventure, novelty, chasing dreams and opportunities. The gypsies have always been viewed with hostile suspicion.

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.


One day soon he’ll tell her it’s time to start packing
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 because she was happy here,
and how the youngest girl is beaming because she wasn’t.
And the first thing she’ll put on the trailer will be the bottling-set she never unpacked from Grovedale,
and when the loaded ute bumps down the drive past the blackberry canes with their last shrivelled fruit,
she won’t even ask why they’re leaving this time, or where they’re headed for
she’ll only remember how, when they came here
she held out her hands, bright with berries,
the first of the season, and said: ‘Make a wish, Tom, make a wish’.*

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 restlessness or his 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 are affected 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 in their 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 on how they belonged in the place they were living – the oldest girl is on the verge of tears and the youngest 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 can happen. 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 announcement that 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 ten times suggesting a continuum.


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.