Margaret Bradstock reviews “Looking for Bullin Bullin” by Brenda Saunders

Lookin for Bullin BullinLooking for Bullin Bullin

by Brenda Saunders

Hybrid Publishers, 2012

ISBN 1921665904




Embracing her Aboriginality has given Brenda Saunders both a focus and a purpose in her recent poetry collection, Looking for Bullin Bullin. Writing over the last decade, Saunders has, as she herself says, “a lot to say about the urban Aboriginal experience.”

The poems in Looking for Bullin Bullin are organised into four sections, reflecting aspects of post-1788 Aboriginal history: Stolen, Caring for Country, Living Blak, and Drawing the Landscape. A number of poems overlap several categories, but an underlying chronological movement is also at work. Stolen encapsulates the loss of country (“Terra Nullius”, “Un-titled”), of lifestyle, culture and heritage:

The stolen child lives her life ‘in service’

      Her stories sit tight
      in her apron pocket
      Each loss pencilled-in
      Her lists of defeats
      fade with time
     − hopes scratched out
      after years of waiting                                                 
      (“The telling,” p.15)

Wry humour makes its point in “Sydney Real Estate: FOR SALE“:

Penthouse suite


High Rise
Harbour life
A Must!


bora rings
circle round 


Virgin land
A Steal!                                                                            

Caring for Country concerns itself with the continuing and increasing damage to the Australian environment, in the name of ‘progress.’ In “Toyota Dreaming,” the views of old and young Aboriginal people are opposed, the old ones not understanding the need for change, the young compliant, seeking a perhaps illusory recompense for what has been lost:

The tribes can see the value, the power
in red shale; they sift their Country’s losses
against solid gains. Working for the Company 

lured by the shine of a crystal trinket harder
than stone. Buried treasure of the River Spirit
gleams forever in the white man’s dreams                      

Significantly, from the time of poet Kevin Gilbert, the Toyota has become an objective correlative in Aboriginal-authored verse for feelings aroused by government control. (See also Melissa Lucashenko’s “You are the Fringes,” amongst others.) In this regard, one might contrast the different viewpoints expressed in Saunders’ poem with the progressive stance of indigenous Boyer Lecturer Marcia Langton:

        My first visit to the Kimberley’s Argyle Diamond Mine − the world’s largest producer
        of diamonds, owned by Rio Tinto − was in early 2000. At that time, there were four
        Aboriginal employees. Two of them were gardeners. Two years later, there were many
        more…..[Brendan] Hammond revolutionised the culture of the Argyle mine, and today
        the rate of Aboriginal employment at that mine stands at 25 percent of the total workforce.
                 Many of the significant changes in the Aboriginal world are due in some part to the
        changes in the mining industry, which offers employment and contracting opportunities
        as an alternative to welfare transfers upon which many remote and regional Aboriginal
        communities depend. 

                 (“On the cusp of a new dawn,” News Review, The Sydney Morning Herald, Nov.17-18, 2012.)

In “Pay-back in ’78,” the narrator arrives in Brewarrina as an outsider, to hear of wild Blacks pitted against town-dwellers (as in the early days), and find the town itself an anachronism:

Someone had burned the station one night
They’d already torched the only pub
Hotel swings from the Liquor Outlet now
a no-frills affair: roller-doors down at ten 

And we’d heard talk of wild kids, good with fire
living on the edge of the next failing town


Dodge City‘s on the edge of nowhere. Off-limits
to finger-pointing tourists or ‘blow-ins’ like us

This painted landscape is already too old
or too new for change. Shaped
by late-model cars

− white goods rolled in dust
Useless inclusions in houses
that never had power or water                                        

“Jaandoo” depicts the relationship of artist Rover Thomas with his country, described through close observation of technique:

Rover carries his country under the skin
follows his Wild Dog song
roaming the sand


Rover tracks each sacred meeting
marks his Dreaming on painted boards
set in a line of dots                                                          

As an artist herself, Saunders is well-placed to utilise artistic technique as a metaphor for feelings and emotions. Other poems similarly explore the work and inner landscapes of Ginger Riley, Emily Kngwarreye and Kathleen Petyarre.

The anonymous poem “Tanimi” reminds us poignantly of the loss of many Aboriginal languages and the need to recover and preserve them:

Without our language
we will have nothing to say
Have to close our mouths
No song, no story
when the words
want to come…                                                                

In Living blak, the reader is confronted with aspects of the urban Aboriginal experience, scenes of largely unmitigated conflict, homelessness and hopelessness. “Blak-out” pulls no punches, depicting the outcome of social and cultural breakdown whereby the protagonist is both victim and perpetrator. 

Gimme a dolla’
Pay the rent
whitey guilt
easy street      


tradin’ for cuz
speedy in the fast lane
live for the day 

ridin’ trains
singin’ up Country
Dreamin’s free                                                                

“Blak boys” rejects any form of overt stereotyping, but a similar bleak future unites the different personae of the poem:

He’s everywhere and nowhere, he’s that shadow doing time

     slipping out of focus
     in the world outside                                                   

This section of the book employs a racy, spare style, utilising urban Aboriginal idiom and taut lines that give credence to the subject matter. A number of the poems appear at first to be merely descriptive, but their message is conveyed through dialogue and circumstance. 

“Looking for Bullin Bullin,” the title poem and arguably the best poem in the collection, works to pull all sections together, and the cover image (Saunders’ own) reflects this relationship. “Got any change?”  asks the Aboriginal girl in this chance encounter, but, unlike the protagonist of “Blak-out,” her questions soon deepen to take in cultural loss, suppression of place-names and language, and white ignorance of  Caring for Country. The chopped-up map, with Bora rings at centre, becomes a metaphor for all these losses, and Bullin Bullin the symbol of a stolen heritage:

I’ve searched on early maps
Find only new names for
ancient places. Land Titles
staked out. Station holdings
Towns with strange rhythms
Sounds from another world                                           

In light of this white-out of history, the current move to restore Aboriginal place-names to sacred sites and landmarks can only be applauded.    

 A recurrent approach emerges, played out in the final section of the book, Drawing the Landscape, with descriptions and interpretations of artworks by Russell Drysdale with Aboriginal subject-matter. Drysdale first became interested in Aboriginal people while visiting North Queensland to attend board meetings of his father’s sugar mills. In particular, he was concerned by indigenous dispossession during the early ’50s, when Australia tried to solve what they called the ‘Aboriginal problem’ by integrating them with white society. His drawing Shopping day, 1953 shows how badly and sadly that identity sat upon their shoulders. Other drawings likewise lend themselves to a contrast between “a distant time/ when the tribe roamed freely” and the imposition of “the white man’s gaze” (p.69).

Looking for Bullin Bullin stands as a requiem for Jack Davis’s “dark proud race” (“The First-born,” ca.1970). Whether we choose to see it that way, or to take hope for a future “in unity” remains with the reader.


MARGARET BRADSTOCK has five published collections of poetry, including The Pomelo Tree (awarded the Wesley Michel Wright Prize),  Coast (2005) and How Like the Past (2009). Her sixth collection, Barnacle Rock, is forthcoming from Puncher & Wattmann in April 2013. Margaret recently edited Antipodes, the first anthology of Aboriginal and white poetic responses to “settlement” (Phoenix, 2011).