(Re-)reading Kevin Gilbert’s poetry

Kevin Gilbert, End of Dream-time (Island Press 1971)
and People Are Legends (UQP 1978)

According to his Wikipedia entry, Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) was an ‘Indigenous Australian activist, artist, poet, playwright and printmaker’. His first play, The Cherry Pickers, which he wrote when in prison. made a splash in 1970 or thereabouts. A Wiradjuri man, he played a role in setting up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and was part of the Black Power group. He wrote a book for children, Child’s Dreaming (1992), from which we published a number of poems in The School Magazine, and a sweet memoir for child readers, Me and Mary Kangaroo (1994).

I own a copy of his first published book, End of Dream-time, number 104 of the edition of 200, and it’s sitting on my desk as I type. It’s a beautiful object, handset and printed on creamy, textured paper, with illustrations by the author in a range of single PMS colours. Phil Roberts, the poet founder of Island Press, treated his early books as labours of love. Of those on my bookshelves, this is the one most lovingly laboured over. The presentation is a clear message to anyone tempted to read the poems as sociological specimens (a book by an Aboriginal man was a rare thing in the early 1970s, and any spurious sociological appeal was made all the greater by its having been at least partly written when Gilbert was in prison for murder). These poems, the design announces emphatically, are to be read and respected as poems.

So I was shocked to learn, all these years later, that Kevin Gilbert ‘repeatedly and publicly’ disowned his poems as published in End of Dream-time. It seems that Roberts did substantial editing without his permission. He may have done no more than he would have done for any first book, and the poems may in some sense be the better for it, but Gilbert’s bitter complaint was about the lack of consultation. Adam Shoemaker tells the story, and reproduces the original and edited versions of the short poem ‘People Are Legends’, in ‘The Poetry of Politics‘, a chapter of his Black Words White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988. Go to the link, read it and cringe: Roberts’s good intentions are clear, but even a whitefella like me who’s been an arrogant enough editor in my time can see why Gilbert would consider it a betrayal of trust. His poems are full of rage and despair at the callous, complacent attitudes of whites toward Aboriginal peoples. Shoemaker quotes him as saying:

I’ve adopted writing as a means of voicing the Aboriginal situation … I try to present as truly as possible the Aboriginal situation and the Aboriginal response.


There is the need to educate White Australians to the present situation of Aboriginal people … I’m presenting it as honestly as possible – it’s not a pretty picture.

What bitter irony, when struggling to find a voice in this way, to have one of those in need of education inject his voice into the mix! (I know Phil Roberts is Canadian, but in this context that’s a distinction without a difference.)

So I went out and bought a copy of People Are Legends, published seven years later by the University of Queensland Press. The back cover describes these poems as written ‘in the language used by living Aboriginals, without editing, without politeness or hypocrisy as practised in “cultured” verse’ (my bold).

Neither book is a comfortable read. Rather than emotion recollected in tranquillity, we get harangues that feel shot off in the heat of the moment. Many of the poems are dramatic monologues, spoken not so much by characters as by exemplars, either of the misery and debasement resulting from genocidal oppression, or of morally contemptible individual escape. There’s a bush ballad that doesn’t quite scan, and quite a lot of satire that has a bitterly intolerant edge, directed not only against whites but, almost, against any Aboriginal person who pursues a politics that’s neither despairingly passive nor holding out the option of retaliatory violence. Even the Gurindji’s heroic stand against Vesteys in 1970 gets the treatment. One of the two poems named for them begins:

They fast
They silently fast
Eloquently silent
In their thundering cry for Right

But by the end that silence has been found sadly, even culpably wanting:

They should remember
Back in time: throughout history
Justice, deprived of a strong voice slowly,
Inexorably dies
And the seeker of justice dies with it
Or silently becomes a slave.

But then, these poems aren’t aiming to give me a good time or lay out a workable political agenda. This was trail-making work: I don’t know that anyone would try to write poems about ‘the’ Aboriginal situation and response these days, and that’s due in part to Kevin Gilbert’s rising to the challenge to educate, to speak as a representative.

Since the thing that prompted me to read these books was the near absence of modern Aboriginal poets from Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s Australian Poetry Since 1788, it’s probably worth remarking that there are quite a number of poems here that wouldn’t have looked odd in those pages. The other ‘The Gurindji’ brought a new music into Australian poetry:

Poor fellow
Simple fellow
Sweet fellow
Sittin’ in the desert
Singin’  desert song

And I’m no expert, but I think ‘Trying to Save Joan Ella’ not only stands up well as a bush ballad, but manages to hold out a significant challenge to the whole tradition. It tells of an Aboriginal woman’s arduous and terrifying ride to fetch a doctor for a dying white baby:

Quick she rode to Thiraweena
And she brought the doctor back
But the child died – and the father
Cursed the slowness of the black
If this cursed gin had ridden
Faster, harder through the night –
But the blacks are bad and useless –
Can’t be trusted out of sight!’

Mary bowed her head in silence
Thought: ‘I wishit me had died
Rode two horses an’ it killed ’em
Never stop’t though me dead tired
Frightened too of horse bin fallin’
When I passed the old ones’ grave
Shut me eyes with courage ‘gammon’
When the ghosts rise I ain’t brave!
Couldn’t do no more I tried but
Kill’d two horses; rode to death.
Didn’t stop! I kept on runnin’!’
And she wept beneath her breath

Really, it’s a poem that cried out to be anthologised.

And one last note: in Child’s Dreaming, published a couple of years before his death, Gilbert showed that he could relax when the burden of being a representative was eased. There was still the element of protest, but without the same bitterness and despair (see ‘Emu and Koori’, as reprinted in The School Magazine  with an illustration by Arone Raymond Meeks, in the left-hand image below). ‘Cicada’ (image by Noela Young) may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s given me much pleasure. ‘Eagle’ (illustration Aart Van Ewijk) is just plain genial.


4 responses to “(Re-)reading Kevin Gilbert’s poetry

  1. cool dude


  2. Pingback: Lisa Bellear, Aboriginal Country | Me fail? I fly!

  3. After 50 years on my bookshelves, I donated my copy (82) to the collection/archive of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra.

    They seemed pleased to accession it despite the “controversy”. I have pointed them to this page which I think provides a fair summary of the situation.

    Liked by 1 person

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