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Rewriting Australia feature

Michael Farrell

Anti-Clockwise Judith Wright:

A ‘Widdershins’ Reading of ‘Bullocky’

Beside his heavy-shouldered team,
thirsty with drought and chilled with rain,
he weathered all the striding years
till they ran widdershins in his brain:

Till the long solitary tracks
etched deeper with each lurching load
were populous before his eyes,
and fiends and angels used his road.

All the long straining journey grew
a mad apocalyptic dream,
and he old Moses, and the slaves
his suffering and stubborn team.

Then in his evening camp beneath
the half-light pillars of the trees
he filled the steepled cone of night
with shouted prayers and prophecies.

While past the campfire’s crimson ring
the star-struck darkness cupped him round,
and centuries of cattlebells
rang with their sweet uneasy sound.

Grass is across the waggon-tracks,
and plough strikes bone beneath the grass,
and vineyards cover all the slopes
where the dead teams were used to pass.

O vine, grow close upon that bone
and hold it with your rooted hand.
The prophet Moses feeds the grape,
and fruitful is the Promised Land.


Judith Wright has become as much an (eco)political icon as a poetical one. This is not just because of her poems and her activism (textual and otherwise) but because she deprecated her poems in favour of activism. Nothing makes a poet more popular than denying poetry. But an icon is an icon is an icon, and can be moved about the temple without too much trouble.


If we were to reimagine Judith Wright as a queer icon — because she had somehow presented something of queer experience in an anthemic way — what poems would they be?


I’ve always read ‘Woman to Man’ as referring to the experience of gender transfer. There is also ‘Two Sides of a Story’, with its narrative of the love of the white Kennedy (‘That obstinate thoughtless proud/ intelligent gay young man’) for the aboriginal Jacky Jacky. But the poem I’d like to look at for ‘Rewriting the Canon’ is an earlier iconic poem that Wright explicitly deprecated, ‘Bullocky’. ‘Bullocky’, which appeared in Wright’s first book, The Moving Image (1946) became one of the first poems Wright was known for, because it seemed to say something about the rugged — but also anxious — man of the bush, and how he (apparently) built Australia. In other words, it became a nationalist fetish.


Any poem can be thought of as a fetish (according to the Oxford Online Dictionary the word’s derivation is the latin facticius: ‘made by art’). The modern definition that I am referring in relation to nationalism is the third given by the same dictionary: ‘a course of action to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment’. But excess and irrationality are wont to spill over into proximate areas … and proximity is an aspect of fetishism: bringing the object of fetishism as close as possible, if not to the body, to the focus of the gaze (eye or mind). The proximate definitions are: ‘1. an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers.’ and  ‘2. a form of sexual desire in which gratification is focused abnormally on an object, part of the body, or activity’.


The object of the fetish can be read as nationalism, the nationalist poem, or the objectified nationalist subject, that is, the ‘Bullocky’. Any of these three — and they are conflated rather than differentiated in such a ‘scene’ — implicate Wright in this same ‘scene’, and this is not the ‘woman to man’ relation she felt comfortable in backing. Though the figure of the ‘Bullocky’ normally holds the ‘whip-hand’, the writer (Wright) of such a figure is his dominator.


Wright doesn’t actually mention a whip in the poem, though she does refer to the bullocky and the team of bullocks as ‘Moses, and the slaves’. This alludes to Moses’ leading the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. In which case Moses is identified with them as an oppressed minority — though he had himself been closeted and passed as a member of the Egyptian royal family. In the poem though he is identified with the bullocks (and the poem) from the start: the figure in the poem is a ‘bullocky’, the poem is called ‘Bullocky’. The poem is his portrait, but unlike the portrait of Wilde’s Dorian Gray, it didn’t save him from aging; apparently the poem didn’t age well either, at least in its writer’s eyes.


We don’t need to read the poem to make a connection between it and queer male sexuality — the title is enough. Bullocks are castrated bulls (the castration generally taking place when they are calves). In popular misogyny, it is the heterosexual male who is symbolically castrated by feminism; not only does this paranoid notion misplace male power (including violence) used against women, it also distracts from the homophobic complex that a non-bullish male is gay, queer etc: and that a gay or queer man is not a real man. This is castration by heterosexual male culture: and castration is quite an intimate and sexual procedure. More generally, we could say that castration occurs through relativism, comparison, or binary compulsion: a way of looking at things — people — as essences of one thing or another. As if they were symbols: as the bullocky of the poem is a representative bullocky — at least in the nationalist reading that dismayed Wright. Someone literally castrated the bullocks in the poem — quite possibly the bullocky. Regardless, his occupation-cum-name is that of a bullocky, which means he has taken on the quality of bullockness, of castrated bullness.


If we look at the poem itself, there is further support for a queer reading. The bullocks’ bodies are described as ‘heavy-shouldered’ (evoking the drawings of Tom of Finland), but there are no descriptors of the bullocky’s body: he is the literally disembodied (unstable) gaze; the poem is from his perspective in the first five stanzas; in the last two he is dead. We expect muscles of some sort in a bullocky however — it’s pretty tough work.


The next line is ambiguous: ‘thirsty with drought and chilled with rain’ in that it’s not explicit whether it’s the bullocky or the team that is thirsty or chilled: in the case of the rain at least, it’s likely to be both. This is an early instance of Wright’s concern with climate and the link between animal husbandry and land damage; the poem ‘Dust’, which refers to the ‘steel-shocked earth’, is in this same first volume.


The phrase ‘animal husbandry’ says a lot about the relation between farmers and their animals, backed up by the contemporaneous Kinsey Report (1948), with it revelations of rural bestiality. This relation was perhaps especially acute in the early days of British migration when most migrants were male. After Freud, we can see sexuality everywhere: maybe it doesn’t inform every action we make, maybe it does — but it can’t simply be confined to the bedroom (a kind of closet). We might consider the relation between ‘Bullocky’, outdoor living in Australia generally (an Indigenous invention) and George Michael’s song ‘Outside’ in which he affirms sex outside the house.


In the mid-20th century, sexuality was itself coming out. The notion that there were a range of sexualities, some less socially acceptable than garden, farm, park or even house variety homosexuality, probably encouraged the formations of homosexual rights groups from mid-century on.


We can see sexuality in line three’s ‘he weathered all the striding years’, though we don’t know if the bullocky strode commando (without underwear). A suggested root of ‘weather’ is ‘to blow’, while ‘stride’ comes from ‘straddle’ (both from the Concise Oxford). Line four continues, ‘till they ran widdershins in his brain’.


‘Widdershins’ is not just another way of saying ‘queer in the head’ (with the head being part of the body), but is literally perverse, a variation of ‘withershins’: meaning ‘in a direction contrary to apparent course of sun (considered unlucky), anti-clockwise’ (from the Concise Oxford). In other words, against nature. (Though ‘anti-clockwise’ could also be read as anti human progress, and opens the possibility of an eco-friendly reading of the bullocky figure representing a critique on Australian cattle culture.) This is a fairly common reading of homosexuality in the 1940s, let alone the nineteenth century the poem gestures towards. It derives from the words ‘wider’ and ‘sin’ — these are actually Middle High German words, meaning ‘against’ and ‘direction’ — but evocative nonetheless. The word also suggests a course from the shoulders (the withers are between the shoulders of a horse) to the shins. The word ‘widdershins’ is enough to clinch a queer reading: coupled with the word/identity of ‘bullocky’, perhaps the case is overstated.


But we haven’t come that far with the poem: there are still the suggestive phrases, ‘fiends and angels used his road’ and ‘he filled the steepled cone of night’. Not to mention ‘the campfire’s crimson ring / the star-struck darkness cupped him round’. These are all good examples of the risk of figurative language, especially that of a symbolist cast: the words are open to readings of bathetic innuendo. (I imagine John Cleese giving a definitive reading.) It doesn’t stop with the bullocky’s death either. He still gets ploughed: ‘plough strikes bone’.


The poem concludes:


     O vine, grow close upon that bone
                  and hold it with your rooted hand.
                  The prophet Moses feeds the grape,
         and fruitful is the Promised Land.


The vine does seem to be masturbating the bullocky, except that he is dead and feeding refers to decomposition rather than ejaculation. Nonetheless the poem states that Australia (in drag as / camping it up as ‘the Promised Land’ — metaphor is drag for language, any figurative language is a form of camp) is fruitful, that is, full of fruits.


By disavowing the poem Wright helped to solidify a shaky nationalistic reading, making alternative readings less likely. But the encouragement to do so is in the poem: if we identify with the bullocky, any reading must be ‘widdershins’.

Michael Farrell’s most recent (co)productions are a raiders guide(Giramondo), and as editor (with Jill Jones), Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets (Puncher and Wattmann).

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