Poet / Playwright / Filmmaker / Script Editor / Mentor

SINGING THE SNAKE Poems from the Western Desert, 1979-1988    


(A poem of Ayers Rock)

Old Tjupurrula squeezes my arm
and puckers his lips, pointing -
Pintupi-style - toward the television set;
eyes fastened on the screen,
on dissolves of that sandstone monolith:
a montage of Uluru awash with rain;
water cascading, crashing down -
blackening the Rock...

Leaning close, he whispers:
"The rainbow -
the rainbow comes from the earth
and returns to the earth."

It is a snake, he says,
a giant snake
with a long beard and sharp teeth.
It lives in caves under the rockhole
at the top of Uluru.

"It has no need of men or women.
No Dreamings, no ceremonies,"
he says.
It was here before Creation Times,
and has never changed its form.
"Proper cheeky one, Snake,
very dangerous;
when it is angry, the land is dry.
People drink sand."

No-one is happy for it;
no-one is sad for it.
It has no need of custodians
("Kurtangulu, nothing.")
It is like that other one -
the serpent in the Garden.

It turns knowledge into fear,
and fear into knowledge.
But, with the right fear
you can protect yourself.
Be mindful of the Snake.

Take time to look, look again -
feel the land through your feet;
the Snake will not harm those
who show the proper respect.
Those who rush in must be strangers.

"It will attack strangers."

The bodies of the Ancestors -
the ones killed by the Snake -
cover the earth.
"Everywhere, everywhere!"

But who can find them?
Who can name them?

If you would know this country,
you must know its stories...

"In early days, yiriti,"
Tjupurrula says,
"bush people carried the Song.
They carried it in drought times
through dry country,
travelling at night.
Once, when I was wiyai,
a little boy, we came -
Mummy, Father, two sisters -
from our own country to the Rock,
to Uluru, following the track
of the Old Ones...
...silently, looking, looking,
coming to the Mother Place,
to the borning country of every ocean.

"People travelled here
when the land filled up
with children who had no memory of rain.
From Putardi, Triinya and Karli Karru;
from Muruntji, Atila and Wimparraku,
they came...
All the families:
some from the north,
some from the south,
some east, some west...

Tribes didn’t matter.
They said ‘hello’;
they talked quietly;
they shared meat, kuka.
they looked at the rainless sky.

"Tjila, dry; Ilpili, dry;
Pangkupirri, dry. Everywhere, dry!
Payback was forget about;
no argument, no eye.
Just men and women coming from forever.
Women must help, too!
Women and men, coming to Uluru...

"With one, special Song, they knew,
they had the power to sing the Snake.
They could make him remember them;
they could change his mind."

The spell of the Tongue:
a hundred hundred round the Rock,
crying out for water,
cracking the voice,
mimicking thunder, chanting:
        "Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!"

Hands gesturing the air
night and day, circling,
until the voices became one voice
rising, falling...
a Song-chant for water,
becoming sure of itself.

"Wind might be hot.
Sky might be blue.    Country all about -
Never mind.
We didn’t look for cloud;
we didn’t listen for thunder -
we had the power to sing the Snake;
to wake it, to move it,
curled in the earth;
to make it sorry..."

And when the Snake stirred
("if the singing was strong and true"),
it would push the water out
from its rockhole on top -
from that danger place, the place where
every river in the world begins
and ends.

"And like blood,
it would flow down, fall down,
alatji, everywhere, every side...
just like on TV:
Kapi!  Kapi!  Kapi!
for all the thirsty people
for all us perishin’ mob."


"No. Not rain," he says. "Water
from inside, where the Snake lives.
Inside the stone."

"You saw all this, I asked;
water bubbling up out of dry rock?"

"Course," he says;
"in early days, olden times;
you know,
before the whitefellas came,
when bush people had the power
to sing the Snake.
Water everywhere -
all the way, everyway
no worries,
from the Rock, and
fall down, fall down
fall down...

without clouds…  without rain!"

Note: Uluru is the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock.


He dreams wind.
Wind.   Walpa:
The coming storm or the news of death;
When someone dies
wind blows.
parting the fur on a black dog’s back,
through the camp
scattering the irnminynyi from old men’s hands.
twisting spirals of dust into snakes,
sweeping paper and tin cans in circles
round their tails.
The humpies resist and click against
the wind,
so he can’t sleep
but dreams
And the sand comes in
under the blankets,
under his clothes,
into the tea and damper,
leaving its trace of

"The kangaroo" –
this is the dreaming,
this is what the old men say –
"the kangaroo opens the wind
with his hands
and sings the wind to come.
The wind and the kangaroo are friends."
This is what the old teachers say;
and young Tjungurrayi is learning:
"if you hunt kangaroo into the wind
the wind won’t give you away."


There is Law for Fire,
singing for Fire,
dancing for Fire –
Fire Dreaming.
You have been there, you have seen it.
You know all the names of Fire:
signal fires, hunting fires,
sleeping fires, fires for light,
fires for cooking, for ceremonies,
healing fires of eucalyptus leaves –
Fire is medicine, magic.

       Fire gave Crow a voice,
flying away in pain.
Fire brings old quarrels to an end.
On top of Uluru, do not drink
at the rockhole of Warnampi
unless you take Fire
or the snake will bite your spirit
and drought will follow.
Fire can protect you from the dead ones.

You have been there, you have seen them.
You know all this Fire.

The penis is Fire.
The vagina is Fire.
Fire is inside the bodies of animals.
The woman hands a firestick to the boy
and he becomes a man.

There is a time for every fire.
The fires of January are different
from the fires of June.
In the cold time, a small nudge before sleep
will keep the flame alive all night.
The right ash, the right heat,
the right position of wind, dune and saltbush:
a technology of Fire. The knowledge.

You have been there, you have watched.
You know all the seasons of Fire.

        Hawk stopped Bush Turkey
throwing Fire into the sea.
Fire cannot be stolen now; it lives
everywhere – inside the spinifex and dry wood.

All this is Law.

"The smoking days" – Buyuguyunya – come every year.
The air is full of smoke.
The smoke comes first, then the fire,
and then the smoke…

All this Law.

Hot is more than two sticks rubbed together; and
no chopping – take only what you can drag:
green wood for shelter;
dead pieces for waru.
The wind from the mouth works kindling.
Fire makes grass seed.
It finds the kangaroo and chases him
to the hunters.
All this is Law.
The burning off and the gathering together are one.

You have been there, you have seen it.
You know all the seasons of Fire.


The guardians of the circumcision ceremony
live in the constellation of Scorpio, and
turn the sky over every night.
The sky is a shell.
The Milky Way, a creek
of gleaming stones.
The Southern Cross is
the footprint of the wedge-tailed eagle,
and mushrooms are fallen stars.
The sun is a woman,
moving by different paths
between winter and summer.
And Jupiter, the dog,
hunts with Saturn, who brings
bush tucker back to Venus.
There are two moon men -
an old man and his son - who once
lived in the mountains;
the father is so large,
if you saw him, there would be
no room for anything but fear.
The son persuades his father
to stay in camp. Some nights he stays
with him there.
If the father were allowed to rise
his light would blind the world.
And once, after the whitefellas came,
the people from wilarata side
saw Jesus in the clouds.


Yunakaltja,   salt lake -
camp of the ice-men, underneath.
You can’t see them, but that means nothing.
When they open the door to their cave
they can touch you.
(Who says they have no life?)
Everybody feels the ice-men.
They come from the south, travelling everywhere.
They make the cold.
They make the winter wind.
They can freeze anyone.
Their bodies are covered with ice.
Eyebrows, beards, long hair
thick with frost.
They freeze the rockholes.
They crack the hunters’ feet,
lift mountains, and
turn the hills upside down.
They make small, big; and big, small.
Only strong chanting hunts them away -
you can’t fight ice with boomerang and spear.
But the songs can stop their roar;
the songs can chase them back to Yunakaltja,
to their home under the salt lake
where they live in ice
with no women.


Work with the end of your dress
tucked up   between your legs.
Speak in whispers;  laugh silently;
do not whistle.  Whistling, especially,
brings bad luck.   Do not be afraid
to feel where you cannot see.
Disappear into the earth
with crowbar and billy can;
go down, maybe ten feet.
If you find them,  it is better
when children are waiting.
This is marangkatja: a gift.
Love what you are after.


The spirit child has light skin
and long black hair.
It waits in the shade
of the bloodwood tree,
feeding on gum,    drinking
dew from the leaves.
It sleeps under loosened bark.
It lives in the hiding places
of secret/sacred objects,
and waits.   It looks after itself.
It watches from rockholes -
a little pebble:   no head,
no arms, no legs.
It keeps silent,   avoiding strangers.
It holds its breath.
It searches to be born,
to find the woman
with the kind face & large breasts -
to find nakedness.
The child chooses
its own mother.


Monica and Victor come over to my place
to do their laundry
because there's nothing at their place.
They show up on Sunday
with faded dresses, frayed shirts
and dusty blankets,
placing them with great care
into the squat, barrel-chested wringer
(the whites unsorted from the coloreds).
I put a country’n’western record on
while the clothes and blankets squish -
S'fump   S'fump   S'fump -
turning the water a dull red.

In the lounge room
Monica and Victor sit in green cane chairs
sipping tea and reading comics.
We speak very little to each other.
I don’t want to scare them away -
We are trying very hard.
Our relationship has grown,   so slowly

from nothing    to laundry.



No meat  no rifle  no spear
can’t know em
store hungry
can’t buy em    no money
can’t steal em me
can’t grab em
can’t work em
can’t grip em   my kids
hand broke
workin tractor
can’t feed em
hungry     got angry
not lucky me
can’t fight em

one month
one bed
four wall


                                      Comments about SINGING THE SNAKE


"Billy has lived among our people and has taken the
time to understand us. If there were more people like
him, Australia would be a much better place for all Koori
people. His poems mean a great deal to me."

Ruby Langford
Author, Don't Take Your Love To Town

"One of Billy Marshall Stoneking's great strengths is that he is
very sensitive to the mystery between his own culture
and that of his Aboriginal friends. The long, hard
years of being with the Papunya people have been
illuminated by this sensitivity..."

Barrett Reid
Poet & Editor, Overland

"A teller of wonderful stories who made
me know my shame and my laughter."

Terry Gilmore


The Poetry of Reconcilation

from a treatise by Kelly Gardiner

Although the term has taken on specific macro political meanings in the 1990s, I would suggest that several key modern poets, such as Gwen Harwood, Lee Cataldi, Robert Adamson, and Billy Marshall Stoneking, have consciously involved themselves through their poetry in a process of reconciliation with the indigenous people (past or present) of areas in which they have chosen to live, and that it is these poets who are able to describe the landscapes in ways which are relevant to both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal readers.

They have rejected the overt nationalist search for the Australian identity, choosing instead to map and explore their own emotional and geographical terrain, and accept that myriad identities ought to be possible in a modern society. In doing so, they have defined new and various ways of belonging to the land, expressing that very belonging for which the nationalists fruitlessly searched for decades.

Poets who are unable to come to such a realisation continue the emotional attachments to both a distant European (or indeed any other) home as well as being stuck in the Assimilation step of the process.

Aboriginal poets, such as Lionel Fogarty, are in the process of reconstructing and redefining the alien language and poetic forms in which they have chosen to write in the past, and in doing so have redefined the place of contemporary indigenous poets within Australian poetry. Again, there are new and varied ways of belonging: aiming solely at Aboriginal readers and listeners; aiming at a general readership through publication in the mainstream press; or as part of the flourishing Aboriginal publishing industry which caters to both general and specific readerships.





When the Gutenburg pulled into Papunya
there was no shore to wave from.
The natives came out in bosoms.
No flowers floated on the water.
There was no water.
No orchestra played
"Nearer My God To Thee".
No one knew the passengers;
there were no old-time relatives,
no old country older.
Just a puff of whitefellas
and strange noises
beached on tribal ground
chugging out commas and semicolons,
lower cases and verbs
in anticipation
of that day:  when the HOLY BIBLE
sails down the sands and
weighs anchor in some poor bastard’s

WESTERN DESERT / 1962-1974


On the first night
all the people buried their tins of meat;
it was the wrong color - it’d been dead
too long.

On the second night
- more tins.     A few crazy people
swallowed the meat.  They were hungry,
and the whitefella smiled.

Third night
the crazy people were still alive
so everyone started lining up
for meat - a single file.

Fourth night
a whitefella showed all those ladies
and men the key
on the bottom of the tin.

On the fifth night
all the people were opening their own.

On the sixth night
Titus took Matthew’s meat
by accident - and had his head
split open in a fight.


Tjakamarra says:
"Before camp pie and shoes,
before motor car and Jesus,
before missionary and baby money,
before mining company and police,
before rifle and English,
before guitar,
before card games,
before the Queen,
before pens, pencils and comic books,
before movies and rock and roll,
before blankets, before grog,
cigarettes, pills, bandages, baked beans,
telephones, chicken, and soap;
before doors and scissors,
crowbars and tooth doctors...
we ate kampurarrpa berries and kangaroo,
bush turkey, taakurtutu, witchetty grub and yiparlu.
Yipilypa!   Happy!   Never yawning before the hunt,
we dug cooking holes in the sand,
sitting back on our heels
while our spirits stood straight up in our bodies.

Now, all our names are written down in books,
and flour keeps the people, and tea and sugar
keep the people,    and

everyone is living close to clothes."


This boy learned how to read
This boy learned how to write
This girl learned how to add
This person learned how to speak
This child learned how to count
This boy says ABCs up to "Q"
This child eats pencils - no breakfast
This girl says "yessir" / says "no sir"
This one lost her book
This boy is 75%
This child erases

These people have a word for this,
          one word;
translated, it means:
          "Oh me! How my spirit grows short!"


"A good stick," the headmaster says.
She doesn’t drink.
She comes to work everyday.
She does her job without complaint.
Occasionally, a smile breaks
across her face
watching the children in the playground -
"Red Rover, Red Rover..."
At midday, she sits -
a shadow in the shade,
resting between the clean towels
and unmopped floors.

The camps, the children,
the fires she’s made
curl up like smoke in her eyes.
Beautiful and deep.
She carries the songs,
the secret knowledge of women,
the life of the Land
that no man sees.
And with a sharp eye
catches the crack in the earth
at the base of the wanari tree,
signpost for witchetty grub.

She knows the distances between
every sand-dune, creekbed and rockhole.
In the thickness of her soles
is the recollection of early days,
when she walked Pintupi country
and gave birth in the bush to two sons...
Only one survived.
She saved the retarded one.
She carried him for years on her hip
She has no regrets.
She remembers everything.
She knows who she is.

No one can take that away from her.



fill in the blanks:
      Run ________ me
      Sit ________ me
You live in
Stand _______ and
Hand _______ and
and ________
Tools are kept in this _______
The tooth is
The flag blows
                      in the pram
We will play
                      need & seek
a tray of
a roof
a word that means to begin ________
More than one bone _______
More than one stone _______
More than one note ________

I have ten cents
                           to cry


at the very least, uncle mallarme,
  a bell,
                        a resistance;  or
to be more local:
                around a clap stick),  and
the pounding
of air
      across a tongue,
a throat.
              The word is worker, first -
                             (and then
to make the object action:
the paint falling
                          from the dancer’s body,
the fire,
             ticking away, making
                          its mulga gossip
keeping time
                     with the singers.

there is kinship between us
and the flames.


There are mountains behind my house,
big mountains; I see them from my kitchen window.
I have been watching them closely
for a long time. Today,
a letter arrived from Sydney:
a friend reminding me that soon
I will be coming back to the city.
She says I will love every minute of it;
she can hardly wait.
I wash the dishes and walk around the house.
The mountains outside my kitchen window
haven’t moved.

My son has grown three inches this year
and my wife, at twenty-seven, complains of getting old.
I tell her she is ravishing and she laughs:
“don’t be stupid.”
For four years I have watched
the hairs in my beard turning gray.

Outside my kitchen window
the mountains haven’t moved.

Jenny tells me things have changed in Sydney.
There are soup kitchens again –
first time since the Great Depression.
Everything is dirtier, noisier, but
you can still get a free meal at Hare Krishna.
In the city, all my friends are splitting up.
I haven’t seen a dentist for ages.
In the last two years I’ve put on a stone.
Today, I’m reading a book; it tells me:
“Love endures.”

Outside my window, the mountains haven’t moved.

I’ve got a skin cancer on the bridge of my nose.
The packing boxes are already stacked in the corner.
In three months I’ll be back in the city.
The windows, the buses,
the Proctor & Gamble plant,
the soapy fumes of Rozelle and Balmain,
the speaking “as a matter of course”,
the touching “as a matter of course”,

the rows of doors,
the Land Rights stickers in the windows
of the terraces and semi-detached.

For years I have traveled from one place
to another. In one year I lived
in four different houses.
I am beginning to wonder if, in my life,
I have collected more than I have thrown away…
I haven’t lived in one place longer
than I have lived here.

Outside my window, the mountains haven’t moved.

I write, I smoke, I read stories to my son.
I teach English to Aboriginal boys, and doubt
that even that will help them.
I know I have reached middle-age because
I think about death everyday.
Where does one go from the centre,
except a little closer to the edge?

The windows.   The mountains.

Read Billy Marshall Stoneking's poetry in the official Uluru Guidebook : Uluru, Kata-Tjuta & Watarrka = Ayers Rock, the Olgas & Kings Canyon, by Anne Kerle.  (UNSW Press, 1995)





If people working
Birds look happy
Trees look happy
Sand looks happy.

If sit-down money
Birds look sad
Trees look sad
Sand looks sad.



riley died last night
without a campfire
without his family
without the wind or the sand
without a dollar in the bank
without two good kidneys
without a hand in his hand

from too much medicine
from too much pain

not because he was poor
not because he was black
not because he was misunderstood
no, not because of any of these, no
most assuredly not, no
of course not,
not at all
not at all.

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