fine print

A Response to Sidney Nolan’s Central Desert: Atomic Test (1952–57)

Article by:

Marlee Silva’s work was read by Louise Wellington, a Warlpiri/Luritja woman who grew up in Alice Springs. Louise is Associate Producer at Actnow Theatre, a poet and writer, most recently writing for Decameron 2.0. Photo: Thomas McCammon.

Play Audio


A Poem About Mother

Dirt and dust and stinging eyes,
Blood red, blood dead, blood earth and skies.

They kept telling us, be ready when it comes,
We kept yelling back, what’s done is done.

Layers on layers,
For years upon years,
You’ve taken and taken from her,
been blind to her tears.

Mother at our feet, mother in our veins,
Mother carries our hopes and she carries our pain.

She’s got stories for every scar,
Sees no glory in what you’ve achieved so far.

Not in the ways you’ve cracked open her ribs, to harvest her breath.
Not in the war and the waste – not in the centuries of theft.

Not in Hiroshima – not in Maralinga
Like the mob of that place, she too knows it’s Mamu Pulka*.

She owes us none and we owe her our all,
Now we watch her exhaustion,
her hollowed, broken state,
and how finally,
she’s beginning fall.
Dirt and dust and stinging eyes,
Blood soaked earth, red fury skies.

Flames fuel ash-stained air,
Singed feathers, fur, homes and lungs
- devastation everywhere.

Flooding tears, ignored no more,
She set them free, she let it pour.

And you’ve got nobody else left to blame,
You played her abundance – as if it were a game.

Only fear now forces questions asked,
Of lessons learnt, of expertise,
from the past.

Sixty-thousand years of a peace so rare,
But only now, you suddenly care?

They kept telling us, be ready when it comes,
We kept yelling back, what’s done is done,

And now I’m scared, so aren’t you too?
I’m scared because, what’s left to do?

How do we soothe her scars? Or heal her open wounds?
Can we answer these questions without feeling all-consumed?

Dirt and dust and stinging eyes,
Blood dead, blood earth, blood curdled cries.

Mother in our veins, we hear her screams,
Mother owns our stories, mother holds our dreams.

There’ve been many before us – before so called ‘man’,
many thousands of feet, scales and claws, upon this land,

Running, swimming, slithering, dancing, jumping along
- all since time began.

And perhaps, there will be too, more that follow when our time comes to an end,
But I can’t help thinking, what if this finale, is just around the bend?

After all these years and after all our violence,
Mother might just destroy us, for her own break
and some silence.

Each heart that has beat on her soil, is born from her,
And truth be told, we belong to her.

So if she turns the tables and she calls us home,
To fold our weary bones back in to the ground
from where they were loaned,

If she asks we return the heartbeat we borrowed
I’m not sure we have a case to ask for more tomorrows.

Dirt and dust and stinging eyes,
Blood red, blood dead, blood earth and skies.

Mother at our feet, mother in our veins,
Mother we are sorry; I am sorry,
I am heavy with your pain.

*Mamu Pulka, Pitjantjatjara for "Big Evil” – the name Maralinga Tjarutja people use to describe the tests

A Letter in 2021

Dear you/them/everyone,

How are things? More relaxed since we made it through 2020, hey?
Just wanted to check in on ya, and me? Well, I feel warm most days.

Then I’m cold the next.
While COVID numbers are shrinking, other viruses keep growing
– and I think they pose a bigger threat.

Remember this time last year? Feels a life time ago in so many ways.
But I see masks today and still think of when we first wore them for safety
through smoke and haze.

How are you sleeping now? I get OK hours most nights,
but they’re constantly broken – ever wake up trying to catch your breath, with a fright?

Watched any good Netflix shows lately?
Everyone hates the news, because they say it feels constantly dark,
but I don’t get it ‘cause the stories that keep me up barely get a start.

Behind my closed lids, I see case numbers sky rocket and not the COVID kind –
I’m talking incarceration, deaths in custody,
sacred sites destroyed, kids stolen from families

and even, suicide.

Remember ‘Black Lives Matter’? Remember black squares in our feeds?
Do you think we’ve done enough to reconcile within ourselves,

our duties to be better, to meet everyone’s needs?

The world has changed and so have we,
But has it been enough? Or even for the better?
Do you wonder whether we’ll ever again feel a sense of normality?

How’s your family? How’s work? Did you ever perfect that sourdough recipe?
What have you learned? What will you do with it? And if you are coping, comfortably –

could you please share your answers with me?

Do you ever feel like we’re scavengers in a wasteland after disaster? Like we’re scrambling to pick up pieces of what’s left or what’s newly unveiled, to give us meaning again?

I just guess lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about who I wanna be, what within me still needs
to be thrown out and who or what can remain...

Anyway give me a call if you’ve got the time – or a text or a whatsapp or a DM,
Whatever it’s all fine.

And in the end, I am grateful it’s more relaxed since we made it through 2020, hey? So goodbye for now, just wishing you and me and all of us a future filled
with more blue skies than grey.


A Poem to Remember Who You Are

For sixty-thousand years,
As sure as the sun rises and rests,
My people have thrived,
they have survived,

Emerging stronger than the best.

A couple hundred years ago,
Ghosts sailed in, called it ‘Sydney Cove’,
My people were there on the shore,
Living in peace, no need to wish for more.

But they saw not us, only our beautiful land;
To them, she was a shiny treasure trove.

They made us sick, moved us off our homes,
Counted us with plants and animals, unlike them,
we weren’t free to roam.

They forbid our culture;
tried to break our souls,
They took our language, our dance, our songs,
and worst of all, was our children they stole.

But when they knocked us down, my people stood straight back up.
Slowly but surely, they pushed their way toward the top.

On football fields and running tracks,
In classrooms and boardrooms, in government and galleries, on stage and on screen,
My people are loud in their success and in the ways that they fight back,
Oh how their greatness must be seen!

And it’s this which we must always remember, when hope feels lost,
We have always fought to overcome,
Unafraid or unconcerned with any thought of personal cost.
That’s who we are, the beat of our many hearts, one powerful, united drum.

No amount of destruction they made,
no matter how much Ghosts caused our tears,

As sure as the sun rises and rests,
My people will thrive and survive,
For sixty-thousand more years.