Odgeroo Noonuccal was a member of the Noonuccal aboriginal people of North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah in the Noonuccal language) in Queensland, Australia. She was born in 1920, and lived most of her life at a time when the European settlers in Australia were very hostile toward the aboriginal peoples, taking their lands and abolishing their customs, forcing them to abandon their native cultures and join the “white” workforce. Her early life, therefore, was one of integration, though as an aboriginal woman few opportunities were available to her, and often she worked unskilled jobs for meager wages. In the 1950s she became a poet, and dedicated much of her life afterward to activism and pursuing equality for the indigenous peoples of Australia.
This is the context in which her poem “Then and Now” should be read and understood. The poem is written from the point of view of an Aboriginal woman, who is lamenting the forceful destruction of her native lands to make room for the settlers’ industrialization. Dreams of the speaker’s tribe, carefree and happy, are “shattered by rushing car,/by grinding tram and hissing train.” The imagery in the poem juxtaposes a time when, the speaker says, “I had nothing but happiness,” with the negative transformation of her natural world into the ugly, paved world of smoke-belching factories brought by the Europeans when they claimed the land as their own.
In the second verse the speaker recalls landmarks and memories, places where children played or where crops were grown, and contrasts these locations with what they have become: parking lots and office buildings, totally impersonal structures with no emotional or historical value. The speaker mourns the loss of the aboriginal culture: “No more woomera, no more boomerang/No more playabout, no more the old ways.” The poem is sad and wistful, longing for life before it was complicated by the coming of the Europeans, and the speaker laments her own forced integration among them, mocking the way she is regarded by those around her: “Isn’t she lucky to have a good job!” What is luck, when her own history has been splintered and burned down to nothing but memory? What is luck, when she is forced to live our her life in a foreign world in which she will forever be a stranger?
So in short, the poem is about the loss of the aboriginal culture from the point of view of an indigenous woman, and the speaker laments her forced integration into the European way of life through the juxtaposition of her happy childhood in a natural world with the dreary, impersonal, industrialized environment of a modern city.