Thursday, 21 May 2015

Robert Gray - Sketch of the Harbour.

I find myself reaching for a copy of Robert Gray whenever I want to immerse myself in the beauty of a remembered scene or location.  Robert Gray can do that for me – his perfect descriptive lines take me to places I have been and seen and trigger physical memories with an emotional overlay.  Surprisingly, the overlay is the way I know I felt it to be at the time but couldn’t quite grasp it back then.  But Gray comes along and provides expression that makes me breathe, “oh yes!”  I’m including two of Robert Gray’s poems in this post – ‘Sketch of the Harbour’ and ‘Harbour Dusk’.  Both are observations of Sydney Harbour (one of the most beautiful harbours in the world).  I know Sydney Harbour well, having spent weeks and days on warships tied up alongside, and idle hours reflecting on its traffic – just how Robert Gray describes it.  In Sketch of the Harbour, the writer is taking a ride on a public ferry, probably from Circular Quay to Manly (out where yachts have got the space and wind to manoeuvre – “bow (wave) fuming, of a champagne bottle’s lip”).  The period in which the poem was written is revealed by the description of the ferry in the first stanza, “long, wet trajectory of the ferry’s railing, widely outswinging ….”.  They don’t build ferries like that anymore – with passenger deck railings following the graceful curvature of the hull and capped with solid timber.  That has to be in the 1970’s, early 1980’s, last of the double ended, double screw steamship ferries.  For a nostalgic moment and to get the, “ferry’s railing, safely caught in my hand”, go down to Darling Harbour in Sydney and visit the old SS South Steyne – she is an early example of this type of ferry (now converted into a floating restaurant).  For a further appreciation of Sketch of the Harbour, buy a ferry ticket on a sunny Sunday afternoon and take the trip from Circular Quay to Manly.

Sketch of the Harbour

The long, wet trajectory of the ferry’s railing
widely outswinging
is safely caught in my hand.
And I watch a yacht that is coasting by,
at its bow the fuming
of a champagne bottle’s lip.
All about on the harbor the yachts are slowly waltzing,
or in close-up
their ecstatic geometry.
Light fragments crackling above the suburbs and water,
whitely, as from a welder’s torch,
on a soap-white day.
In the shadow of the ferry, the oily, dense water
is flexile, striated
as launching muscles.
But further out, there is only sunlight over a surface –
a constant flickering, like a lit-up
airport control.
And the gulls, white as flying foam, lie beside us here
with the clear balloons of air
underneath their arms.
How apt is the title, Sketch of the Harbour?  It is a sketch – a series of brushstroke words that travel the eye from the railing of the ferry in the first stanza to the nearby racing yachts painted in the next two stanzas, to a description of the light in stanza four, how the water appears in stanza five, and then drawing the eye up to the sky where seagulls hover, “with balloons of air, underneath their arms”.  I note and like the repeated ‘…eeey’ and ‘…ing’ sounds in the poem.

Harbour Dusk is another poem that paints Sydney Harbour in a particular light – this time the sun is set and evening is approaching, “away off, through the strung Bridge (Sydney Harbour Bridge), a sky of mulberry, and orange chiffon.”  In this poem the writer is taking a late afternoon walk with his girl and they pause at one of the many sandstone ocean walls (“stone parapet’s”) you find in public parks dotted around the harbour foreshore – if on the North Shore, then I imagine Milson’s Point, Kirribilli or Cremorne Point.  If on the city side, I’m thinking maybe Elizabeth Bay, Rose Bay or Nielson Park (more likely because the writer is looking, “across … the harbour” to a “far shore of dark, crumbling bush (woodland)” – Bradley’s Head or the National Park).  .  However, for further appreciation of Harbour Dusk, catch a train at sunset across the ‘Bridge’ to Milson’s Point.  Walk through the streets of Kirribilli to the harbour’s edge and the “empty” park.  Find a sandstone wall to lay your hands on, and watch the changing colours of the sky to the west through the arch of the Sydney Harbour (“strung”) Bridge, “of mulberry and orange chiffon, mauve-grey …”.

Harbour Dusk

She and I came wandering there through an empty park,
and we laid our hands on a stone parapet’s
fading life.  Before us, across the oily, aubergine dark
of the harbour, we could make out yachts -
beneath an overcast sky, that was mauve underlit,
against a far shore of dark, crumbling bush.
Part of the city, to our left, was fruit shop bright.
After the summer day, a huge, moist hush.
The yachts were far across the empty fields of water.
One, at times, was gently rested like a quill.
They seemed to whisper, slipping amongst each other,
always hovering, as though resolve were ill.
Away off, through the strung Bridge, a sky of mulberry
and orange chiffon.  Mauve-grey, each cloven sail
like nursing sisters, in a deep corridor: some melancholy;
or nuns, going to an evening confessional.
I like the construction of Harbour Dusk with it’s rhyme and part rhyme pattern.  And there are a couple of lines that keep me thinking what does it mean – one line in the first stanza, “hands on a stone parapet’s fading life”.  What is ‘fading life’ when referred to a stone wall (parapet)?  Is it that darkness is setting in and the parapet is fading from vision?  Or is the actual existence of the parapet ‘fading’ away?  Possible – because a soft sandstone was used extensively in early construction around Sydney Harbour.  This ‘parapet’ (sea-wall) may be one of those made of sandstone that over years has weathered and got worn down by the elements.  I think the second line in the next stanza is a clue, “against a far shore of dark, crumbling bush”.  It’s the word, ‘crumbling’.  The writer is standing at a ‘crumbling’ sea-wall looking across the harbour to natural bushland standing on the harbour’s edge that he sees as also being blown and knocked around to the forces of wind and weather – nature’s ‘crumbling bush’, the man-made ‘crumbling’ wall.  Why not?
In the last stanza there’s the line, “…. each cloven sail – like nursing sisters, in a deep corridor: some menancholy;”.  The word ‘cloven’ used as an adjective must refer to the curved and cleft outline shape of a yacht’s sails; or is the writer inspired by the architectural ‘sails’ of the Sydney Opera House?  Whatever, the phrase,  “like nursing sisters”, further dates the writing of this poem back in the days when nursing sisters carried rank, wore stiff, starched, white veils and breezed through the wards like ships under sail.  When did they stop behaving like that – was it the 1970’s?  OK, so they are viewed as if in a ‘deep corridor’ (in a hospital or a convent somewhere), but what does it mean that some are, ‘melancholy’?  Not all of the sisters (or nuns), only ‘some’ are melancholy, the others are not.  I believe the sails of the Sydney Opera House are the inspiration for these lines.  Viewed as a nurse or nun’s veil, each sail frozen in position expresses an emotion – there are some sails that are tilted open toward the sky, giving an expression of joy.  There are others that bow in to themselves, appearing to be ‘melancholy’.  Don’t take my word for it, come to Sydney and walk the harbour foreshore with Robert Gray.

My link to Robert Gray’s descriptive poems of vessels and harbours comes from a descriptive poem I wrote some time ago but recently dug out and re-visited.  I try to be disciplined in keeping a diary/journal – have done for years.  I find capturing observations and thoughts at the moment, even in the crudest form, helps to preserve emotional memory, so when you want to come back and reflect you find that your recorded entries do provide a wonderful source of creativity and insight.  Here is my ‘revised’ poem, At Sea.  Following the poem are the original diary notes from which I settled on the final version.

1988.  On board HMAS Canberra.  We’re heading down to Hobart for the tall ships race and celebrations.  This particular day is overcast and bleak; a cool day, threatening to rain.  The wind is cold.  I hunch into my overalls, hands in pockets. We sail quite close to the coast somewhere south of Eden.
At Sea
The sea entirely silver in our wake,
The sky complete with clouds,
Mark the chart somewhere south of Eden,
And for the moment you might like to make
It 1770, opening up some of Cookie’s old tracks,
Just as leisurely laid with scarce way on,
Standing off green mountain peaks he held to port,
And this our world dreamtime gentle all over,
The roll of the ship, the stillness of land,
White birds we name sea ducks for escort,
And brown forest birds tip their wings to water,
Giving natural pleasure in the master’s hand,
Laying up only the sun to be caught,
Warm between the blades of our shoulders.
At Sea (diary notes)

The sea is silver in our wake.
Only clouds in the sky,
Over the rising peaks of land off to starboard.
Birds fly low over the gently chopped water.
A white hulled fishing boat,
Makes pitching progress across our line of advance.
Off to port is a grey merchantman,
Caught up between us, Hobart and Torrens.
We alter course and head directly for the land.
The sun can be felt just warm on my back,
Through the material of my overalls.
Exposed skin of face and hands pleasantly cool to a light breeze.
A big, white sea bird floats in the water as we sail by.
Everything is gentle,
The roll of the ship,
The stillness of the land,
The vastness of the sky,
Puffed white clouds,
Gliding birds,
Froth of surging waves.
We got closer to the shore,
And the folds in the land can be seen.
A flock of brown birds are disturbed in our path.
Hundreds of them wheel above the water,
And settle again further ahead,
Only to be disturbed,
Once more as we move up to them,
Across the sea.
                                                          J. O. White.


Saturday, 2 May 2015

Cyril Tawney - I Was Walking Through the Dockyard in a Panic

Another Anzac day, and I sunk a few schooners with Lofty, Jim and Bob down at the Swansea RSL.  We crapped on about how we were mistreated at Nirimba and we recounted all the mean pricks we had ever come across in the Navy – remember Lefty Mort, or was it Larry?  And remember the time I got stoppage of leave because I was only two packets over on the cigarette allowance.  Those were the days – the people who seemed to get the dream run; the others who were always hard done by!  It made me think of one of my favourite Cyril Tawney songs, I Was Walking Through the Dockyard in a Panic.  This is a catchy tune about one of those characters you come across who for some reason manages to avoid getting posted to sea - always land based in a naval depot or dockyard.  They earned themselves the name, “depot stanchion” from sea-going sailors – not a flattering name because the sea-going sailor felt he was the one having to do the ‘hard yards’, putting in the arduous duty, while the “depot stanchion” got to go home every night.  He had the luxury of drinking in the local every weekend and did not have to suffer the discomfort and hardship of being on a ship at sea.

I Was Walking Through the Dockyard in a Panic
            (Cyril Tawney 1930 -2005)
I was walking through the dockyard in a panic,
When I met a matelot old and grey,
Upon his back he had his bag and hammock,
And this is what I heard him say.
I wonder, yes I wonder,
Has the Jaunty made a blunder,
When he served this draft chit out for me.
For years I’ve been a stanchion,
I’m the pride of Jago’s mansion,
It’s a shame to send me off to sea.
I like my ‘Pride of Keyham’ and I like my weekend leave,
And I always bring the Western to the Chief,
Oh, I wonder, yes I wonder,
Has the Jaunty made a blunder,
When he served this draft chit out for me.
Shall I wander out to sunny straits in glory,
On a trooper that is chocker block,
If I speak to shipmates who have gone before me,
They are sure to double up with shock.
I wonder, yes I wonder,
Has the Jaunty made a blunder,
When he served this draft chit out for me.
For though we’ve lots of funnels,
We’re never rolling gunnels,
And I’m always home in time for tea.
I’ve gazed upon the ocean while walking on the Hoe,
Though I own that that was very long ago,
But t’ain’t no use to holler,
I’ll have to raise a dollar,
And wangle back to R.N.B.

My link to Cyril Tawney’s ‘bleat’ coming from “a matelot, old and grey”, is an imagined matelot’s ‘beef’ I have written.  As is the custom, a more senior rating listens patiently to a sailor’s whinging (“ain’t it awful, ain’t it awful”), and then addresses it with a bigger ‘hard done by’ story to make it seem the sailor’s concerns are insignificant.  In this case, overshadowed by how the loss and subsequent treatment of HMAS Yarra’s crew played itself out in WWII.  HMAS Yarra was a little warship, a Grimsby class sloop built in Australia.  In August 1940, not long after the outbreak of war with Germany, ‘Yarra’ was sent as an attachment to the RN Red Sea force and took part in a number of actions to secure that part of the Middle East for the Allies.  She then deployed to the Mediterranean acting as an escort for shipping between Alexandria and Tobruk.  In need of maintenance and repair, ‘Yarra’ was on her way back to Australia when the Japanese invaded Malaya (late 1941).  The ship found herself diverted to take up escort duties for shipping coming in and out of Singapore.  That duty continued up until the fall of Singapore.  Then in early 1942, south of Java in the escort of a merchant convoy HMAS Yarra encountered a Japanese cruiser squadron.  ‘Yarra’ valiantly sacrificed herself in a futile attempt to protect the convoy (only 13 members of her crew survived).  In spite of HMAS Yarra’s heroic action (considered to be the bravest act in Australian naval history), not one of her crew were recommended for nor ever received a medal.  A young gunner, Leading Seaman Taylor was reported to have remained at his action station when abandon ship was called and kept firing at the enemy to the time he went down with his ship.
2015.  I set out to research and write an historical poem about the loss of HMAS Yarra in world war two.  In reflecting on ‘Yarra’s’ story I can’t help but feel injustice – injustice that men were separated from their families for almost two years and then killed, never to return; injustice that their bravery and sacrifice has never been acknowledged.

The Getting of Medals
they don’t give you bloody medals
for doing your duty mate!
just ask the boys off the Yarra,
why don’t cha!?
that’s right, ya can’t, cos
they’re all bloody dead!
but that being said,
I bet they don’t bleat,
half as much as you! What,
‘cos you happen to be duty,
one in three!
when here we are mate,
alive, still sucking air,
stepping ashore everywhere,
while back on Yarra!
two years away, two bloody years!
keeping the Red Sea clear,
can you believe it!
four months, mate,
with never a day’s leave,
and then a lousy Bombay refit,
on bully beef and biscuits,
when excuse me, you get your duff
every night and still arc up.
Oh, can’t go to sleep!
‘cos it’s too cold in the mess deck?
now that takes the cake,
try being on the Yarra, mate,
running bloody air attacks,
in and out of Tobruk and back,
you don’t know flogged on your feet,
you don’t know hot,
not ‘til you’ve served on a sloop
in the Mediterranean,
then follow that up,
with being told,
you’re going home, mate,
to oh,
there’s been a change of plan,
you’re now acting convoy escort,
Sunda Strait to Singapore.
How do you feel? How do ya feel!
Just doing your duty, mate!
the wife and family can wait.
Well, they’re waiting a bloody long time.
You can’t taunt three Jap cruisers,
and not expect a bruising,
Yarra, or anyone else afloat!
Yeah, medals……….
if they were handing out medals
for doing your duty, mate,
I’d swim down there to Yarra’s wreck,
and pin one on Squizzy Taylor’s chest.
Nah, if it’s medals and bloody life
you’re after, then better play safe,
and get yourself posted, mate,
side-boy to an admiral’s wife!
                                                         J. O. White

Saturday, 18 April 2015

ANZAC day 2015 - Wilfred Owen; Siegfried Sassoon

Into April and almost ANZAC day once more – an Australian remembrance of the blunder at Gallipoli and how the Turks kicked our arses all the way back to Bondi.  Oh alright then, it’s a celebration of historic events that defined us for who we are as a nation and epitomises the ‘Aussie’ spirit of mateship, true grit and cheerful perseverance in the face of struggle and adversity – there!  Of course few of the poor beggars who took part in Gallipoli would have appreciated that.  Normally at ANZAC day I’m looking for a Naval poem to post – the Navy being my background and tradition.  But this year happens to be the 100th anniversary of when Australian and New Zealand troops were put ashore at Gallipoli, so I thought it might be more fitting to revisit favourite poems that come out of the great war (WW1) – poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Blunden, Rosenberg, Graves …..  Reading these guys makes you appreciate how the art of poetry can capture a moment in time and make it as moving and stark as any artist’s painting or cameraman’s photo – more so I believe, because it is through the arrangement of words forming our civilised tongue that common emotion is stirred within us most strongly.  That’s how I feel about Wilfred Owen’s, Dulce Et Decorum Est.  Wilfred was English and must have been a man of true grit – he enlisted in 1915 (2nd Lieutenant), treated for shellshock, sent back to the UK, returned to France and the front line in 1918 and was killed in action on the fourth of November (one week before Armistice Day).  Wilfred Owen was strongly influenced and mentored by another great WW1 poet, Siegfried Sassoon.  He and Sassoon met when Wilfred was being treated for shellshock in the UK.  Both these poets tell of how life really was at the front, in the trenches – pull no punches; a strong protest against war which is in contrast to some of the patriotic fervour written at the start of the war by poets such as Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas.  The title of the poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est forms part of a more complete quote given in the last line – “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, (The old Lie: It is sweet and right to die for your country.).  Literal translation of the title?  Sweet and Right/Fitting/Honourable/Glorious it is!

 Dulce Et Decorum Est
(Wilfred Owen – 1893 to 1918)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.  Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood shod.  All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …..
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes
Writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen has not chosen the title of his poem by accident – way back around 50 BC a Roman poet named Horace coined the phrase in one of his Odes, III.2.13.  The quote was also inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1913 (wonder if it’s still there?).  I reckon Wilfred must have sat in that chapel as a young, raw officer, reflected on those words; perhaps romantically embraced them at the time and then spat them back bitterly when he had a taste of reality of war on the western front.
Two things in a poem for me – ‘content’ and ‘construction’.  Dulce Et Decorum Est satisfies my need for content – clear that it’s about a company of soldiers making their way out of the front line to a rest area (“towards our distant rest began to trudge”) when they come under a chlorine or mustard gas attack.  Standard procedure is for somebody to yell “Gas! Gas!” (expelling air from their lungs so as not to breathe it in).  This alerts others to put their gas masks on (“…. fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets ….”).  One man is slow to react and is overcome by the gas before getting his mask on (“…. someone  …flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …”).  The effect of the gas is horrific (“… guttering, choking, drowning.  The blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs …”).  Another reference to gas masks is in the second stanza (“ ..through the misty panes and thick green light,”).  This is the poet looking through the green tinted glass that was fitted to WW1 style gas masks.  “Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines …” tells us that the soldiers have moved beyond the range (“outstripped”) of the enemy artillery firing 5.9 calibre shells.
I have to admire the construction of this poem also.  Look at the rhyme structure – it supports the presentation of two sonnets – the first one speaks of action in the present tense (the poet is there as things are happening).  The second sonnet puts the poet at a distance from the horror.  He’s having nightmares about what he’s experienced and they are full of sights and sounds of the human body in tortured death.  Oh there is no glory (tell with such high zest …”).

Now my link to Wilfred Owen and Australian soldiers in WW1 was formed last year when I was fortunate to visit Ypres in Belgium.  Many Australian soldiers fought and died defending that town in the five battles of Ypres (some 36000 killed or wounded).  Plus many more UK and Commonwealth troops marched out of Ypres on their way to the front crossing an ancient bridge and moat at a place called Menin Gate.  After the war, a memorial was erected there to commemorate the names of over 54000 men who died and have no known graves (bodies not identified or found).  The names of the soldiers are carved on the stone walls.  Menin Gate is now a very popular tourist attraction.  Something I found out while researching for this post (which tells me now that it’s good to do your study before going on holiday), prior to WW1 there were two stone lions guarding the Menin Gate (not there now).  They were removed to prevent them being damaged during the war, and then after the war they were donated to Australia and now sit at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra – how about that; visited there many times but I’ve never noticed them lions.  Also, if you are going to visit Menin Gate (being a poetry lover), research beforehand the origin of Latin quotes carved on the external walls of the memorial.
Having walked down the road to Menin Gate to witness a ceremony of the last post, I wanted to write my observations, my thoughts, feelings – I thought the emotion would be ‘moving’, ‘reverent’ – and I’m sure it could have been except for the millions of other people who seemed to be jostling desperately to be a survivor.  And then I thought, I guess this is akin to the WW1 western front experience – go with it!  So I wrote, At Menin Gate 2014.  The first line of Wilfred Owen’s poem gave me my first line, “Stretched craning like goons at an accident site.”
The opening ceremony for the Menin Gate memorial was held in 1927.  At that time the English poet, Siegfried Sassoon wrote a poem titled, On Passing the New Menin Gate.  I include it here as an extra because it is such an emotional, strong protest on how he, a soldier who experienced the war feels betrayal and insult by those who sent young men to wasteful slaughter, and then try to honour it through a pile of stones built in an arch (“ ..ever an immolation (sacrifice) so belied (failed to act up to)”).
  On Passing the New Menin Gate
(Siegfried Sassoon – 1886 to 1967)
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, -
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.
Here was the world’s worst wound.  And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

2014.  September – we meet up with our UK friends and do a motoring tour of Europe.  First stop is Ypres (Leper).  I’m done over by what I can only describe as the ‘touristification’ of significant sites, the bus loads of camera snappy visitors.
At Menin Gate 2014
Stretched craning like goons at an accident site.
Bodies pressed tip toe skittish as meerkats,
we cuss arriving late for taps at the Menin Gate.
Now a mob has amassed in ignorance already,
amidst this lurking, baffling smell of horseshit,
but for the horse, there appears to be not one.
Two Romanians roll loose tobacco and stare at women.
School girls on foreign excursion flirt in frayed shorts,
run away and giggle from youths
become weary with walls
which they know are meant to be sad,
but really man, what can ya do?
And the Japanese girls comprehend nothing at all.
Then a trumpet rustles it to silence and look.
And from the silence as many lit iPhone screens
on sticks,
rise irreverent to capture something on facebook –
You went to Ypres, what was it like?
And casting around at the common eyed curiosity,
a sense of dull pity dawns, this
the surviving DNA?
While the best of mankind’s seed went to waste?
Spilled in the fields of Flanders,
And all up over the walls of the Menin Gate?
                                                                                                                 J. O. White