Friday, 30 November 2012

Bruce Dawe - 'homecoming'.

I place Bruce Dawe up there at the top in my list of contemporary Australian poets who I admire.  Like others on the list (e.g. Robert Gray and Les Murray), Dawe comes from a rural, farming background (born 1930).  Each of these poets writes great descriptive verse of the landscape and country life.  How is that?  A childhood spent in idle paddocks, self reflective, talking the ears off corn and cows, maybe?  I’m not much of a descriptive writer myself so stand to learn a lot from reading their work.  Bruce Dawe spent a couple of years in the Royal Australian Air Force (1959 - 1968) and some of his poems reflect his knowledge of the military.  When I look back to how old I was before I heard of Bruce Dawe, I reckon I lived a deprived childhood.  It was a girl I once knew in Melbourne who introduced me to his poetry.  She had studied him at school.  My education was in the Queensland public system.  While we were doing Shakespeare, Dorothea MacKellar and Henry Kendell, it appears down in the Victorian Catholic school system they were being fed modern thought from guys like Bruce Dawe.  I couldn’t believe it.  I can now.  Bruce became a Catholic convert in 1954 (24 years old).  He and I have parallels; the girl was Catholic, but the choice was mine; life leads you.  Back to Bruce – in his early poems I can see why Catholic education included him in their curriculum early in his popularity and before the public system.  At first reading, Bruce’s poetry may appear irreverent if a person’s perception is of a prim and proper devout church goer (especially in the 1950’s, 1960’s).  But on further reading, one finds Bruce Dawe actually renders the subject of working class social life to reflect it exactly as it is.  And in it’s honesty it can’t be anything else but acceptable.  The Catholic laity read the words from their ‘boy’ and say, “ain’t that the truth”.  He deals with life in a way that enfolds it in wry humour, Irish Catholic humour, acceptable social truth for the modern Catholic.  With such a build up I should be giving you ‘Wood-eye’, or ‘Life Cycle’ or ‘At Shagger’s Funeral’, but I’m not (another post).  For now I want to include what is perhaps Bruce Dawe’s most famous and influential poem – ‘Homecoming’.  This was written in 1968 and is seen as an anti-war poem opposed to the war in Vietnam.  It has such a tragic tone to it, a machine, production line beat.  Something I hook up with in the poem’s construction is the lack of full stops, no ending of one sentence, stop, starting another one (enjambment).  The lines proceed in one read from 1 to 26.  No rhyme or standard metre but still flowing and easy to read (and recite).
(Bruce Dawe, 1930 -)
All day, day after day, they’re bringing them home,
they’re picking them up, those they can find, and bringing them home,
they’re bringing them in piled on the hulls of Grants, in trucks, in convoys,
they’re zipping them up in green plastic bags,
they’re tagging them now in Saigon, in the mortuary coolness
they’re giving them names, they’re rolling them out of
the deep-freeze lockers – on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut
the noble jets are whining like hounds,
they are bringing them home
- curly heads, kinky-hairs, crew-cuts, balding non-coms
- they’re high, now, high and higher, over the land, the steaming chow mein,
their shadows are tracing the blue curve of the Pacific
with sorrowful quick fingers, heading south, heading east,
home, home, home – and the coasts swing upward, the old ridiculous
of earth, the knuckled hills, the mangrove-swamps, the desert emptiness …
in their sterile housing they tilt towards these like skiers
- taxiing in, on the long runways, the howl of their homecoming rises
surrounding them like their last moments (the mash, the splendour)
then falling at length as they move
on to small towns where dogs in the frozen sunset
raise muzzles in mute salute,
and to the cities in whose wide web of suburbs
telegrams tremble like leaves from a wintering tree
and the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry
-        they’re bringing them home, now, too late, too early.
War and the prospect of war is a trembling thing the closer you get to the action.  I don’t know if Bruce Dawe ever intended ‘homecoming’ to be an anti-war poem.  I tend to think that he didn’t.  I think the poem was written at such a time and it resounded with such heavy grief and dulled remorse that those who were keen to find anything anti-war wanted it to be an anti-war poem.  Also, I’ve read some reviews that think the poem refers to Australian dead being brought back home.  I would say no, it’s referring solely to the many American casualties.  Australia just never had the numbers to be ‘bringing them home, day after day’; it’s more likely that Australian transport would have been by RAAF Hercules, a prop driven aircraft, not ‘jets whining like hounds’; I believe Australian casualty evacuation would have been from Vung Tau, not ‘deep freeze lockers in Saigon’; and to me, ‘curly heads, kinky-hairs, crew-cuts, balding non-coms’ epitomises an Australian view of the American serviceman – kinky-hair negro representation, severe marine crew-cut, balding older career soldiers with stripes.
My poem for this post is Duty’, somewhat influenced by ‘homecoming’ (I include a dog and I try to project the senselessness of it all).  Now I don’t believe my poem is an anti-war poem.  It’s more an ‘anti-apathy about anything to do with war’ poem.  Our men and women in uniform have little choice when a decision is made to go to war.  Most of them and their families don’t like it either, but they perform their duty in the way they’ve been trained.  So it ticked me off when some people in the public responded to sailors expressing concern about going to the first Gulf war with things like, “It’s part of their job; they knew what to expect when they joined; they chose to do that; it’s a condition of service ……….”

1990.  Cardiff, New South Wales.  ANZAC day and we walked down to the local RSL club where they were holding a night remembrance service.  There were dozens of small, white crosses planted in the lawn.  Iraq had invaded Kuwait.  Ships were going over to join forces.  There was some open grumbling from the forces about employment conditions, war and potential sacrifice.  The general public gave no sympathy.
A black dog slopes along,
head hung low, pauses
to sniff and piss on the wall
of the Cardiff RSL,
an act of bored indifference
to his master’s strange struggle,
sending other son’s names
to be carved in gold
on a small town cenotaph.
The dog moves on to debate the moon
which he doesn’t see,
a silver nail pressed into the night
against the wind,
blowing through coloured plastic ribbons
in a deserted used car parking lot,
but the flags flap urgently,
as if they had been corners of patriotic fervour
waving from tall city windows,
sending other son’s names
to be carried as heroes
through the streets
in a small town vets parade.
The men are huddled in the port hangar now,
she’s listing heavily that way
and there’s nobody and nothing to right it
since the chief tiff took two and disappeared
into the smoke,
they haven’t come back
and somewhere in the night
the black dog barks,
other son’s names
who should’ve known,
 ………it was a condition of service.
                                                                                                                              JO White

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Elizabeth Bishop - poetry and voice.

In my post before last, I was recalling the influence some of Elizabeth Bishop’s work has had on me (Songs for a Colored Singer)- especially in developing a habit of listening more closely to what people are saying and how they are saying it (eavesdropping on conversation).  My grandmother used to say it was rude, especially if I was listening in on one of her conversations. But I don’t think it is. I’m not listening for gossip and I’m not wired with a voice recorder. Well, with grandma it was gossip. It’s doing your study so you can faithfully capture and record the simple, everyday ebb and drift of people’s lives. Through her poems you can tell Elizabeth observed people very closely.  You don’t get the same thing from movie scripts or in song lyrics or in live interviews as you do in a poem. Those conversations have been structured, planned, considered; they’re going somewhere.   Whereas, in a lot of cases the ordinary bloke in the street has conversation going nowhere- just talking crap, making stuff up while having a smoke, a beer, or crib and a cup of coffee. It’s in these ‘nothing’words, the mundane, that you may find the content for fresh, spontaneous poetry. It’s not always about grandiose dreams and struggling emotion. I came across the following poem, A Gude Buke (Stephen Mulrine). It ticks all the boxes - a broad Scottish accent that compels me to try and recite it, conversational voice that makes me believe the poet pays attention to people talking, constructed rhyme, and an amusing twist (hook) at the end – I like it!

A Gude Buke
(Stephen Mulrine, 1975)
Noise and Smokey Breath – An Illustrated Anthology of
Glasgow Poems 1900 - 1983, edited by Hamish Whyte
Ah like a gude buke
a buke’s aw ye need
jis settle doon
hiv a right gude read
Ay, a gude buke’s rerr
it makes ye think
nuthin tae beat it
bar a gude drink
Ah like a gude buke
opens yir mine
a gude companion
tae pass the time
See me wi a buke, bit
in a bus ur a train
canny whack it
wee world I yir ain
A, ah like a gude buke
widny deny it
dje know thon wan
noo – whit dje cry it?
Awright, pal, skip it
awright, keep the heid
howm ah tae know
yir tryin tae read?

Sailors share a unique vocabulary developed over the generations and years at sea.  And they love to tell stories (dits), possibly out of boredom of long hours on watch, or off watch with nothing to do – before today’s technology.  Likewise, miners often spent a lot of idle time between shifts in remote locations and so they loved to tell yarns and talk of things that happened years ago.  I wonder if that art of story telling will survive now that people tend to retreat to privacy and jump on the laptop or i-pad.  Anyway, I’m glad I listened and captured some of the crap going nowhere in my Mining Talk (Elizabeth may have rendered it differently):

2004.  I worked short spells doing contract stints in coalmines in Queensland, up the Hunter Valley and western New South Wales.  As an outsider, conversation at night, sitting on the step of a demountable or in a make-shift bar was mostly listening.
Mining Talk

Box cut, pre-strip, magnetite,
We dig all day and we dig all night.
They got one of the best dragline operators in the Bowen Basin,
Back in under him any time, no hesitation,
Anybody bought a five hundred series recently,
And never bought the five-fifty,
Got something wrong with his fucking head,
Hey, fucking beautiful machine, the big red,
You put one of them on a bench, hey,
Dig all fucking day,
Only two of em left still swinging,
Can’t beat rope shovel rigging,
No, I’m wrong, lying to ya,
They got one over in South Africa.
Custard nuts and his brother were ex-Navy blokes,
Worked here as fitters,
Christ they were a bloody pair,
There’s a machine up the front,
Every time it starts up,
It still goes clunk, clunk, clunk,
And the boys say, that’s custard’s job.
He had two tattoos on his backside,
Or hands pulling his arse apart, or something,
He run a Melbourne Cup sweep here once,
Collected all the money from the boys,
And then pissed off with it,
Still worked here, mind you,
Talk about thick skin,
Anyway the boys got him one pay day ….
He says how come,
There’s 87 questions,
In the VLC
Assessment, and in the Franna Crane there’s only 53
And the Franna’s fucking well four times bigger
Than a Hi-Ab lifter.
I says use your fucking head, mate,
Think about it (finger tapping in sense),
Where are they hav’n all the accidents?
                                                                                                        J.O. White

Friday, 23 November 2012

Slessor - 'Metempsychosis', an interpretation.

In my blog I don't set myself up to be a critic or to joust in the world of academics, but I feel compelled to set the record straight about the meaning of Kenneth Slessor's poem Metempsychosis.  As I've posted previously, I love this poem.  It's one of my favourite Slessor poems.  I've been influenced by it in my own work.  It has profound meaning to me and brings me closer to Slessor, the man than some of his other poems.  So I'm cruising the net keen to see how others feel about Metempsychosis and I come across essays and interviews that just blow my mind.  How can people apply these interpretations?  It makes me wonder whether it's the reason Slessor stopped publishing well before his time Poetry and art - why does one assume there must be greater meaning; why do some poets feel they must obscure meaning?  This is an extract of an essay/journal written by Kate Lilley, "Living Backward" (Slessor & Masculine Elegy), University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1997 (  The extract gives an interpretation of Metempsychosis.  Now I don't know the context in which Kate wrote, or had to write the essay.  Maybe she had to argue along a certain academic line about a poem selected purely for study.  Anyway, this is Kenneth Slessor's Metempsychosis, Kate's critique, and my take on the poem:
(Kenneth Slessor, 1901 - 1971)
Suddenly to become John Benbow, walking down William
With a tin trunk and a five-pound note, looking for a place
               to eat,
And a peajacket the colour of a shark’s behind
That a Jew might buy in the morning ……
To fry potatoes (God save us!) if you feel inclined,
Or to kiss the landlady’s daughter, and no one mind,
In a peel-papered bedroom with a whistling jet
And a picture of the Holy Virgin ………
Wake in a shaggy bale of blankets with a fished-up
Picking over ‘Turfbird’s Tattle’ for a Saturday morning
With a bottle in the wardrobe easy to reach
And a blast of onions from the landing ……..
Tattooed with foreign ladies’ tokens, a heart and dagger
In places that make the delicate female inquirer screech,
And over a chest smoky with gunpowder-blue –
Behold! – a mermaid piping through a coach-horn!
Banjo-playing, firing off guns, and other momentous things
               to do,
Such as blowing through pea-shooters at hawkers to
               Improve the view –
Suddenly paid-off and forgotten in Woolloomooloo ……
Suddenly to become John Benbow …….
Kate Lilley (Slessor & Masculine Elegy). "In “Metempsychosis” Slessor projects himself into the generic character of John Benbow and the romance of urban shiftlessness:  “Suddenly paid-off and forgotten in Woolloomooloo”.  Benbow is offered as the icon of spontaneous, independent, improvised masculinity, free from work and routinised heterosexual domesticity (of the kind which encumbers Alexander Home): “walking down William Street/With a tin trunk and a five-pound note, looking for a place to eat”.  His tattooed body, with its “places that make the delicate female inquirer screech”, is the ground of the inscription of desire, but Slessor's desire is nothing less than “Suddenly to become John Benbow …”, the phrase with which Slessor opens and closes the circle of his intricately and asymmetrically rhymed poem with its long, rangy (“walking”) line.  A triple rhyme (“do”, “view”, “Woolloomooloo”) leads to the suspended last line, “Suddenly to become John Benbow …” the only unrhymed line in the poem, but also an exact repetition of the poem's opening phrase.  The final aposiopesis marks a space of contingency and overlap, but also of equivocation and impossibility. It is both an attempt “suddenly” to instantiate Slessor as Benbow, to effect metempsychosis, and a strategy to keep the wishful circuit of metempsychosis open, to indicate a suspended structure of eternal return."
I have a completely different take on John Benbow compared to the interpretation offered by Kate Lilley.  To me the poem is about a sailor, a matelot, a junior rating, a man who has done his time in the Navy.  It is not "Slessor projecting himself into a generic character (John Benbow) or a suggested romance of urban shiftlessness".  How do we know this?  Because:
“Walking down William Street – Slessor didn't place John Benbow in William Street by chance.  William Street is the major road leading up to Kings Cross in Sydney.  Kings Cross is a red-light / night-life suburb at the bottom of which is Garden Island, the main naval base for the Royal Australian Navy (in Slessor’s time anyway).  Every Australian service man who ever pulled on blue serge knows William Street (and also thousands of swabs, gobs, tars, shellbacks who have ever visited from foreign navies).  If you’re up the ‘Cross’ or ‘walking down William Street’, then there’s a greater than even chance you’re a ‘pusser’ (a sailor).  Slessor lived all his life up around the ‘Cross’ and Darlinghurst.  He spent time as a war correspondent in WWII.  He would have been very familiar with sailors, their social mannerisms, habits and behaviours around Kings Cross.
“With a tin trunk and a five pound note looking for a place to eat …..”  This is not Slessor painting a picture of himself with some hidden desire to be "spontaneous, independent, improvised masculinity, free from work and routinised heterosexual domesticity".  No, this is John Benbow, the poor bastard who has only this minute taken his discharge from the Navy.  The ‘tin trunk’ is a sailor’s sea chest containing all of his kit and worldly possessions (in Slessor’s time; later to become a ‘kit bag’).  The ‘five pound note’ is the sailor’s final discharge pay, leave and travel allowance. 
“And a peajacket the colour of a shark’s behind” – Sailors wear ‘peajackets’ (not "icons of spontaneous, …. routinised heterosexual domesticity"). This is referring to a sailor’s winter dress uniform, referred to as ‘blues’, though the actual cloth colour is not blue, it’s black.  With sea weathering and wear, the colour may become like the ‘colour of a shark’s behind’.  The discharged sailor (John Benbow) has no further use of his uniform so he will hock it and see if he can get some money for it (in the morning).
“His tattooed body, with its “places that make the delicate female inquirer screech”, is the ground of the inscription of desire”.  Kate has got this all wrong.  Slessor says John Benbow has got tattoos located in places on his body that make females screech.  Kate’s interpretation implies that it is the male body itself that has places that make females screech (big difference, and shows Kate has never been out with a sailor – not a tattooed sailor, anyway).  “the ground of the inscription of desire??” 
Suddenly paid off and forgotten in Woolloomooloo”.  The term, ‘paid off’ refers to sailors who have been discharged from the Navy – “I’m paid off; when did you pay off? He’s been paid off for years; that’ll be the day when he pays off, a lifer he is”.
The final aposiopesis marks a space of contingency and overlap, but also of equivocation and impossibility.  The way Slessor ends the poem (aposiopesis – breaking off of speech) doesn’t reveal the poet’s self reflection and regret of an impossibility, Slessor isn’t John Benbow, he is not saying he wants to transmigrate into John Benbow (“it is both an attempt “suddenly” to instantiate Slessor as Benbow, to effect metempsychosis, and a strategy to keep the wishful circuit of metempsychosis open, to indicate a suspended structure of eternal return.”).  The ending, Suddenly to become John Benbow . . . .”
reflects a regret from the character John Benbow himself, not Slessor.   In a previous life John Benbow wasn’t John Benbow. He was a serving member of the Navy, known by his rank, a part of a whole who shared in the success and achievements of the whole. But now he’s suddenly become just another bloke called, ‘John Benbow’, and all the silly things he crafted as part of his character in the Navy now no longer matter. Shocked awake by his discharge. This is what the poem is about. If anything, it challenges the notion of people becoming institutionalised from serving in military organisations.   Some are afraid to leave; some can’t; some do and find that life is completely different from what they know and expect and they find it difficult to cope.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Elizabeth Bishop - 'Songs for a Colored Singer'.

Elizabeth Bishop is a favourite poet of mine.  My attraction to her work makes me acutely aware of how few female poets I have among my favourites.  Why is that, I wonder?  Are there not women who quirk my soul; whom I can read and say, ‘oh, yes’!?  It does worry me, enough for me to grab a dictionary and look up the meaning of ‘misogynist’ when our prime minister, Julia Gillard accused Tony Abbot of being one when he kept making negative comments about her style.  Anyway, for the time being Elizabeth is one of the few women whose poetry says ‘oh, yes’ to me.  Doesn’t mean I’m not looking for others.  One of my ‘oh yes’ poems from Elizabeth is her Songs for a Colored Singer.  And that’s where it’s not about gender.  It’s about capturing the voice of the person (in this case the character talking to herself, or a friend).  This is another poem that I want to recite aloud and I want to do it in a sassy, negro accent.  I’ve heard that voice and I love to listen to it, and Elizabeth has recorded it in high fidelity and it is beautiful.  I’m aware of two things in a poem – content and construction.  The content of this poem appeals to a quirky humour (my sense of humour).  People say honest, funny things (or in a beautiful way), and Songs for a Colored Singer influences me to listen more to what people are saying – in public, at work, on buses, in coffee shops……and write the sayings down.  That’s how I was influenced to write my poem, ‘Jason and the Hypnotist’.  But first -
Songs for a Colored Singer
 A washing hangs upon the line,
   but it’s not mine.
None of the things that I can see
   belong to me.
The neighbours got a radio with an aerial;
   we got a little portable.
They got a lot of closet space;
   we got a suitcase.
I say, ‘Le Roy, just how much are we owing?
Something I can’t comprehend,
the more we got the more we spend…..’
He only answers, ‘Let’s get going.’
Le Roy, you’re earning too much money now.
I sit and look at our backyard
   and find it very hard.
What have we got for all his dollars and cents?
   - A pile of bottles by the fence.
He’s faithful and he’s kind
   but he sure has an inquiring mind.
He’s seen a lot; he’s bound to see the rest,
   and if I protest
Le Roy answers with a frown,
‘darling, when I earns I spends,
The world is wide, it still extends……..
I’m going to get a job in the next town.’
Le Roy, you’re earning too much money now.
The time has come to call a halt;
And so it ends.
He’s gone off with his other friends.
He needn’t try to make amends,
This occasion’s all his fault.
Through rain and dark I see his face
across the street at Flossie’s place.
He’s drinking in the warm pink glow
To th’ accompaniment of the piccolo ….
There’re three more verses.  You should get a copy and have fun reciting it.  The other thing I admire in this poem of Elizabeth’s is the free and easy rhyming – worked repeatedly and not forced.  I’ve got enough to contend with thinking about the accent and voice in my poem to have to worry about rhyme – rhyme can come later.
2007.  I’ve never volunteered to be a hypnotist’s subject myself, too timid, but I have attended the odd club act with less reserved mates and smiled wryly at their performance on stage.  The accent in this poem was inspired by a subject being interviewed after a street performance with Jason Brown in the UK and, in attempting to understand how Jason had performed his trick, the guy says, “me ‘ed is chaos inside”.
Jason and the Hypnotist

You know,
Dat bit where we is s’posed to be thinkin we is chickens,
An I flops me hand on da lap of dat girl sitting next to me,
Like it is not in control of meself,
Gives her leg a right touch up,
Dat bit I wuz fakin it mon,
An I tells you, dat girl,
I knows she is fakin it too,
When she does lift da hand and puts it back to where it belong.
But dat thing wit da money, mon,
At da moment me ed is chaos inside,
From tryin to know ow ‘e is doing it,
Goin thru me purse and pockets from on da outside like dat,
An all the time seein what is being on da inside,
Da mon is bein a genius, when ‘e is tellin me
I is got five quid in ma top pocket,
When ah knows Carolin is borrowed already,
An I is only lef thirty-one P dis mornin.
                                                                                      J.O. White