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

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