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 (www.austlit.edu.au).  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:
 
Metempsychosis
(Kenneth Slessor, 1901 - 1971)
 
Suddenly to become John Benbow, walking down William
               Street
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
               cigarette,
Picking over ‘Turfbird’s Tattle’ for a Saturday morning
               bet,
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
               Each,
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.
 
 

2 comments:

  1. I just happened upon this. Thank you, very interesting. It's made me think more/again!

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  2. Hi Kate - hey, I was thrilled when I saw your comment (got sidelined in spam). At times after I wrote the post on Slessor's 'Metempsychosis', I wondered if perhaps my tone was a bit harsh on you. Lovely to see your name and acknowledgement.

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