Saturday, 17 November 2012

Kenneth Slessor - 'Captain Dobbin'.

When it comes to Kenneth Slessor, there's a lot of critique and literary comment on his poem 'Five Bells'.  But I’m not into hidden meaning and oblique reference served up by critics attempting to understand obscure lines.  That’s why I don’t have it as one of my favourite Slessor poems.  If 'Five Bells 'requires such analysis then it will have to wait for me.  Give me a poem that stirs my spirit, but also one that I can understand.  And from Slessor such a poem is his Captain Dobbin (April 1929):

Captain Dobbin

Captain Dobbin, having retired from the South Seas
In the dumb tides of 1900, with a handful of shells,
A few poisoned arrows, a cask of pearls,
And five thousand pounds in colonial funds,
Now sails the streets in a brick villa, Laburnum Villa’,
In whose blank windows, the harbour hangs
Like a fog against the glass,
Golden and smoky, or stoned with a white glitter,
And boats go by, suspended in the pane,
Blue Funnel, Red Funnel, Messageries Maritimes,
Lugged down the port like sea-beasts taken alive
That scrape their bellies on sharp sands,
Of which particulars Captain Dobbin keeps
A ledger sticky with ink,
Entries of time and weather, state of the moon,
Nature of cargo and captain’s name,
For some mysterious and awful purpose
Never divulged.
For at night, when the stars mock themselves with lanterns,
So late the chimes blow loud and faint
Like a hand shutting and unshutting over the bells
Captain Dobbin, having observed from bed
The lights, like a great fiery snake, of the Comorin
Going to sea, will note the hour
For subsequent recording in his gazette.
I like poems about people.  Different people have a different way of talking, by nature of their race, social status, profession, personality and attitude.  And I love it when a poem captures and creates an accurate linguistic expression of the person.  Captain Dobbin does it for me.  The metre and the voice is a clipped, commanding, in charge, short, somewhat pompous, oh yes a sea captain – from the opening lines you feel you need to straighten your back – this sea captain is a tough nut, doesn’t entertain fools, will cut you no slack, demanding and feared:

Then Captain Dobbin’s eye,
The eye of wild and wispy scudding blue,
Voluptuously prying, would light up
Like mica scratched by gully-suns,
And he would be fearful to look upon,
And shattering in his conversation,
Nor would he tolerate the harmless chanty,
No Shenandoah’, or the dainty mew
That landsmen offer in silver dish
To Neptune, sung to pianos in candlelight.
Of these he spoke in scorn,
For there was but one way of singing ‘Stormalong’,
He said, and that was not really singing,
But howling, rather – shrieked in the wind’s jaws
By furious men, not tinkled in drawing-rooms
By lap-dogs in clean shirts.

Another influence I get from 'Captain Dobbin' is a running together of images, esoteric items, people and place names.  The result is long, fluid passages - no complete sentence stops, but line breaks and commas that make it so easy to read and even recite (a brilliant use of enjambment and caesura):

Over the flat and painted atlas-leaves
His reading-glass would tremble,
Over the fathoms, pricked in tiny rows,
Water shelving to the coast.
Quietly the bone-rimmed lens would float
Till, through the glass, he felt the barbed rush
Of bubbles foaming, spied the ablacores,
The blue-finned admirals, heard the wind-swallowing cries
Of planters running on the beach
Who filched their swags of yams and ambergris,
Bird’s nests and sandalwood, from pastures numbed
By the sun’s yellow, too meek for honest theft;
But he, less delicate robber, climbed the walls,
Broke into dozing houses
Crammed with black bottles, marish wine
Crusty and salt-corroded, fading prints,
Sparkle-daubed almanacs and playing cards,
With rusty cannon, left by the French outside,
Half-buried in sand,
Even to the castle of Queen Pomaree
In the Yankee’s footsteps, and found her throne-room piled
With golden candelabras, mildewed swords,
Guitars and fowling pieces, tossed in heaps
With greasy cakes and flung-down calabashes.
And, at these words,
The galleries of photographs, men with rich beards,
Pea-jackets and brass buttons, with folded arms,
Would scowl approval, for they were shipmates, too,
Companions of no cruise by reading-glass,
But fellows of storm and honey from the past –
‘The Charlotte, Java, ’93,’
‘Knuckle and Fred at Port au Prince,’
‘William in his new Rig,’
Even that notorious scoundrel, Captain Baggs,
Who, as all knew, owed Dobbin Twenty Pounds
Lost at fair cribbage, but he never paid,
Or paid ‘with the slack of the tops’l sheets’
As Captain Dobbin frequently expressed it.
I haven't included all of 'Captain Dobbin', nor have I written the extracts in order (get a copy of it and see what a brilliant poem it is).  I want to show how I've been influenced by it and Kenneth Slessor.  In writing 'Captain Dobbin', Slessor drew on his experience of knowing an old sailing ship master (may have been a relative of his wife).  He was also influenced by and borrowed terms from Herman Melville's 'Omoo - A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas' (published 1847).  As Slessor was influenced, so too in turn am I influenced and therefore my poem, 'Frederick Johnson'.

1984.  My wife (Linda’s) grandfather, Popsie, lived out his last days in a nursing home in Sydney, the Summer Hill nursing home.  We would visit him on slow Sunday afternoons, Linda, Matthew, the twins.  The home was an old solid built mansion added onto and converted into an aged care ‘home’.  You went up a wide flight of front steps.  Inside was dark and smelly.  Ghosts of old people propped up on hospital service beds stared from bedrooms.  It all seemed regrettable but organised to us casual visitors.  But to those who had to remain there, it was what they knew of as life.  For a man who served in the Royal Navy and survived two world wars it must have been sometimes hard.  Fred Johnson joined the Royal Navy on 24th July 1912.  He was out in Africa in WWI and then in WWII survived the torpedoing of 'HMS Forfar' by the German U-boat, U-99.  He settled in Australia in the 1960's and died in 1984.

Frederick Johnson

Frederick Johnson, Master at arms and ex boy sailor,
Served his nation through two world wars,
North Africa Star, Atlantic campaign, service decoration and bar,
Now serves a tough draft in the Summer Hill Nursing home,
In whose dark passageways the odors of old men,
Hang like mustard gas dead in the air,
And night shades and shadows crawl over walls,
Cast by search beams in the street traffic outside,
Or clouds drifting over the moon, a mariner’s moon,
Illuminating tedious targets in his room,
A bedside vanity table, sanitary pan, one visitor’s chair,
And a washed out print from a European master,
Served as a solemn reminder of another life over there,
London, Abbey Wood, Woolich, Kathleen,
And traveling up from Portsmouth on annual leave.
By day the home’s regular routine conducts itself,
As it might in any stone frigate,
With organised bullying behaviour,
An appreciation not entirely lost to the master,
Nor did he think too harsh in it’s handling,
To be taken as anything more,
Than necessary for maintenance of good order and discipline.
But others were there,
Less measured, less tolerant, less accommodating,
Weaker, irritable men who had never lived in a messdeck
Or stood watch,
Or even commissioned to submit to a strong, demanding woman,
And he would dismiss them with scorn,
Calling them waisters and lumps of yammering blubber
Having never learnt or been taught,
The tight-lipped discipline that endurance demands.
Not so the poor buggers in the Irish Sea,
The ones who found themselves,
By some miracle of grace to be still alive,
Clinging to bits of debris covered in furnace fuel oil,
And already losing their teeth to the chattering cold,
Not having any idea of a part they played,
In the destruction of Prien, Schepke or Kretshmer.
So Johnson, ever comfortable in the company of men,
Soaked in tradition, charged by duty and ranked in glory,
Waits and witnesses each nights’ raw surrender of honour
Played out in attention seeking cries, moans and cutting demands,
And more intolerable the losing of his own dignity,
Having to be messed around by these young girls,
Even though it was simply being attended to, not trouble
From that one, the little Maltese nurse,
So he closes his eyes and is adrift,
In the winter of 40, the Viscount, silhouettes, ships in convoy,
Forfar with her messdecks decorated for Christmas,
Menus for the celebration dinner and concert programs,
Organised and properly printed,
For he knew something of morale
How important it was for the lads, were they back at home,
And deep male voices solemnly sang Silent Night, Holy Night
Deep down below in the bowels of the ship,
Where the prayer wrapped in it’s cold steel cocoon,
Watches and waits for each night’s uncertainty.
Silently in his room,
In his cold space of impersonal possessions,
Without hope finally, of ever returning home, 
Frederick Johnson gently drifts into that good night.
                                                                                                            J.O. White


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