Friday, 7 December 2012

Bruce Dawe - anti war poems.

I want to continue with Bruce Dawe and poems showing his familiarity with the military.  This one is called, ‘weapons training’.  When you read it you are left in no doubt that Bruce has been part of a squad (all male) receiving instruction from a tough drill sergeant or quarter master gunner with a touch of mongrel in him, like how they used to be.  From the poem you would think maybe this is Bruce taking the ‘mickey’ out of the military system and military instruction.  But I don’t think it is.  I don’t think it’s as much the satire as it first appears.  It certainly comes across as mockingly humorous with impossible personal insults, racial slurs, low level language and cheap gags.  But Bruce hasn’t made anything up here, he has not created a pretend character with pretend lines.  Nor has he created the sequence of the training session.  This is reality.  Every word, every sentence in 'weapons training' is exactly as a drill instructor (from the 1960’s, 1970’s) would have said it.  I find it’s another example of the poet listening carefully to conversation, finding the language colourful and entertaining, and then crafting it into a great poem.  The other reality thread that runs through the poem is the style and sequence of instruction.  Trainers know that there are set steps in a lesson plan – gain attention; state the objectives; link to previous learning, etc, etc.  'weapons training' is a true example of how a military instructor might have delivered a training session given the circumstances and the audience for which it was delivered back in those times.  The reason for training in weapons training, if not in preparation for deployment to Vietnam, is certainly structured with the Vietnam experience in mind (Charlies are coming ..; cockpit drill when you go down ..; mob of the little yellows ..).  In that sense, the consequence of poor performance is extreme, this is life and death stuff (dead dead dead).  The instructor knows this (may even have done his tour).  In terms of his Situational Leadership model (used by the military) he’s got a group at ‘task readiness’ level 1.  That means he’s the one who will do the talking and the others will shut up and listen.  It takes the first eight and a half lines for the instructor to establish his leadership position by singling out likely troublemakers and belittling them so everybody knows their position (no time for political correctness or hurt feelings when it could be you or your mates who get killed, while you thought it would be fun to dick around).  Then the lesson can start, ‘remember first ….’  The instructor’s tone becomes a little friendlier.  He’s set the boundaries.  Now he needs to inject a bit of humour to soften the reality of what these people may face in the field.  The final lines of the poem deal with practice and feedback where the skill is not yet mastered and the trainer paints the mental picture of the consequences of failure – too slow! too slow! dead dead dead.
Interpretation of 'weapons training' is one thing, but what I find more interesting is how it is constructed.  Bruce Dawe seems to have rendered a whole bunch of drill instructor sayings and one liner’s into a single, natural presentation that still manages great rhythm and ryhme.  The things I notice immediately in the poem are, only one capital letter; no commas, no full stops, extra word spacing used to indicate a pause mid-line, and the rhyming is there but so not obvious – ends up as a number of quatrains joined together.  On the syllable count it appears to follow five beats to the line (pentameter, classic) (iambic? maybe).
weapons training
(Bruce Dawe, 1930 - )

And when / I say / eyes right / I want  / to hear
those eyeballs click and the gentle pitter-patter
of falling dandruff    you there what’s the matter
why are you looking at me   are you a queer?
look to your front    if you had one more brain
it’d be lonely    what are you laughing at
you in the back row with the unsightly fat
between your elephant ears    open that drain
you call a mind and listen    remember first
the cockpit drill when you go down    be sure
the old crown jewels are safely tucked away   what could be more
distressing than to hold off with a burst
from your trusty weapon a mob of the little yellows
only to find back home because of your position
your chances of turning the key in the ignition
considerably reduced?    allright now suppose
for the sake of argument you’ve got
a number-one blockage and a brand-new pack
of Charlies are coming at you   you can smell their rotten
         fish-sauce breath hot on the back
of your stupid neck allright now what
are you going to do about it?   that’s right grab and check
the magazine man it’s not a woman’s tit
worse luck or you’d be set    too late you nit
they’re on you and your tripes are round your neck
you’ve copped the bloody lot just like I said
and you know what you are?   you’re dead dead dead
For my poem and its’ link to the poet, I’m posting two that are more inspired by ‘homecoming’ than by ‘weapons training’.  I wish I’d listened more to what the drill instructors were saying.  These two poems belong together.  They are not anti-war poems, rather an expression of the senselessness of a person getting killed in these non-war conflicts and a protest against the way the deaths are reported in a statistical manner.  I don’t know why, but I find I’m developing a dislike of stats – cold, hard figures that de-humanise, but broach no argument because they are the facts and everything has to be measured, somehow.
2004.  The evening news carries an item informing us that today the one thousandth American soldier was killed in Iraq.  This milestone was reached in less than twelve months since the invasion.
                                              The 1 Thousandth
Three soldiers were killed in the latest incident
Involving an ambush or suicide bomb or fire fight
Fought along a rubble littered street in Baghdad
But he was singled out as the 1 thousandth.
One thousand blood-smeared, sagging body bags
Lifted at the corners by four thousand buddies
Who remember from boot camp
One thousand NCO’s of the platoon,
Two thousand parents,
Four thousand grand parents
Three thousand brothers and sisters, give or take
The three thousand uncles and aunts,
Six thousand cousins
A thousand wives, sweethearts, girlfriends or lovers
Hug the 4 hundredth child
To have his daddy taken away
In one thousand caskets draped with one thousand flags.
2012.  I’m watching TV as I do every night; walk in from work, get a glass of wine, put on ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ or ‘Deal or No Deal’. Then the news comes on, and I know there was another casualty in Afghanistan (Cpl Scott Smith). A photo of the young soldier is displayed while the standard words are read out – so official, the Prime Minister’s deep sorrow; successful operation; struck a telling blow; disruption to the Taliban – not in vain. And always there’s the obsession with ‘stats’. This is a report of a young life sacrificed on behalf of the free, civilised world’s stand against terrorism, not a bloody number. Say something human for crying out loud! Moving right along, there’s a final insult when the report breaks to an ad with cartoon figures acting out the benefits of chewing Extra gum after you’ve eaten.

                                                  Becoming a Statistic

It bursts,
Usually listening to Radio National and then carried
on the 6 o’clock television news channels,
Carried on shoulders, on a C-130 Hercules,
Following the ramp ceremony at Tarin Kowt,
The 39th Australian
soldier in total since 2002,
To be killed in action in Afghanistan
is shown as he was half turned, seated
in the bush-master turret,
In the studio shot now frozen
to his poor parents mantle-piece,
The 18th Member
of Special Forces,
To sigh, so young, just a kid
in need of a shave and a haircut,
and a hug, what a shame,
The 6th Elite Soldier
to be killed by an insurgent IED, and
The 15th Digger
overall, from IED’s.
Then having dealt with the statistics,
The nation returns the audience
to a most ridiculous ad break,
Knowing it’s all over ……. and we can move on,
“Bad boys! bad boys!,
What-cha gonna chew?
What-cha gonna chew,
When they come for you?
Bad boys! bad boys!”
                                                                                 J.O. White

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