Tuesday, 26 February 2013

More of Bukowski - I said, she said .......

Hi to whatever fellow poetry bloggers are out there.  I’m going away for a couple of weeks so will appear inactive; actually, at times I intend to look very inactive, akin to no life even, as I doze in a banana chair beside some hotel pool.  But don’t worry, my mind will be working on what rhymes with beer and has Robert Lowell influenced anything I’ve done, and how can I break the writer’s block on what I’m doing with ‘weekly running’.  Poetry goes with me everywhere.  Anyway, since I won’t be around and I don’t travel with a lap-top, I throw this post up as an interlude gesture.  I like some of the ‘he said, she said’ verse that you come across.  You find it in Charles Bukowski’s work, and I include an example from him, ‘free coffee’ (from Dangling in the Tournefortia, Black Sparrow Press).  This is a rather reserved poem for Bukowski, and maybe because of that, for me it works.  It’s an OK rendering of the little, simple, mundane, shitty, ordinary things of relationships and life - the break-up, the finding that the grass on the other side wasn't greener,  the hoping life is shitty for you also, the trying to get back to what you had before, the regret, the smugness because I've already got somebody else and it makes me feel so good that everything's turned to shit for you.

free coffee
Charles Bukowski (1921 – 1994)
it was on the telephone and he said, look, I’m with
Lisa now, I can’t do that –
and she said, I know, I understand, I just want you
to come and have coffee with me, I’m one
block away on Western, I just got in from Utah, I just
thought we’d have coffee for old time’s sake –
he said, all right
then he said to Lisa, be back in five minutes –
he got into the Volks and drove and there she was
sitting in her car and he got in and she had two coffees
waiting there outside of Pioneer Chicken.
hi, she said. hi, he said.
how’s it going? she asked.
fine, he said, real good.
you know Cal? she asked. well, he
turned out to be a god damned fag. it’s bad enough
to be competing with other women, there I was competing
with men….
I think I’ve lived with a couple of lesbians, he said,
but I’m not sure.
I really miss you, she said.
look, he said, I’ve got to be getting back.
I understand, she said, then leaned over and kissed
see you, he said, and got out of her car and walked to
the Volks and as he drove off she was still sitting
in her car and he waved and she waved back…..
it was a perfect day in July and he walked back in
to Lisa sitting straight upright in a chair
as if she had been frozen for rebirth at a better time.

In my poem, ‘taking turns to make tea’, I experiment with that, 'I said, she said' form.  And I’ve got a rich vein of raw material to work from, right here in my own home.  Expect more.  See you in a couple of weeks…..
2010.  What you got to understand in a marital situation, is sometimes you ain’t never going to be right.  You will wrestle it every which way, trying your darnndest to understand where this is all coming from and what you is meant to do.  But all you learn is that you is inadequate and have to be rescued from your inadequacy.  Then you can get back to watching the game on television.
taking turns to make tea
she says what are you cooking for tea!?
he says, I don’t know, what would you like?
she says, I don’t care, I cooked last night,
         let somebody else have a turn!
he forages the freezer,
and finds a full 460 gram packet of new mince, and
about 250 grams left over from a used pack.
he decides to do rissoles in onion gravy,
mashed potatoes, veg.
she comes in the kitchen and sees the mince,
she says, what are you doing now!?
he says, rissoles,
she says she doesn’t want rissoles!
he says, well don’t eat it, you get something else!
she says, no!
he tries logic, but you said to cook tea and I asked you
what do you want, and
you said I don’t care,
so I decide to do rissoles, now you’re saying
you don’t want rissoles!
what the hell DO you want!?
she says she sure as hell doesn’t want bloody pig-swill,
wouldn’t feed it to the dog!
well what the fuck do you want!?
NOT rissoles!!
fine, get whatever you want then!
she slams down the hall, slams the key drawer,
slams the front door, slams out the house, and
comes back with ingredients for a veal parmegiano.
he says,
……. how was I supposed to know that!?
                                                                                                                            J. O. White

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Kennneth Slessor - Beach Burial

Retaining a Naval theme, I’m going to go from light-hearted verse (Bab Ballads) to one of Kenneth Slessor’s most famous poems, a poem of great pity, and one that plays on my mind.  The poem is Beach Burial.  Slessor wrote this when he was a war correspondent covering Australian soldiers fighting in the Middle East theatre, WWII, 1942.  Even if you knew nothing of Slessor’s life, a reading of the poem makes it obvious that the poet has observed and experienced what he is writing about – obvious that he has listened to gunfire, near and in the distance, the sob and clubbing; obvious that he has looked on rough wooden crosses in the sand, the driven stake of tidewood.  And this is borne out in Kenneth Slessor’s own war despatches where the reports of what he witnessed, later appear in his poem - this from two of his despatches:-
"...for a few moments at a little cluster of Australian graves. They were huddled together, as if taking cover on the slope of a hill... The crosses were the simple sides of packing cases nailed at right angles and the inscriptions, written with careful clumsiness in indelible pencil, had been smeared violet by the rain"...(War Despatches, 262).  "A beach in the Gulf of Arabs, two miles from El Alamein, dazzle-white in the morning sunlight and lined with slabs of driftwood over the sandy graves of 'unknown sailors' washed up in dozens with the tide. The guns were clubbing away in the west"..(War Despatches, 394).
Maybe I'm wrong, but I come across numerous analyses of Beach Burial where people seem to want more meaning from the poem than I believe the poem contains - 'futility of war'; 'man's inhumanity to man'; 'bravery, love, sacrifice, dignity, non-judgemental neutrality of those going out and burying the dead'; 'the folly of people allowing themselves to be fooled by political deception'; 'the opposing struggle of good against evil and final forgiveness in the uniting of all peoples on the other front' - etcetera, etceteraWhy must we think there has to be profound meaning lurking in every great poem!?  To me, in Beach Burial Slessor writes 'meaning' just as he saw it; - go back and read his despatches.  I get a feeling of great pity from the poem, but I believe this is created from the brilliant construction and form that Slessor renders in the poem rather than any 'meaning' he has woven or wishes to express in content. 
If I were a year 12 student again, then I would accept the content of Beach Burial for what it says, and use it as a poem that shows me a lot about construction.  What strikes me in the construction of the poem is the use of part-rhyme and the repetition of sounds.  Part-rhyme at the end of the second and fourth lines of each quatrain and within every third line. Five beats to each verse first line (trochee feet?).  The repetition of dominant sounds – ‘signature’, ‘driven’, ‘written’, ‘perplexity’, ‘pity’, ‘begin’, ‘pencil’, ‘drips’, ‘inscriptions’, ‘lips’……….

Beach Burial
(Kenneth Slessor, 1901 - 1971)
Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.
Between the sob and clubbing of the gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness;
And each cross, the driven stake of tidewood,
Bears the last signature of men,
Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity,
The words choke as they begin –
‘Unknown seaman’ – the ghostly pencil
Wavers and fades, the purple drips,
The breath of the wet season has washed their inscriptions
As blue as drowned men’s lips,
Dead seaman, gone in search of the same landfall,
Whether as enemies they fought,
Or fought with us, or neither, the sand joins them together,
Enlisted on the other front.
El Alamein
It’s with a fair degree of humility that I now put my poem, With the Loss of Many Hands alongside Kenneth Slessor’s Beach Burial.  It’s a similar subject matter that influences me, but in no way do I render my poem with the skill of Slessor.  Though I do lay down a form by which I try to express the fear, forlorn and pity of men bonded in a ship’s company facing inevitable death as their ship goes down.  I don’t name any particular ship in the poem, but the influence is from reflection on two Australian Naval disasters - HMAS Sydney and HMAS Voyager.  HMAS Sydney was a WWII light cruiser ambushed and sunk by a German raider, Kormoran, in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia, 1941.  HMAS Voyager was a Daring class destroyer sunk in peace-time, 10th February, 1964, when she collided with the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne during night exercises off Jervis Bay.

2011.  I reflect on the loss, and recent discovery of HMAS Sydney.  Also on the HMAS Voyager disaster (nearer to my time).  Both involved a heavy loss of life - 645 men on Sydney and 82 on Voyager.  An early photograph from the Sydney wreck was of a pair of black shoes (pusser’s crabs) sitting perfectly together on the seabed.  Who owned the shoes? and what is the feeling of being trapped, going down with a ship?  Accounts of the last moments of the forrard section of Voyager report that the coxswain, being too big to fit through the escape scuttle, helped others to get out and led the remainder in singing, up to the time the ship quickly disappeared.

HMAS Voyager

With the Loss of Many Hands 


When we could see there was nobody else,
with damage reports giving stock of the situation,
the water-tight doors were dogged down tight,
never to be re-opened.
Emergency lanterns
discharged feeble light,
a tobacco stained orange glow
inches from the glass lens,
not enough to break the night,
but sufficient to illuminate
our patience and forlorn,
before that too faded from sight.
There’s awful quiet when life leaves a ship.
Hull and fire pumps dead silent,
no whisper of air, down
trunking punkers, nothing.
Each clang of metal on metal,
creaking strained plates pound,
pulling against, and together
with forces beyond design, accentuated
now, no other sound
to muffle them.
Like a ship gone dead in dry-dock,
or gone aground,
or gone dead at four o’clock alongside.
Water filled and sloshed
until it’s level was found,
the sea’s noise trying to reach us,
gurgled on the other side of black bulkheads.
Somebody stepped up, bound
to take charge,
so there’s confidence of direction
and purpose in a frantic crowd,
but our purpose was steadily clear,
and the quiet,
not needed for repeated command,
lurked and pressed like a waiting ghost,
so the somebody
started us all singing aloud,
anything, not to have the awkwardness
of a silent world.
And we chose hymns for the sound.
Wet body on wet body,
warm and alive,
thankful for company however much,
but also aware of personal annoyance,
because once familiar surfaces
now bumped and tripped in a mad crush,
where the urge was to come up from down below,
but the deck-head formed the ship’s side
and the distance athwart-ships became such
an impossible height, to
the only escape hatch above,
so hands grabbed hands, arms rough
tightened on the next pair of legs
and pushed up in a line-out,
the lightest and youngest were first, dispatched
with male love and encouragement,
come on son, out you go,
and they won’t forget the touch.
With the blackness,
nostrils flared from adrenalin
sucked volumes, volumes expelled
in what was not breathing
but a demand we put on life’s gift.
Every now and then a familiar whiff tells
of hemp scent, wet from the bosun’s store,
turps, lagging and enamel sloshing in a paint locker
burnt out electrics and battery cells,
with brief reminder
of home comforts and security
by fresh baking and bedding smells.
We thought we tasted the stale air
and fear,
until the first mouthful of waste
furnace oil,
and then it was only our tongues
we could taste.
                                                       J. O. White

HMAS Sydney

Sunday, 17 February 2013

W. S. Gilbert - sailors, the sea and light verse

My last post has kept me in a mood for sharing tales about the sea served up with a wry twist of pusser’s humour.  For my influence I turn to William S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), who, many years ago wrote collections of light verse that were published as the ‘Bab Ballads’ – that was before he and Sullivan teamed up to produce those wonderful musicals, Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, Mikado – the rest is history.  I’ve got an undated copy of Bab Ballads (Routledge; Morrison & Gibb printers), and I’m always on the look-out for a better edition.  Gilbert was not a naval or military man, but you can tell by his dealing with verse about ships and sailors that he’s not totally un-familiar with the services – perhaps his influence came from his father who was a Naval Surgeon, and also a writer.  One of Gilbert’s better known ballads from the collection is, The Yarn of the Nancy Bell.  The rhythm gets you in – a rollicking five to four beats like a lively sailor’s jig….

The Yarn of the ‘Nancy Bell’
(W. S. Gilbert 1836 - 1911)
‘Twas on the shores that round our coast
From Deal to Ramsgate span,
That I found alone on a piece of stone
An elderly naval man.
His hair was weedy, his beard was long,
And weedy and long was he,
And I heard this wight on the shore recite,
In a singular minor key:
“Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig”
And he shook his fists and he tore his hair,
Till I really felt afraid,
For I couldn’t help thinking the man had
been drinking,
And so I simply said:
“Oh, elderly man, it’s little I know
Of the duties of men of the sea,
And I’ll eat my hand if I understand
However you can be
“At once a cook, and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig.”
Then he gave a hitch to his trousers,
Is a trick all seamen larn,
And having got rid of a thumping quid,
He spun his painful yarn:
“Twas in the good ship Nancy Bell
That we sailed to the Indian Sea,
And there on a reef we come to grief,
Which has often occurred to me.
“And pretty nigh all the crew was drowned
(There was seventy-seven o’ soul),
And only ten of the Nancy’s men
Said ‘Here!’ to the muster roll.
“There was me and the cook and the captain
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And the bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig.
“For a month we’d neither vittles nor
Till a-hungry we did feel,
So we drawed a lot, and, accordin shot
The captain for our meal.
“The next lot fell to the Nancy’s mate,
And a delicate dish he made;
Then our appetite with the midshipmite
We seven survivors stayed ……….
............ There are another eleven verses to The Yarn of the Nancy Bell – I won’t include them here, so you’re going to have to get yourself a copy of ‘Bab Ballads’ to find out what happens.  I find myself often going back to the Bab Ballads to study metre – all of the ballads are strong.  I believe Gilbert wrote his verse with the intention of it being read out loud (thus the transition of his work into theatre and musicals).  In fact, at the time of the Bab Ballads people would recite them at parties and gatherings.  I like a poem you can recite.  But, then again, I like a poem you can read.  There’s a difference between reciting a poem out loud and reading a poem aloud.  A poem for recitation does need to have good metre; a poem with emotive depth is good when read aloud.  Is that the difference between poetry and verse?  That probably accounts for why Gilbert has qualified his Bab Ballads by stating underneath the title, “Much Sound and Little Sense”.
‘Much sound and little sense’ is a good lead in to my poem, The Day the Balloon went up.  I’m grateful to light verse poets like William Gilbert that I’m able to take some of the mad-cap memories from my Navy days and preserve and share them in written verse ………..
2009.  Sailors love to tell a yarn  -  ‘spin a dit’.  Sometimes they are true, sometimes they are variations of the truth.  In most cases, the ingredients for the recipe can be trusted  -  an ambitious First Lieutenant, a bunch of nervous boffins, a thick-head with a rifle and an upper-deck crowded with goofers.
The Day the Balloon went Up
At sea one day on our ship of grey,
The Jimmy made a blunder,
The Bosun’s Mate became irate,
And the Skipper roared like thunder.
It all began when the RAN,
Took a science team for a dawdle,
With instruments new, and costly too,
Tied beneath a big red bauble.
It was tossed in the air with professional care,
But the ball was over rated,
And sank to the sea, immediately,
Where it wallowed half deflated.
The scientists, wrung their wrists,
What to tell their boss and master,
Till the Skipper parked above the mark,
And said, ‘put a swimmer in the water’.
What a sight to see, the big AB,
Striking out for fame and glory,
With a heaving line tied to his spine,
Should have been the end of the story.
But the Jimmy paced, up and down the waist,
For he was in charge of the order,
So was very keen, to be the one seen,
Yelling threats of bloody murder.
Now it is the norm when swimmers form,
That a lookout stands with a rifle,
Ready to get any likely threat
Such as shark or deep sea turtle.
On this day, with regret to say,
The lookout’s name was Potter,
A cracking shot but not a lot,
Between his ears to hold grey matter.
He stands in a doze, a classic pose,
Vic Morrow’s younger brother,
Weapon on the hip with the safety trip,
But his mind’s in some place other.
Not the sort of stance to earn romance,
When the Jimmy spots a danger,
A bloody big snake about to make,
It’s mark upon his swimmer.
The Jimmy calls to the lookout stall,
In a voice made of barbed wire,
‘A snakes been seen on the starboard beam,
One hundred yards, on my command, fire!’
Time passes by as every eye,
Stays fixed on a spot out yonder,
Expecting a shot from good old Potts,
That will save our brave young swimmer.
The ship it lolls in a gentle roll,
Still nothing from the lookout station,
The Jimmy looks away to find the delay,
And is beaten by explanation.
What the Jimmy saw made his tonsils roar,
The lookout deep in slumber,
He spun on his heel and gave a squeal,
‘That man there, I want his bloody number!’
Panic sets in and the Jimmy begins,
To lose his calm composure,
‘Get the bloody snake! the nake! the snake! Get the snake!
Yes you idiot, up on the bridge enclosure!’
Snapped awake, Potter sights the snake,
Along the rifle at his shoulder,
Then the snake is dead with a shot to it’s head,
And Potter, he lives to be one year older.
Again relaxed, it’s the scientists pack
That the Jimmy once more resumes,
Above the clamour, he yells to the swimmer,
Now get the balloon! the balloon! Get the bloody balloon!
Suddenly, a rifle cracks a bullet smacks,
And everyone turns towards Potter,
Then as quickly back to the scientist’s pack,
But it’s sitting now at the bottom of the sea, and is flatter.
At sea one day on our ship of grey,
The Jimmy made a blunder,
The Bosun’s Mate became irate,
And the Skipper roared like thunder.
                                            J.O. White