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

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