Saturday, 27 April 2013

Les Murray - Troop Train Returning

There’s as much reflection in the going to war as there is in the coming home.  And this is how I would like to introduce a poet I admire and one of Australia’s greatest contemporary poets, Les Murray.  Les is a prolific writer who has written more than most people could ever wish to achieve.  Though for all of that, he is a controversial figure in Australian literature.  He’s made himself that way by being outspoken, critical of academics in the literary world, critical of the city upper-class throughout Australia’s history, champion of the battling country folk, the marginalised, the oppressed.  I see parallels between Les’s view on the world and that of Charles Bukowski – both appear to come from deprived, difficult child-hoods.  Except in Les Murray’s case, a truly gifted intellect took him on to university and established academic success.  Les Murray writes great descriptive poetry through which the exact use of words and perfect turn of phrase paints an emotional image of the scenes he describes in his writing.  Les grew up in the country, near Taree in New South Wales.  Consequently, many of his poems are set in the bush and rural surroundings.  His poem, Troop Train Returning is fitting for our ANZAC day remembrance.  It describes the mood of Aussie soldiers, the survivors of WWII, on the final leg of returning to homes out west to pick up their lives, wheat belt towns, sheep, cattle farms and properties.  What’s amazing about this poem, is that Les Murray obviously wrote it from imagination, not personal experience.  And he wrote it when he was a young man (maybe influenced by the cinemascope, picture theatre news reels of his day).  Anybody who has driven the miles, followed the rail tracks, the telephone lines, crossed the cattle grids linking outback towns like, Dalby, Walgett, Winton, Mildura, Cloncurry, Quilpie or Hay will know that Les has nailed it in, Troop Train Returning.
Troop Train Returning
Les Murray (1938 – )
Beyond the Divide
the days become immense,
beyond our war
in the level lands of wheat,
the things that we defended are still here,
the willow-trees pruned neatly cattle-high,
the summer roads where far-back bullock drays
foundered in earth and mouldered into yarns.
From a ringbarked tree, as we go cheering by
a tower and a whirlwind of white birds,
as we speed by
with a whistle for the plains.
On kitbags in the aisle, old terrors doze,
clumsy as rifles in a peacetime train.
Stopped at a siding
under miles of sun,
I watched a friend I mightn’t see again
shyly shake hands, becoming a civilian,
and an old Ford truck
receding to the sky.
I walk about.  The silo, tall as Time,
casts on bright straws its coldly southward shade.
All things are spaced out here
each in its value.
the pepper-trees beside the crossroads pub
are dim with peace,
pumpkins are stones
in fields so loosely green.
In a little while, I’ll be afraid to look
out for my house and the people that I love,
they have been buried in the moon so long.
Beyond all wars
in the noonday lands of wheat,
the whistle summons shouters from the bar,
refills the train with jokes and window noise.
this perfect plain
casts out the things we’ve done
as we jostle here, relaxed as farmers, smoking,
held at this siding
till the red clicks green.
My contribution to this post is also written from imagination – imagination of a young man who went to war from a Queensland country town but did not return.  Jimmy Oliver (QX13185) was my grandmother’s young brother.  He enlisted with the 8th Division, 2/10 Field Regiment, fall of Singapore, prisoner of war, died in Sandakan, Borneo, a mere five months before the Japanese surrendered.  My poem has no title, but it comes from my mother as a little girl recalling a time when Jimmy visited the farm on leave.  I can only imagine his pride and excitement of having already tasted city life beyond the Pioneer Valley and now off to adventure overseas ………
1941, Friday, 3rd January          The Commanding Officer received a telephone communication.  All pre-embarkation leave must be completed by the 21st January
They sent Fred and me home on leave
five days, two days
travel time,
I went to visit mum and dad’s grave
before taking the rail motor to Finch Hatton,
looked so forward to catching up,
me in my dress uniform,
and the world beyond
cane paddocks and scrub,
never realized before,
how warm feeling,
kerosene lamp glow gives,
at night from a farm window,
far off,
seems out of touch now,
comfortable and beckoning,
but regretful,
when you know the true brightness.
After only a day
I was eager to get back,
Jess and Rachael talked into the night,
Steve doesn’t understand
or George
I think May was proud of me,
the night stayed at their place
on the Gargett farm,
poor Les itching to get into it,
said my final good-byes.....
                                                   J. O. White

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Eric Bogle - ANZAC Day

Eric Bogle
In Australia we’ve got our ANZAC day remembrance coming up (25th April) – that was the day in 1915, WWI, when Australian and New Zealand troops were put ashore at dawn on a narrow, pebbly beach at Gallipoli, Turkey, to get shot to pieces by the Turks and to commence what would turn out to be a tragic and failed attempt planned by British generals to capture the Dardanelles and open up a sea route to Russia.  Of course there were far more British and French troops committed to the campaign than Aussies and Kiwis, but it’s considered a defining moment in our nations’ psyche (the psyche of the white nation, that is) because it was the first time we fought as a Commonwealth nation, and the legend of the ANZAC was born.  ANZAC day today, is a remembrance of all conflicts and the ultimate sacrifice some have made and continue to make for world peace. We have a public holiday, and as it turns out everybody finds a uniform or military connection lurking somewhere in their family history.  And tradition tries to re-enact what that first larrikin band must have done when they went off to war.  So there’s the dawn service where people get out of bed hours before normal and gather at the town local cenotaph to reflect on the preparation of equipment; the conspiracy; the muffled rowing.  Coastal town people may gather on their steep headland or bluff above a rocky beach to see the horizon form; the outline of men-of-war; the heavy, awkward boats coming slowly in from the enemy’s perspective.  Then when the daylight strengthens to expose them, the people retreat to the local Returned Services Club (every town and suburb has one), where canteen ladies serve up warming breakfasts bacon and eggs just like they would if they were on the troop ships today and their boys were going over the side.  And with breakfast there’s a serving of rum.  Rum, because that’s what the ANZACs would have had, a tot of rum from the Navy, to comfort, to warm, to calm nerves, to give courage.  The stories get louder and the yarns begin and carry on to the mid-morning ANZAC day parade and back into the Club and more drinking – because that’s what the ANZACs would have done when they were on leave in Egypt.
I’m being irreverent.  There are many poems written about Gallipoli.  Most of them approach the subject with tragedy and loss.  But my favourite piece is set to a song by Eric Bogle, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.  The words are poignant and capture the naivety of a young country’s involvement in a useless campaign.  An anti-war poem?  Some see it that way.  But I see it not as a total protest against war, but as a protest on poor military planning, poorly planned battles, poor leadership, hopeless, useless campaigns, against senseless slaughter (on both sides).  In our time unfortunately, there is the reality of evil and terror in our world and the necessity for good people to stand up and enter into conflict.  The unifying spirit of Gallipoli also embodies sacrifice, mateship, perseverance ………
I include the lyrics to, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.  A lot of artists have done their version of the song - one of my favorites is the Irish Tenors. Look up the song on youtube - listen to Eric Bogle himself, and Slim Dusty also.
And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda
Eric Bogle – song 1971
When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murrays green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in nineteen fifteen my country said Son
It's time to stop rambling 'cause there's work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we sailed away from the quay
And amidst all the tears and the shouts and the cheers
We sailed off to Gallipoli
How well I remember that terrible day
How the blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well
He chased us with bullets, he rained us with shells
And in five minutes flat he'd blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again
Now those that were left, well we tried to survive
In a mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
But around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over tit
And when I woke up in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
Never knew there were worse things than dying
For no more I'll go waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and near
For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs two legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me
So they collected the cripples, the wounded, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where my legs used to be
And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As they carried us down the gangway
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared
Then turned all their faces away
And now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving old dreams of past glory
And the old men march slowly, all bent, stiff and sore
The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, "What are they marching for?"
And I ask myself the same question
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men answer to the call
But year after year their numbers get fewer
Some day no one will march there at all
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me
And their ghosts may be heard as you pass the Billabong
Who'll come-a-waltzing Matilda with me?


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Bruce Dawe - dog behaviour.

I’m back walking my dog of a night – let her off the lead to run and piss over everything like as if she owns the neighbourhood – she’s only little.  I’ve never gone and got a dog, but I’ve always had a dog.  People leave them with me and then they become mine.  This one belonged to my daughter.  I had a big, black Labrador before that belonged to my friend Kathy.  With the two dogs together it was easy to see the Lab was a ‘big little dog’, while this one acted like it was the ‘little big dog’.  Dogs don’t see things the way we do, but they try to fit in with your mob and do whatever it is they are compelled to do.  Following behind my dog with her legs criss-crossing like Charlie Chaplin walking and a T-bone patch on her arse I’m reminded of a Bruce Dawe poem, dogs in the morning light.  I’ve posted Bruce Dawe before.  He’s one of my favourite Australian poets – there’s a certain touch of quirky, smirking humour in his work that appeals to me.  Or maybe it’s because he writes like a down-to-earth bloke.  Whatever, I reckon Dawe has studied the behaviour of a bunch of dogs just let out, maybe from being locked up all night, running loose, ‘innocence’ because they don’t know the rules or social status, noses to the ground, re-establishing, so bloody excited that their tails have got their bodies wagging.  These dogs aren’t on leads, and that makes sense because this poem would have been written in the 1960’s at a time when it was acceptable for dogs to be running free in the streets – the good old days for ‘doggy derring-do’, and a boy and his dog could strike out from home together for after school adventures.

dogs in the morning light
(Bruce Dawe)
Responsive to the tune of lawns and trees
Dogs sally forth
In whiskery mongrel innocence; all over town
The irresistible rumour of the day
Prickles their hides and sets their bladders singing
Of doggy derring-do beyond their dreams.
No street but has its canine tributary
- Confluent in lanes,
They swirl about in bright-eyed vortices,
Whirl-pools of snap and sniff and pink-tongued grin.
Quizzical howdies done, the world’s a labyrinth
Of tortuous delight through which his nose
Leads on each quivering Theseus.
Dazed, dazed they go
Into the maze of history where the sharpest
Barkers fall silent …
             O humble retrospection, whose sole means
Lies in the bleached unanswerable
Excreta of the past, the spicy airs
Rising from every spot where dogs have paused,
And, pausing, thrown a bridge across Time’s stream!
Let the bells swing low, their clappers muffled be,
All over town, in many a public place,
Dogs are having their first one for the day,
Rapt vacuity on each raffish face.
Then we’ve got the second verse that’s OK (I’m good with ‘howdies done’), but then I keep reading and think there’s some meaning that I’ve got to unravel. I don’t like it when I’m lost for hidden meaning in a poem. I think the key to the second verse is to know something about the Greek mythology story of Theseus (son of Greek king who offers himself as sacrifice to a monster Minotaur on Crete who lives in a labyrinth maze; boy befriends girl, Ariadne; gives him a sword and a ball of string to find his way back through the maze; Theseus finds the Minotaur in the maze, slays him and returns to the entrance; escapes back to Athens taking Ariadne; leaves her sleeping on the island of Naxos). That’s a cut down version (read it for yourself), but honest, I can see parallels between how dogs down through history have followed scent trails and how Theseus must have rolled that ball of string back up to find his way out of the maze. Tell me if I’m wrong!
It’s those last couple of lines that I like in dogs in the morning light – “dogs are having their first one for the day, rapt vacuity on each raffish face.”  Sometimes, when it all gets too much, gets too serious – it’s good to have a dog around.  There are many poets who have written animal poems and poems about dogs.  I take their lead and write about my dog:
2010.  Referred to as ‘my dog’, Heidi is not my dog. She is Nicole’s dog. I just get to feed her and walk her.  Sometimes it’s a chore (never for her), but she displays tons of little dog attitude and that’s OK.  I don’t understand why she does what she does and she doesn’t understand what I’m doing at the computer.
I love to go
By moon quarter glow
When the cricket call is baritone low
Rabbits quiver and hide in the shadow
Among dry grass thrashed on the meadow
Whispering winds through the she-oak blow
Down where the fern and the fickle-back grow
There’s a worn bush track we always follow
Heidi up front, me in tow.

playing at some game,
called ‘clip joint bouncer’,
compelled by silent commands,
                                               ..... to freeze,
face out over the bluff,
or towards tangled bush,
bulldog chest and square jaw it,
up in the face of an imagined adversary,
out looking for trouble,
or ready to nip trouble in the bud,
should trouble,
at any time wish to start,
then, as quickly,
                   ........ drop it,
to become some penal hound of the everglades,
hungrily vacuuming along a sweat trail,
                                                          ...... jerking,
doubling back and tracking,
getting closer to an escaped man, or
maybe reeling in an innocent child
dribbling a summer ice cream,
where at any time
a cover can be blown,
if the quarry turns too quick,
                                           ..... prop,
and let’s pretend
at phantom fleas on our tails,
twisting to find,
like a woman told
she’s just sat in something.
and always on duty
with the local neighbor-hood watch,
                                                      ...... nosy parker,
sniffing out snippets for the next news letter,
checking security,
surveying vestibule entries,
and being satisfied
with Buster at No 23’s reaction time,
                                                   ..... run away,
like a pesky child rung a door bell,
when a murderous charge
slams his head into color-bond fencing,
                                                         ..... skipping,
to pick up the step,
calmly pleased for the full length of attention span,
inwardly snickering like precious,
and sharing a sideways glance.
                                                     J. O. White

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

W. H. Auden - expressing grief.

W. H. Auden
Hi poetry bloggers – whoever’s out there; I’m back, and it’s been a hell of a time away, and I feel I’ve been away for longer than intended.  First I took a two week holiday break to Cambodia – got some good notes for material I can work up while it’s still fresh in my memory.  I also relaxed away enough time lazing beside hotel pools to almost finish reading a biography novel on one of our contemporary Australian poets, Les Murray, so I’m up on how he got to where he is, and it gives me a new perspective on poems of his that I love.  I will post them later. 
Second, I’m flying back into Sydney on an orange dawn, back into what I think is normalcy, Monday morning, unravelling myself from head-phone cords, breakfast tray plastic, pillow, magazine paper litter stuffed into the seat pocket – and not knowing that Ernie (my step-father) had died in hospital just hours before we were due to land – probably at that time, I keep thinking, when cabin lights were dimmest, crew having disappeared for the night; and I’m surprised to find ‘The Life of Pi’ a very satisfying movie.
Suddenly, my mind is clamouring for all the poetries of grief – the Psalms, oh if I could remember the Psalms, ‘yeah though I walk through the valley of death …..’;  Dylan Thomas, ‘do not go gentle into that good night …….’.  But for rest and reflection in a fair dinkum, down to earth expression I had to turn to Wystan Hugh Auden’s, ‘Funeral Blues’.  This is one of my favourite poems.  To me it speaks in a language of earthiness and simplicity, not flowery prose that can sometimes come out contrived in celebrant funeral homes.
You will have to do your own research on who Auden was referring to when he wrote this poem (written around 1936, 1938).  Auden was a great English poet who left England at the start of WWII to live in America (controversy about him being a traitor, deserter, communist).  He was one of a number of poets of his time who established homosexual expression through their poetry.  Some say ‘Funeral Blues’ is addressed to a lover.

‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’ (Funeral Blues)
(W. H. Auden, 1907 - 1973)
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Death comes upon everybody quickly – the dead, and those left to mourn.  It’s times like these that you stand as a writer, you can support as a writer, you try to express as a writer.  Sure, you can’t create on cue a brilliant poem like, ‘stop all the clocks’, but you’re more capable to summarise memory and grief for yourself and others.  My influence from poets like Auden is in, ‘Eulogy to Ernie’.

2013.  Sunday, 17th March, 2013; cramped and uncomfortable on Vietnam Airways.  And while we’re being thrust through the stratosphere by jet pod turbine blades, fuselage insert plastic flexing, cabin quiet; while all the organisation and research of the world keeps a plane in the air, Ernie is dying.

Eulogy to Ernie

You gave to me the better times,
When the beach was wide,
When the ocean blue horizon curved,
When the soldier crabs massed,
And drilled in their battalions,
When we walked beyond the tide,
On that hard packed washboard sand,
In search of the soft-shelled yabby,
Together, together, a pair,
To cast the river running out, and
We fished like mountain bears,
Until the daylight fading dies,
And the curlew’s mournful cry.
..... You gave to me the better times.
                                                                             J. O. White