Monday, 27 May 2013

Bruce Dawe - at shagger's funeral.

It seems a silent world out there, but I believe a lot of fellow poetry bloggers appreciate the work of our Australian poet, Bruce Dawe.  Enough for me to post another of his poems that is one of my favourites.  It’s called, at shagger’s funeral (I promised it some time ago).
At a first reading the poem appears to be a simple, light hearted account of a group of young blokes who attend their mate’s funeral service and things are a bit awkward because they are out of their comfort zone participating in a religious ceremony with the mother and family, while all the time knowing what their mate got up to when he was alive.
But when I read the poem again in light of - Bruce Dawe’s background, the definition of the term ‘shagger’, and the era in which the poem was written, I start to think there’s a lot more to it.  First of all, what is the meaning of the term ‘Shagger’?  This is a nickname that these mates gave to their friend (lower case used in the poem title, upper case when referencing the person).  The person would have earned the name from reputation.  You are more likely to find a definition of ‘shagger’ in an urban dictionary than you will in your student Oxford or Collins – “it’s a word used by the lads to define someone who is a seducer of young, vulnerable women; or a person, mainly a guy, who sleeps with many people over a short period of time.”  Put it this way, you wouldn’t want your mother to know that your mates called you “Shagger”.  It’s the back slapping and Monday morning snickering among blokes.  But it does set a person apart, for whereas most blokes might maintain a certain level of morality and standards that are normal and acceptable among the group, the ‘shagger’, given the chance, will ‘shag’ anybody and anything, anywhere, anytime!
So that’s the type of person Bruce Dawe is writing about.  Bruce Dawe spent time in the RAAF as a young man in the 1960’s/1970’s so he would have been thrown in with young men from all backgrounds – some of who would earn the reputation ‘shagger’.  Dawe also came from a Catholic upbringing in an era when the Church’s strict moral teaching was being challenged by the revolution of hippie free love, the pill and sexual promiscuity.  I can only imagine that Dawe didn’t totally agree with it all (contra to his upbringing).  And that’s what I think comes through in the poem.  Below the light heartedness, Bruce is passing judgement on male hedonism that, while it may appear fun (“or that didn’t end up in a laugh – at his expense”), cool in the eyes of your friends, clever even; - the behaviour is sinful, and the sin ruins loving relationships (“there wasn’t much to say”; “as if he’d really been a son and a half”), and it blinds and turns one away from preparation on earth for life hereafter, and as for all the supposed friends who abided and encouraged ‘Shagger’, we are also culpable.
The last two lines leave us with a personal consideration of the need to be always ready and prepared for death.  Also, how did ‘Shagger’ die?  His death obviously came upon him suddenly.  Dawe is suggesting that if he had pondered upon meaning and mortality, then he would not have lived as he did.  Caught with his britches down” in the literal context of the poem implies ‘Shagger’ met his end when he was on the job, in the middle of ‘shagging’.  Perhaps an irate husband came home unexpectedly (“by death, whom he’d imagined out of town”), or reference to the “old shag-waggon (reclaimed Ford)”, could suggest he was ‘shagging’ in the back of his panel van parked in a lay-by when the car was cleaned up by a truck.  I don’t think there is an actual event given in the last lines,caught with his britches down By death, whom he’d imagined out of town?”  ‘Caught with your pants down’ is a common phrase for any situation where you are surprised unawares.  ‘death, whom he thought was out of town’ is a common phrase for not being always ready to meet death who can strike unexpectedly.
at shagger’s funeral
(Bruce Dawe)
At Shagger’s funeral there wasn’t much to say
That could be said
In front of his old mum – she frightened us, the way
She shook when the Reverend read
About the resurrection and the life, as if
The words meant something to her, shook, recoiled,
And sat there, stony, stiff
As Shagger, while the rest of us, well-oiled,
Tried hard to knuckle down to solemn facts,
Like the polished box in the chapel aisle
And the clasped professional sorrow, but the acts
Were locked inside us like a guilty smile
That caught up with us later, especially when
We went round to pick up his reclaimed Ford,
The old shag-waggon, and beat out the dust
From tetron cushions, poured
Oil in the hungry sump, flicked the forsaken
Kewpie doll on the dash-board,
Kicked the hub-caps tubercular with rust.
The service closed with a prayer, and silence beat
Like a tongue in a closed mouth.
Of all the girls he’d loved or knocked or both,
Only Bev Whiteside showed – out in the street
She gripped her hand-bag, said, ‘This is as far
As I’m going, boys, or any girl will go
From now on.’
                                 Later, standing about
The windy grave, hearing the currawongs shout
In the camphor-laurels, and his old lady cry
As if he’d really been a son and a half,
What could any of us say that wasn’t a lie
Or that didn’t end up in a laugh
At his expense – caught with his britches down
By death, whom he’d imagined out of town?

In any poem I’m always looking for the ‘content’ and ‘crafting’.  Take a look at the crafting of, at shagger’s funeral.  This is a brilliant example of rhyme because it is so unobtrusive – nothing about it is forced, and it stands as testimony that the art of poetry is about rhythm and rhyme, rhythm and rhyme.
Having said that, I now offer my poem for the post.  My poem has no rhythm and has no rhyme, but it was written as a tribute to my admiration of Bruce Dawe.
2006.  I bought a poetry book from a second hand bookshop in Hunter Street.  I grabbed it eagerly because I thought it was a Bruce Dawe collection.  It was titled Dimensions, not a collection, but an anthology edited by Bruce Dawe.  The book wasn’t in real good condition, a paperback, dog-eared, stiffened by getting damp at some time and chewed at by snails or rodents.  On flicking pages, the book fell open at a place where rose petals had been pressed.  Suddenly, I feel a greater connectedness with the person who owned this book.

Keeping Pressed Flowers


it seemed,
loved Bruce Dawe,
enough to press rose petals
in a paper-backed edition of Dimensions.
eleven petals.
is that the number in a bloom?
between Antonio’s Brother,
and Malouf’s Snow,
like eleven pixie ears
patterned with fine veins
dried to brown tissue now,
but the flower must have meant something
once, when it grew
in a garden,
or was cut long stemmed and single,
to be kept forever.
was there a girl,
where is she now?
74’s such a long time
to expect the scent
or the red to remain, a reminder
of quickening heart.
what love,
because this is not the book
you would press rose petals in,
too light,
too soft,
too disposable,
to serve as effective press,
or to save from being thrown out
in the end,
before checking for sweet,
pressed flowers
I won’t destroy them,
but I think maybe I will move them,
between Clark’s, Her Time,
and Powell’s, Madonna and Child, perhaps.
                                                                                            J. O. White

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Henry Kendall - The Last of His Tribe

One poem I reckon every school kid of my era must have studied was Henry Kendall’s, The Last of His Tribe.  I count this as one of my favourite poems – for its construction and for the content.  Henry Kendall was an Australian colonial poet (before federation).  At that time, any poetry audience in Australia looked more toward European works rather than embrace a home grown poet who wrote about the bush and then sometimes in a melancholy way.  Kendall never achieved the ambition and success he felt he deserved and appears to have been dealt harshly by critics and people in the literary world.  So many times you see that happen in the writing profession – like as if ‘they’ are up themselves – Bukowski, Norse, Les Murray, all seemed to have been treated the same way by the same type of people, so they held a healthy disdain for those ‘in’ the literary world.  Kendall’s private life was also rather tragic.  His mother suffered mental illness and he himself spent time in mental institutions (depression?).  He had to fend for his mother and sisters, but the sisters and their acquaintances bled him dry.  Broke, disturbed and terribly disenchanted, that’s how it seems for Henry Kendall.  But then long after his death there’s this poem that achieves popularity, acceptance and is studied in schools.  The poem is obviously about aborigines, and in 1870 something, definitely would not have been the thing you wrote about in your poetry, and especially not to appear sympathetic toward them.  In this and other of his writing, Kendall shows he was ahead of his time when it comes to conservation, racial tolerance and equality.  But what is the poem about?  At school it was a nice sing-songy beat about an old aboriginal man who’s got old and tired and is reminiscing about the good old days of hunting and plenty of tucker and women and dance.  That was at school.  Then years later I’m reading The Last of His Tribe, and it occurs to me that there’s nothing calm, comfortable or quaint about this poem at all.  The thought that occurred to me was, ‘they shot the bastard!’  I’m going to break this poem up to explain my take on it (note that I am not aware of this being the true interpretation; Henry Kendall is dead but I am sure he would nod his head in agreement).

The Last of His Tribe

(Henry Kendall, 1839 - 1882)

First, the title implies ‘he’ is the last one; all the others have gone; he’s the only one left; so the question is, what happened to them?  No young ones; no generations; no lineage – just ‘the last one!’

The poem is broken into three distinct themes – the first two verses speak of ‘his’ shame and broken spirit.  Verses 3 and 4 speak of his determination to do something about his fate (take action).  The last three verses speak of his suddenly being shot and dying.  Also note the structure of rhythm and rhyme that makes the poem so enjoyable to recite.

He crouches, and buries his face in his knees, (11 syllables; 5 feet iambic pentameter)
And hides in the dark of his hair; (4 feet)
For he cannot look up to the storm-smitten trees, (11 syllables; 5 feet iambic pentameter)
Or think of the loneliness there; (8 syllables; 4 feet)
Of the loss and the loneliness there. (8 syllables; 4 feet)
Who but a man who is prisoner and broken buries his face in his knees and hides in the dark of his hair?  This aborigine is in captivity and is sick with shame; so sick, he can’t bear to look up to the storm-smitten trees because it reminds him of all that’s been lost and the loneliness.  It’s quite possible that he’s just been captured – colonial police and trackers standing over him; he may be in leg irons and been beaten after a struggle.

The wallaroos grope through the tufts of the grass,
And turn to their covers in fear;
But he sits in the ashes and lets them pass
Where the boomerangs sleep with the spear:
With the nullah, the sling, and the spear. (9 syllables)
Wild game he used to hunt still come and act in the same way, but now he does not respond to them as he would have with his own instinctive mimic and step.  Why?  Perhaps he is not allowed to hunt anymore (hunting weapons banned by the white man because they could be too easily used as weapons of battle).  Perhaps it is a continuation of his shame for he has no reason to hunt anymore – nobody left to provide for and no reason to maintain his own strength – a willing to die.

Uloola, behold him! The thunder that breaks
On the tops of the rocks with the rain,
And the wind which drives up with the salt of the lakes,
Have made him a hunter again:
A hunter and fisher again.
Suddenly, he is stirred up with rage – stirred up by the spirits of nature, thunder that breaks, wind which drives, stinging salt of the lakes.  Suddenly, he is aroused to the man he used to be, hunter and fisher again.  He stands up; stands up proud; lifts his head out of his knees and out from the dark of his hair.
For his eyes have been full with a smouldering thought;
But he dreams of the hunts of yore,
And of foes that he sought, and of fights that he fought
With those who will battle no more:
Who will go to the battle no more.
The arousal is coupled with something he’s been brooding on for quite awhile, a smouldering thought.  A smouldering thought is perhaps coupled with a plot, a plan to take action.  But what action?  With his thoughts, of foes that he sought and fights that he fought, the action seems assuredly to be one of warrior revenge (whatever the consequences).  Though the smouldering thought may also have been coupled with a willing for himself to die, starve to death, suicide.  But then perhaps the spirits stir him to believe he is too good to die without a fight (implies that what he does next is contra to what was in his smouldering thought).
It is well that the water which tumbles and fills
Goes moaning and moaning along;
For an echo rolls out from the sides of the hills,
And he starts at a wonderful song: (4)
At the sounds of a wonderful song.
Why is it ‘well’ that the water goes moaning and moaning along?  Because it masks the rifle shot, an echo rolls out from the sides of the hills.  That is the precise moment they shot him!  And it is ‘well’, because he doesn’t know what’s really happened to him.  His head snaps back; he is jolted by the bullet, he starts! ………. at a wonderful song, sounds of …….
And he sees, through the rents of the scattering fogs,
The corrobboree warlike and grim,
And the lubra who sat by the fire on the logs,
To watch, like a mourner, for him:
Like a mother and mourner, for him.
In his loss of consciousness his vision becomes blurred, through the rents of the scattering fogs.  His thoughts rush jumbled and he relives all the preparations for battle, the noble death and the women who would be, mourner, for him, to wish him into the spirit world.
Will he go in his sleep from these desolate lands,
Like a chief, to the rest of his race,
With the honey-voiced woman who beckons, and stands,
And gleams like a Dream in his face –
Like a marvellous Dream in his face?
The last one left from his tribe is dying, will he go in his sleep.  And he is at peace, having acquitted himself well, showed courage and bravery, proud.  He is deserved to now go, from these desolate lands like a chief.  And in his final passing over he sees the vision of, a honey-voiced woman who beckons and stands ………. dream in his face.
I provide The Last of His Tribe without any real link to Henry Kendall.  I would love to do something using that five feet, iambic pentameter, but alas, keep practicing.  However, in keeping with tradition of my blog, I offer the following poem as my influence – an influence of reflection of how the aborigine must have hunted and walked this land to when the white man came.  My poem is, Creek at Creswell.  This is one of my very early efforts – not good, now I do feel for Henry Kendall.

1989.  HMAS Creswell is the Naval Officer’s training college situated on Jervis Bay.  I was posted to Navy Office in Canberra and would go over to Creswell once a month to conduct security courses.  The Navy chose a picturesque spot for the college.

Creek at Creswell


When I walk down to the creek
beside Creswell,
I see an aboriginal tribe,
living and hunting,
thousands of years ago.
The water runs slowly to the bay,
in pools it backs up,
the color of cold tea.
Bracken hangs over the path,
cool fronds of rain-forest fern.
Orange bell flowers,
decorate the vivid green bush.
The hunters strut warily,
up there,
where the sand juts out at the bend,
trees hang over to shade the water,
the white sand on the beach,
blazes in the heat,
a blue and orange bird startled,
bobs his head at the shadows,
feathers shine,
as if painted colors,
so rich, copied from,
silk clothes of a court jester.
Spears raised,
fish or wallaby maybe,
come down to the creek to drink,
only the trickling sound,
of water along the narrow sand channel,
but the hunters don’t come on,
stopped by the concrete block,
tumbled into the creek,
steel reinforcement rods,
point fingers,
fading them back
into the shadows.
                                                                     J.O. White

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Shep Woolley - Roll on my Time

Our ANZAC day has passed for another year.  There's a tradition I have with a few of my shipmates in the local area – we meet up at the local returned services club – Swansea RSL, and we drink a few beers and relive memories and tell the same old yarns.  Funny thing is we don’t see each other the rest of the year, but we all know we’re there for each other if needed.  That’s how it is, once in the brotherhood of the Service.  I’ve made it a personal challenge that I will have a poem ready for the next ‘do’ – something appropriate, Navy or nautical of course.  I could be wrong, but I think the boys like their poetry with rhythm and beat, preferably something that rhymes and has wry humour, and even better if it’s a bit earthy and risqué.  We all have fond memories of times in ports overseas, in dingy bars, got a few beers in, singing, no, roaring – belting out all those folk songs and nursery rhymes been bastardized by the British Navy before us.  For some songs, the words were what captured the soul of our existence – that is poetry.  One of the folk singers of the time who had served in the Royal Navy, so knew enough about sailors, was Shep Woolley.  Shep Woolley songs touched a nerve, and everybody knew the words when there was a good old sing-along.  In this post I include one of my Shep favourites, It’s Roll on my Time Boys.  I’ve seen the lyrics to this song on web sites and I can’t believe how much more bastardized it’s becoming since Shep first sang it.  I can assure you these are the true words to the song (taken from his CD, Shep Woolley Chips Off The Old Block).  Shep Woolley still entertains in the UK with stage shows, private and corporate events …. I would love to attend one of his shows.

It’s Roll on my Time Boys
(Shep Woolley 1940? - )

and it’s roll on me time boys…..roll on me time,
this is my last trip…..on the Grey Funnel Line,
so I'll say farewell to…..the wind and the brine,
and sing you a song called…..roll on me time.
well first we have Stokers…..that work down below,
they give us fresh water…..and make the ship go,
well the ship’s broken down boys…..don’t that sound fine,
but in the cold tap there's diesel…..and in the hot one brown slime.
and next we have RP's…..with hands on their hips,
with chinagraph pencils…..and puckered-up lips,
well they'll get us there boys…..whatever the cost,
well where are we pilot…..we’re bloody well lost.
and there stands the G.I……so tall and so proud,
his voice never made sense…..but God was it loud,
and now the old G.I……is all dead and gone
they’ve give him his brains back…..and christened him POM.
and next we have Tiffies…..a cool bunch are these,
if you want to be one… need G.C.E.'s,
and to be G.C.E.'s boys… need a brain in your head
it's amazing how much work…..can be done from a bed
well then there is Vernon…..I’ve heard the bell ring,
they do demolition…..and listen for pings,
but the Sonar men too boys…..are wearing a frown,
cos what can they ping now…..the Criterion’s down.
well me time it is rolled boys… I’m not glad,
sometimes they’ve been happy…..sometimes they’ve been sad,
so I’ll raise me glass boys…..drink your health with me wine,
and hope that you’ll join me…..with roll on me time.

I would like to have added an image of Shep Woolley, but something's gone wrong with the computer and I can't figure it out.  My link for the post is the Navy poem I prepared for the boys this ANZAC day.  It’s called Bombora (ballad of a greenie).  If you haven’t figured out why it’s called that by the end of reading, then ask me for an explanation.

2012.  Electricians in the Navy are called ‘greenies’ on account of the green colour signifying the electrical engineering branch and worn on officer’s shoulder boards.  Healthy rivalry exists between all the branches, though many love to pay out on the ‘greenies’ - perhaps because of their being more intelligent - well, not always all, as the branch will attest.
                                        Bombora (ballad of a greenie)
He was big and both slow and it seemed he must go,
Having failed every branch in the Navy,
But a psychologist said, I’ve examined his head,
And I think he would make a good greenie.
So E.M. he was made, finished half of his trade,
And was posted to sea from Nirimba,
Now it’s not a surprise when the lads saw his size,
That they went and named him ‘Bombora’.
But they didn’t explain why they gave him the name,
So he’s loud and he’s proud when ashore-a,
Bombora’s the name, green steam is me game,
And I eat roots and leaves like a whore-a.
Back on board they all fear, he’s no engineer
He’ll work on a circuit alive,
If a problem won’t focus he’ll polish with crocus,
And raise a T.S.M One Forty-five.
But he knows a bit more about Faraday’s law,
Enough to bluff his superiors,
So they leave him alone with freedom to roam,
All day on the decks of the uppers.
Neither stokers below with pumps running slow,
Nor cooks without power for scran,
Or even the skipper, broken down in the cutter,
Will interfere with the work on his tan.
A green canvas bag and a greasy old rag,
Is all that remains of his tool kit,
One key combination, rubber tube insulation,
And a mirror he might use like a dentist.
He can bounce a red-dick from up off the deck
Catch and twirl it about in his fingers,
While scratching like mad at his nuts and his butt,
Through a hole in his overall pockets.
And what he cannot do, with a roll of twin-flex or two,
Well you wouldn’t even be trying,
From telephone line to seizing and twine,
But the best was his magazine wiring.
With the test lamp he uses and eighty amp fuses,
He could black out the ship in a minute,
Then run like the hell so no one could tell,
He’d been anywhere near the burnt limit.
Bombora! they yell, why can’t you ever tell,
Ohms from the Amps on an AVO,
And what was your thought, when you meggered for short,
On the arse of the Deputy MEO?
But enough was enough, and the sea was up rough,
On the day they called out for Bombara,
Come in and sit here coaxed the ship’s engineer,
While I mark up your P.P One Alpha.
You’re too valuable lad, and it makes me look bad,
If I held you back here as a greenie,
So my recommendation is a change in your station,
And to hell with the naval psychology.
In a matter of time, having signed on the line,
The crew is down one in it’s number,
Though for reasons not given, efficiency’s risen,
And a blackout’s a thing to remember.
Now some nights in G.I. beneath still summer skies,
When the Ensign’s been put away dreamy,
And the rattle and din of the dockyard’s packed in,
Hark, the ghost of a big and wet greenie.
Bombora’s the name, green steam was my game,
But now I’m a docky-yard copper,
If you greenies are late getting out of the gate,
It’s because I searches your bags good and proper!
                                                                                                                        J. O. White