Monday, 4 November 2013

Les Murray - Cotton Flannelette (bush fires)

We’ve had a tough few weeks here in New South Wales with early hot, dry summer conditions and out of control bush fires.  Australia is well acquainted with the fury, tragedy and loss from huge fire, unstoppable fire.  We have a network of Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers who answer the call to give up their time and risk life to fight these fires and save property and life.  Whenever, wherever there is an outbreak and the yet slow boiling brown white smoke in the distance agitates dread.  To when racing flame becomes visible metres above bursting tree tops leaping and licking to grip onto the living with fear.  We were lucky this time not to have anybody lose life in the fires, only property destroyed - more than 100 houses.  One of the landmarks near where I live somehow survived.  There’s this roadhouse at Lake Macquarie that has a big prawn out the front, fabricated, painted and stuck on top of a tall pole.  Everybody knows the landmark and refers to it as the ‘big prawn’.  You give and receive direction by following the ‘big prawn’, “just past the big prawn mate and then turn left”; “wait for me at the big prawn”; “if you pass the big prawn then you’ve gone too far”.  Well, the service station buildings are totally ruined, but that old ‘prawn’s’ still standing.  And people talk about it as if the ‘prawn’ was all there ever was, “did you hear the big prawn servo got burnt out?  No mate, it’s OK, the ‘big prawn’s’ still standing”.
The fresh experience of fire and the hero status of the survivor have drawn me to post a favourite Les Murray poem.  It’s called, Cotton Flannelette and it describes the agony of a young girl so badly burned that the country doctor has given up on her.  Only through the unsleeping absolute mother’s persistence (in the untrained perfect language) and her own plea to shake the bed does the child bear the pain, survive and live to carry terrible scarring, Braille tattoos and contour whorls.  Like a lot of Murray’s work, this poem is written from part experience.  Les Murray had an aunt (Myrtle) who had suffered terrible burns as a child.  I’m not sure if he knew how the accident occurred, but Les recalls seeing his aunt when he was a small boy and wondering about the scars that covered her exposed skin.

Cotton Flannelette
Les Murray (1938 – )
Shake the bed, the blackened child whimpers,
O shake the bed! Through beak lips that never
will come unwry.  And wearily the iron-
framed mattress, with nodding crockery bulbs,
jinks on its way.
Her brothers and sisters take
shifts with the terrible glued-together baby
when their unsleeping, absolute mother
reels out to snatch an hour, back to stop
the rocking and wring pale blue soap-water
over nude bladders and blood-webbed chars.
Even their cranky evasive father
is awed to stand watches rocking the bed.
lids frogged shut, O please shake the bed,
her contour whorls and Braille tattoos
from where, in her nightdress, she flared
out of hearth-drowse to a marrow shriek
pedalling full tilt firesleeves in mid air,
are grainier with repair
than when the doctor, crying Dear God woman!
No one can save that child.  Let her go!
spared her the treatments of the day.
Shake the bed.  Like: count phone poles, rhyme,
classify realities, bang the head, any
iteration that will bring, in the brain’s forks,
the melting molecules of relief,
and bring them again.
O rock the bed!
Nibble water with bared teeth, make lymph
like arrowroot gruel, as your mother grips you
for weeks in the untrained perfect language,
till the doctor relents.  Salves and wraps you
in dressings that will be the fire again,
ripping anguish off agony,
and will confirm
the ploughland ridges the gum joins
in your woman’s skin, child saved by rhythm
for the sixty more years your family weaves you
on devotion’s loom, rick-racking the bed
as you yourself, six years old, instruct them.
To me, it’s the repeat of the plea, O shake the bed; rock the bed; please shake the bed, that conveys the sheer agony a young burn victim must have suffered in the period when Les Murray’s aunt Myrtle was a girl.  I can’t help wondering how it happened.  The clue is in the title, Cotton Flannelette, and the lines, ‘in her nightdress, she flared out of hearth-drowse to a marrow shriek pedalling full tilt firesleeves in mid air.”  The girl has fallen asleep in front of an open fire (hearth drowse) and her nightclothes, pyjamas have heated to ignition point.  She has run and waved her arms in panic and fanned the flames even more (pedalling full tilt firesleeves in mid air).  Suddenly bursting into flame in front of a fire was not uncommon in Les Murray’s aunt’s time and even up until the 1980’s.  I can recall strong warnings about sitting too close to the fire and what to do if I did catch on fire – drop and roll, drop and roll!  In later years, manufacturing standards tightened to ensure children’s pyjamas were made from fire resistant material.  Cotton flannelette was one material that must have had a low flash point.
My own poem for the post was written many years ago.  It is from the country, is from experience and is from fire – not bush fires, but cane fire, back in the days when they used to send a raging fire through sugar cane to burn off the leaf and tops prior to hand cutting.
1980.  Growing up around Pinnacle in the Pioneer Valley surrounded by sugar cane and all activity of it’s farming.  The setting conjures back sweet emotion, but I could never have been a farmer.
I know cane.
I know cane as a kid,
Living in cane fields.
I know the sour smell of a mill,
Tall silver smoke stacks,
Belching white brown smoke,
Whisping white clouds of heat from vents,
At night in the light of scattered yellow lamps,
The huge black bulk of sheet-iron sheds,
Train tracks,
Loaded carriages and activity of the crushing.
I know the trains.
Sugar trains, ghost trains.
Counting the carriages,
Car after car of white square boxes,
Each encrusted with spilled raw sugar,
Set in crevices and corners,
Rock candy to be broken away,
While the black loco argues through the cutting.
I know the fields
The sweet smell of fresh ploughed dirt,
Rich black or red or brown,
Furroughs running straight and true forever,
Distance vast distance,
Black birds dotted far away,
Fussing and feeding,
In the clear open spaces,
Left clear and clean before the planting.
I know the fire,
Racing unstoppable through the cane,
Can hear the fire coming,
Burning cinders thrown high,
Into the dark sky,
Tall grasses beside rutted dirt tracks,
Where men wait with wet sugar bags,
For the cinder to fall burning,
Swiftly there’s silence,
And the men gather in the gloom,
To talk of the cane and the cutting.
I know hot afternoons,
Burning tops,
Row upon row of dry brown foliage,
Left over from harvested crop,
Bundles of coarse leaf in my hands,
Running the rows setting fire,
To the debris and thoughts,
Swimming away in the creek,
Cane swimming away in the creek.
                                     J. O. White

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