Friday, 14 February 2014

Kenneth Slessor - Five Bells

It’s funny how you can arrive at something via many different paths or a path for which you did not plan.  That’s how it was for me with the poem Five Bells by Kenneth Slessor.  I remember saying in an earlier post, quite emphatically, that Five Bells was too full of hidden meaning for me to appreciate.  I know they study the poem at school and it’s considered Slessor’s best work, but for the times I had tried to read and understand it, the thing forever seemed too difficult – “Deep and dissolving verticals of light    Ferry the falls of moonshine down;  Why thieve these profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought anchored in time? …………?”
And that’s how Five Bells might have remained for me.  Except, I’m driving home from work a couple of weeks back listening to Radio National and they’re playing a track from a newly released album – a collaboration between the Australian National Academy of Music and singer song writer, Paul Kelly.  I like Paul Kelly’s work.  The experience gets better – the album is called, Conversations with Ghosts, and it’s a collection of poetry from a number of known poets where Paul Kelly sings their poetry set to modern classical music.  Each poem has a, talking to the dead, reflection, bells or ghost experience about it, so you’ve got poets like W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson, and of course, Kenneth Slessor with Five Bells.  Hearing the words from Five Bells being sounded out made a big difference to my interest in the poem.  I could hear that it had something to do with the ringing and sound of a ship’s bell – that also got my interest.  I did some research to find out why the poem was written and who it was about.  Essentially, Slessor is looking out on Sydney harbour at night while reminiscing about a friend and work colleague of his (Joe Lynch) who went missing off the back of a ferry, presumed drowned, because they never found the body – controversy over whether he fell or jumped.  It does help in understanding the poem if you do some background reading on Joe Lynch.  His biography is pretty much followed throughout the poem – the drowning in the first couple of verses; mad drinking sessions; walking out to a friends place at Moorebank; living and working in Melbourne as a cartoonist on Punch magazine; back to Sydney working on Smith’s Weekly; drinking and partying (reports say Joe sunk because he was wearing an overcoat weighed down with bottles of beer he was taking to a party on the North Shore); his father, a fiddle player and stone mason carving graveyard headstones for a living. 
Another aid to understanding Five Bells is to have knowledge of the maritime tradition of ringing a ship’s bell to denote time.  The title Five Bells is a direct reference to the maritime time-keeping system, so here it is.  A ship’s daily routine is broken up into 6, four-hour watches:
Midnight to 4am (middle watch);
4am to 8am (morning watch);
8am to 12noon (forenoon watch);
12 pm to 4pm (afternoon watch);
4pm to 8pm (dog watch – usually split into 2, two hour watches); and
8pm to midnight (first watch)
During each four hour watch, the ship’s bell is struck sharply on each half hour (8 ‘bells’ in total).  To signal a complete hour, the bell is struck in a quick ‘double’ bell movement (ding-ding!) and the half hour is signalled by an additional ‘single’ bell movement (ding-ding! …….. ding!).  So ‘Five Bells’ indicates it is two and a half hours into a watch (ding-ding!  ding-ding! …….. ding!).  The question is, in which ‘watch’ is Slessor’s Five Bells rang out?  It must be either the first watch (10.30pm) or the middle watch (2.30am) because it is definitely at night – ‘Night and water Pour to one rip of darkness ………. ‘, ‘I look out my window in the dark ………. ‘, ‘ ………. in the moon’s drench ….. ‘.  It is unlikely to be the middle watch because the bell is not normally rung in harbour at night at this time in the morning (disturbs the neighbours).  So we imagine Slessor is sitting up around 10.30pm, pondering upon the settling lights and night sounds of dark harbour …….

Five Bells
(Kenneth Slessor, 1901 - 1971)
Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
Is not my Time, the flood that does not flow.
Between the double and the single bell
Of a ship’s hour, between a round of bells
From the dark warship riding there below,
I have lived many lives, and this one life
Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.
Deep and dissolving verticals of light
Ferry the falls of moonshine down.  Five bells
Coldly rung out of a machine’s voice.  Night and water
Pour to one rip of darkness, the Harbour floats
In air, the Cross hangs upside-down in water.
Why do I think of you, dead man, why thieve
These profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought
Anchored in Time?  You have gone from earth,
Gone even from the meaning of a name;
Yet something’s there, yet something forms its lips
And hits and cries against the ports of space,
Beating their sides to make its fury heard.
Are you shouting at me, dead man, squeezing your face
In agonies of speech on speechless panes?
Cry louder, beat the windows, bawl your name!
But I hear nothing, nothing . . . only bells,
Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of Time.
Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life,
There’s not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait –
Nothing except the memory of some bones
Long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
And unimportant things you might have done,
Or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten – looks and words
And slops of beer; your coat with buttons off,
Your gaunt chin and pricked eye, and raging tales
Of Irish kings and English perfidy,
And dirtier perfidy of publicans
Groaning to God from Darlinghurst.
Five bells.
Then I saw the road, I heard the thunder
Tumble, and felt the talons of the rain
The night we came to Moorebank in slab-dark,
So dark you bore no body, had no face,
But a sheer voice that rattled out of air
(As now you’d cry if I could break the glass),
A voice that spoke beside me in the bush,
Loud for a breath or bitten off by wind,
Of Milton, melons and the Rights of Man,
And blowing flutes, and how Tahitian girls
Are brown and angry-tongued, and Sydney girls
Are white and angry-tongued, or so you’d found.
But all I heard was words that didn’t join
So Milton became melons, melons girls,
And fifty mouths it seemed, were out that night,
And in each tree an Ear was bending down,
Or something had just run, gone behind grass,
When, blank and bone-white, like a maniac’s thought,
The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,
Knifing the dark with deathly photographs.
There’s not so many with so poor a purse
Or fierce a need, must fare by night like that,
Five miles in darkness on a country track,
But when you do, that’s what you think
Five bells.
In Melbourne, your appetite had gone,
Your angers too; they had leeched away
By the soft archery of summer rains
And the sponge-paws of wetness, the slow damp
That stuck the leaves of living, snailed the mind,
And showed your bones, that had been sharp with rage,
The sodden ecstasies of rectitude.
I thought of what you had written in faint ink,
Your journal with the sawn-off lock, that stayed behind
With other things you left, all without use,
All without meaning now, except a sign
That someone had been living who was now dead:
“At Labassa.  Room 6 x 8
On top of the tower; because of this, very dark
And cold in winter.  Everything has been stowed
Into this room 500 books all shapes
And colours, dealt across the floor
And over the sills and on the laps of chairs;
Guns, photos of many different things
And different curioes that I obtained . . . . “
In Sydney by the spent aquarium-flare
Of penny gaslight on pink wallpaper,
We argued about blowing up the world,
But you were living backward, so each night
You crept a moment closer to the breast,
And they were living, all of them, those frames
And shapes of flesh that had perplexed your youth,
And most your father, the old man gone blind,
With fingers always round a fiddle’s neck,
That graveyard mason whose fair monuments
And tablets cut with dreams of piety
Rest on the bosoms of a thousand men
Staked bone by bone, in quiet astonishment
At cargoes they had never thought to bear,
These funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.
Where have you gone?  The tide is over you,
The turn of midnight water’s over you,
As time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid –
The tide goes over, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shining hair,
But they were Water, and the sea-pinks bend
Like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed,
And you are only part of an Idea.
I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,
The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,
And the short agony, the longer dream,
The nothing that was neither long nor short,
But I was bound, and could not go that way,
But I was blind, and could not feel your hand.
If I could find an answer, could only find
Your meaning, or could say why you were here
Who now are gone, what purpose gave you breath
Or seized it back, might I not hear your voice?
I look out of my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon’s drench, that straight enormous glaze,
And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-bouys
Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each,
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat’s whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds’ voices far away, and bells,
Five bells.  Five bells coldly ringing out.
Five bells.

Slessor wrote Five Bells in 1937, ten years after Joe Lynch drowned.  In an interview published in the Daily Telegraph, 31st July, 1967 (Bread & Wine, Kenneth Slessor, Angus & Robertson, 1970), Slessor said part of his inspiration for Five Bells came from an old Arabian fairy-tale where a man dips his face in a basin of magic water and between the time he dips his head in and withdraws it (5 seconds, 5 bells), he dreams he has lived another life - sailed many voyages, been shipwrecked and captured by pirates, married a princess, fought in battles and finally executed.  The fairy-tale suggests the life the man experiences as vision is just as real as his actual life except it was lived on another time-scale (who’s to say it wasn’t for ‘real’?).
In reminiscing, Slessor realises he can imagine, replay in memory, the whole span of Joe Lynch’s human life (or a human life) in the interval between the strokes of a ship’s bell (ding-ding!  ding-ding! …….. ding!).  Five Bells is written with the two time-scales interposed upon each other – the mechanical time-scale of five bells being rung out in three to five seconds, and a memory time-scale that compresses the thirty years of Joe Lynch’s life into the same five seconds (note the words, Five Bells repeated three times throughout the poem – 3 seconds of the ship’s bell; 3 decades of Joe Lynch’s life).  The words remind the reader that at that particular point in the poem a lengthy period of time has advanced along the time-scale of Joe Lynch’s life, but it has only occupied a few moments on the mechanical time-scale of the ship’s bell.

The construction of the poem gets us thinking about time and the mystery of time in relation to memory, ‘the flood that does not flow.’  What is memory?  It comes in a chronological order but it does not advance or ‘flow’ in the same pace or manner as real time.  It can be held in a compressed form.  We mechanically measure real time by it’s passage, but time may simply be this moment, nothing more than now.  Anything in front of now does not exist.  Anything behind is compressed in memory, mystery ….

The turn of midnight water’s over you,
As time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.”
I’ve dug up another old poem of mine as a link to this post.  Father Ashley is my midnight reflection on another man’s life.  A man who lives in my memory, who lives in the compressed time-scale of memory, between the double check that the cars are locked and the single throw of the front door latch before I go to bed, at Five Bells ……..

1992.  Living in Sydney, in the Catholic faith, I met an old priest during frequent visits to Melbourne.  At the time it seemed an odd friendship.  Little insights and understandings came much later; Father Ashley insights.  How important is it that other people hold us in their minds?  What happens when there’s nobody to pray for us?  What is life without prayer?

Father Ashley


Father Ashley, you must be dead now.
When was it?  ’76 or ’77?
Did you think I was a visionary convert?
Did you think I knew what you knew?
You pursued me.
I felt you took an interest in me that wasn’t encouraged.
And I, like always, to all people,
Dealt with you at arms length.
Remember 4/187 West Street?
I cooked us a meal there more than once.
You would visit Sydney,
And stay at the North Sydney Jesuit College.
I would look you up there and drive you to my place.
There was one time when you were in the city,
At that little old church at the western end of George Street,
Almost going into Parramatta Road.
It never dawned on me to remember why you were there.
You always knew when I was in Melbourne.
I don’t think I got in touch.
I think others used to do that for me.
You were a priest put out to pasture,
At Campion College, Kew.
Your stationary showed an embossed crest,
Oh, that’s right, there was the occasional letter.
Why didn’t I keep them?
Were you lonely?
Is that why you sought out my company?
Did you want to talk?
But what could I possibly say that you would want to hear?
Were you expecting to hear me speak of discovering the Truth, maybe?
When I didn’t even know I was looking for it?
Couldn’t you see me for what I really was?
Were you so easily fooled?
Looking back I’m ashamed to admit,
I did think you were a bit of a fool,
A little man.
You always wore your black coat and wide clerical collar,
Manacled about loose skin.
You giggled and fussed and shuffled and shook a little
Because you were old.
I wondered why the hell I was with you at all.
Father Ashley, I remember only one thing you ever said,
You asked me seriously if I prayed.
“Do you pray”? you said.
I remember I struggled with the answer,
I didn’t really know if I did but I thought I didn’t but should’ve.
I said yes, hoping that would be the end of it.
You seemed satisfied with the answer, remember,
For you were quite serious again when you asked,
“Will you pray for me”?
Couldn’t you see me for what I was?
Couldn’t you see through me?
Were you so easily fooled?
                                               J. O. White