Monday, 14 April 2014

Bruce Dawe - and Easter poems

Easter is approaching and I’m thinking, who are the Christian or religious poets among my favourites?  I think poetry, by its nature leads one to reflect on life and the spiritual nature of things – nearly every poet I’ve read has dealt with the subject in some way as part of their work, pondering on God and the meaning of life.  But in the Christian calendar, Easter is not a time for questioning.  It is a time for knowing that Jesus died in a brutal, human flesh manner that perhaps only affords acceptance through it being seen as a willing and necessary sacrifice.  That’s why I like this poem on the crucifixion written by Bruce Dawe, ‘and a good friday was had by all’.  To me, Bruce Dawe has a way of writing cleverly for the common man – conversational language that puts you right there with Jesus and the soldiers as they are nailing him to the cross.  Sometimes it’s helpful to reflect on things as we know them from the world of our own experience in order to progress to the unknown, or things we don’t understand.  Dawe’s poem looks at it through the eyes of the common soldier doing his duty – he doesn’t like it, but he’s ‘signed the dotted line’ and has got to trust that the ‘big men’ know what they are doing.

and a good friday was had by all
(Bruce Dawe, 1930 -)
You men there, keep those women back
and God Almighty he laid down
on the crossed timber and old Silenus
my offsider looked at me as if to say
nice work for soldiers, your mind’s not your own
once you sign that dotted line Ave Caesar
and all that malarkey Imperator Rex
well this Nazarene
didn’t make it any easier
really – not like the ones
who kick up a fuss so you can
do your block and take it out on them
held the spikes steady and I let fly
with the sledge-hammer, not looking
on the downswing trying hard not to hear
over the women’s wailing the bones give way
the iron shocking the dumb wood.
Orders is orders, I said after it was over
nothing personal you understand – we had a
drill-sergeant once thought he was God but he wasn’t
a patch on you
then we hauled on the ropes
and he rose in the hot air
like a diver just leaving the springboard, arms spread
so it seemed
over the whole damned creation
over the big men who must have had it in for him
and the curious ones who’ll watch anything if it’s free
with only the usual women caring anywhere
and a blind man in tears.

The times I read, and a good friday was had by all, I find myself reflecting on the words the soldier addressed to Jesus, “orders is orders ……… nothing personal you understand – we had a drill-sergeant once thought he was God but he wasn’t a patch on you ………”  They are a soldier’s words spoken honestly and show no hatred or malice, spoken man to man, with a tough admiration.  I can’t help but feel that Jesus would have blessed those words.

In my poem, I also reflect on the act of Jesus’ crucifixion.  I had a whole day to reflect – hiking with my family on a Good Friday.  The content was running through my head as we struggled over alpine hiking trails.  At the end of the day I just wrote what I had thought and felt – very quick poem, capture it like a dream.  One day I may come back to polish it – but maybe it is as it is ………. happy Easter.

2012.  We travel down to Thredbo and stay at the Navy ski lodge for the Easter weekend. None of us attend church service, but I know these mountains and alpine region won’t let you off that easy from celebration and worship.
Good Friday on the Main Range
Under the shower,
this is Good Friday,
our Lord would be
being whipped and scourged,
a long night of no sleep.
I make the first cut
on our leg of ham (sandwiches),
the Jews didn’t eat pork,
forbade it
because it was prone
to be full of disease and parasites,
another social rule
enforced by religion.
good friday,
what will the people say,
when they see us eating ham?
I’m ready, keen
to get around to Charlotte Pass
and our walk on the Main Range,
for some reason, Matthew
drags the chain,
deliberate protest against authority?
Jesus pissed the authorities off,
why would he do that?
Didn’t he expect they’d kill him?
Sitting, waiting,
whatever happened to authority?
Now, collaborative decision making
means everybody’s guilty.
We’re finally started,
carrying jackets and thermals.
They’d be nailing Jesus
to the cross now,
hauling him up
to hang in the air,
physical exertion begins
on our Mount Calvary,
climbing out
of the Snowy River valley,
my heart is beating too fast.
Jesus’s heart,
his physical heart,
the heart of Jesus,
essence of Jesus,
they say it takes hours and hours
for a person to die from crucifixion,
we’ve only just begun.
Up, we seem to be ever
climbing up,
clouds blacken in anger
beyond us.
For a people of signs,
it’s a wonder they never saw
the signs.
Out on the range
there’s no protection from the wind,
it howls and stabs,
deliberate and horizontal
at our bodies,
we’re walking in cloud
being shredded and re-formed
over tough alpine plants,
giving no illusion
that death in these parts
could be very close at hand.
The women, the women
at the foot of the cross,
would be howling
and wailing by now, how long
will they have to wait
and watch?
We know it’s another three hours,
one hour to Kosciosko,
two to Seaman’s hut.
as bowed monks
strung out,
along the road
to salvation.
The road’s a brown line
drawing the eye away
to creek crossings
and snow depth markers,
each at 25 metres
set to leaning angles,
like crucifixion poles.
They could crucify hundreds here,
the Romans used to do that,
line the roads and leave them.
These they had to get down
before sunset,
so they broke the legs
of the thieves
and stuck a spear
in Jesus’ side.
Surprisingly, devout hikers
armed with light camping gear,
pass us going out.
It’s Good Friday.
We have witnessed,
the devil’s fury
will have no mercy
here tonight.
                             J. O. White

Sunday, 6 April 2014

W. H. Auden - Fleet Visit

I wouldn’t say this is one of my most favourite poems, though it has got pedigree style – W. H. Auden’s, Fleet Visit.  I put it in my collection because it’s about sailors and ships and I’m reluctant to reject any poem that takes me some way out to sea.  Still, the poem does get my back up a bit, because Auden obviously viewed the life of the Naval man as a wasted, purposeless life – even disdain and contempt, verse 3, ‘The whore and ne’er do well ……… at least, are serving the Social Beast; They (sailors) neither make nor sell – No wonder they (sailors) get drunk.’  From that, I can see Wystan would never have joined the Navy.  The poem breaks up into two parts – comment on the sailors and what he thinks of sailors in general (first three verses), and an acknowledgement in the last two verses that a warship’s design is a beautiful thing to look at, ‘pure abstract design, By some master of pattern and line.’  A warship riding at anchor is an impressive sight and even though Auden admits this, he can’t help taking a final swipe at the wasteful purpose of the whole thing, ‘Certainly worth every cent, Of the millions they must have cost.’ …………. Not!

Fleet Visit
(W. H. Auden 1907 - 1973)
The sailors come ashore
Out of their hollow ships,
Mild-looking middle-class boys
Who read the comic strips;
One baseball game is more
To them than fifty Troys.
They look a bit lost, set down
In this un-American place
Where natives pass with laws
And futures of their own;
They are not here because
But only just-in-case.
The whore and ne’er-do-well
Who pester them with junk
In their grubby ways at least
Are serving the Social Beast;
They neither make nor sell –
No wonder they get drunk.
But the ships on the dazzling blue
Of the harbor actually gain
From having nothing to do;
Without a human will
To tell them whom to kill
Their structures are humane.
And, far from looking lost,
Look as if they were meant
To be pure abstract design
By some master of pattern and line,
Certainly worth every cent
Of the millions they must have cost.

Auden wrote Fleet Visit in 1951.  The sailors are American and I would say the port visit is around Turkey or Greece (‘…fifty Troys’).  If you can get past the somewhat Navy/military bashing mood of the poem, then there’s a discovery that the structure is quite good (very good, for me).  Two things I look for in a poem – ‘content’ and ‘construction’.  I forgive Auden the content because he didn’t have a clue, never been there.  But for the structure, I admire the neat rhyme pattern and meter.

Discovering Auden’s, Fleet Visit got me digging back through drafts of a poem I once wrote about sailors and ships.  I called it, The Ship’s Plans, and I think it makes a fitting link to Fleet Visit.  When I dusted The Ship’s Plans off, I was surprised to find that I’d actually written the original draft in a three feet meter (trochaic trimeter), same as Auden, and I wrote it with five verses – same as Auden.  That’s where similarity finishes.  My poem is a fitting counter to the suggestion from Auden’s Fleet Visit that the whole business of warships and sailors is not an ennobling profession.  I disagree with that suggestion and it’s what I try to convey.  One thing I do agree on is that a ship is but a cold, inanimate object without her crew.  It may be ‘pattern and line’, ‘abstract design’, but it’s those ‘middle-class boys’ through their daily human interaction that breathe into a ship all the emotions of success, laughter, struggle, disappointment, joy, friendship, failure, perseverance ……. they give her a heart.  And far from being an inhumane heart, one that simply and indiscriminately, ‘tell(s) them whom to kill’, heart comes from a brave, free world with all the organization, skill, knowledge and know-how to take a ship to sea

1999.  I was browsing through a second hand book shop in Sydney.  In the military section I noticed an old man, bent over, intent on looking at fold out drawings in a book.  I moved closer to see what the book was.  It was a historical, technical publication on a type of WWII destroyer or corvette – maybe the Tribal class or even the Daring.  I felt he was not going to buy the book.  His interest was in re-living memories.
The Ship’s Plans

Old man,
Looking at the ship’s plans,
Boy, but does it feel good,
Would you like to be there,
Living where you once stood,
Spray salt wind in dark hair,
Sun upon your back tanned.
Old man,
Were you once the third hand,
Standing on the deck plates,
In the after fire room,
Did you make it first mate,
Maybe in the wardroom,
Braided gold on cap band.
Old man,
Remember while you still can,
All the lines and detail,
Just the way you left her,
Sweeping bow to fan-tail,
The swell of ocean summer,
Ship’s side smartly manned.
Old man,
Together at Tapaktuan,
Sailed into the Black Sea,
Joined her in Southhampton,
With lads ashore in Sydney,
Shipmates and companions,
Skipping down the gangplank.
Old man,
The catapult and capstan,
Maintop, bridge and wheelhouse,
Before the bosun’s store,
Magazines and gun mounts,
Just as you had left her,
There on the old ship’s plan.
                                                                                          J. O. White