Friday, 27 February 2015

Rosemary Dobson - The Sailor

Back in the Navy, you knew when disenchantment was beginning to set in on a fellow shipmate – usually the bloke with a few years under his belt.  He would withdraw to his bunk of a night to do a bit of reading.  Nothing unusual about that, except up until now you could bet he’d be laying back with a dog-eared copy of Playboy or Hustler propped open on his chest, constantly adjusting the position of his bunk-light to get the original studio colours.  Then one night, you look across and you see him engrossed in some plain cover magazine on alternate lifestyle called, ‘Grass Roots’.  ‘Grass Roots!’  When a sailor gets disenchanted his mind starts imagining himself as far away from the briny as he can get.  He imagines a plot of land, digging in dirt, growing turnips, breeding alpacas, working donkeys, mud bricks and maintaining a healthy water tank.  There was always this standard response that blokes would give if you asked them what they were going to do when they paid off.  And the response was, “Mate, when I pay off I’m going to put an oar on my shoulder and keep walking inland with me back to the sea until somebody says, ‘what’s that’?”  It was always one of those standard responses you expected, like, “What’s the best cure for sea sickness?”  Reply, “Find a tree and sit under it!”  I always thought the oar thing was a matelot’s made up dit from way back.  But then I come across a poem written in 1960 by our Australian poet, Rosemary Dobson, called, The Sailor.  Rosemary has put the yarn of the disenchanted sailor into a humorous poetic form.  So I’m wondering, was it Rosemary who first created this notion of a disenchanted sailor searching for a sea-change, or did she hear it as a ditty from a matelot?  I reckon it was some sailor who told her the yarn.  I reckon Rosemary would have heard this story and it would have appealed to her.  Read some of Rosemary Dobson’s poetry and you feel she’s got a nice little sense of humour; a careful, controlled, academic, witty sense of humour; framed to politely amuse but not shock the establishment.  On second thought, I don’t reckon it was a matelot who told Rosemary the yarn of the sailor, I reckon it must have been an ‘officer’.  I do love the poem for how it gives to me a rhythmic form of a crusty old dit I’ve heard so many, many times before.

The Sailor
(Rosemary Dobson, 1920 – )
The sailor settled the oar at his back
Over the hills he took the track
And the blue sea dipped behind him.
Whenever he saw beneath his palm
The shimmering roofs of a country town
He rubbed his hands and hoisted his oar
But those who came to gape at the door
Cried out, ‘Well, look at the sailor!’
Over the crests of the Great Divide,
Down the slopes of the other side
Across the plains out westward –
And still as he walked through one-horse towns
Or droving-camps or mining claims
The folk came out to watch him pass
And chewing on a stalk of summer grass
Said, ‘What do you know – a sailor!’
Way out west where the red sand spins
And the plains lie down under gibber stones
He followed the stock routes inland.
The stockmen shouted, ‘Sailor, hey!’
But he came at last to the end of his way
For he heard a voice from a humpy croak
‘What’s that, mate, tied up on your back?’
And, ‘Here I stay’ cried the sailor.
I’ve half a mind to hoist a gun
And follow the way that sailor’s gone

So the sailor kept walking until he came across people who had never seen an oar, therefore not tainted with any of the crap from life at sea, so he knows he can live there and forget his past.
Note how the last two lines create an analogy between oar and gun and what each represents – an oar, a piece of sea-faring equipment, the toil, loneliness, drudgery and peril of life at sea, a sailor’s life.  A gun, a piece of soldiering equipment, the horror of war, battle, massacre, fear, bloodshed, a military life.  In these lines does the poet put herself in a profession that she desires to get away from (soldiering, of which the ‘gun’ is representative), or is she revealing her personal opinion of guns in our society (more topical today than in 1960).  I tend to believe the analogy is between professions that the poet describes becoming tired of, so the desire to drop everything, walk away and find a place where people don’t engage in that sort of thing (don’t recognise the equipment).

Revision - 6th March 2015.  Since posting this post with Rosemary Dobson’s poem, The Sailor, I was a little astounded to read in a book published by Camden House, A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900; (Nicholas Birns & Rebecca McNeer; 2007), that it was the ‘U-2 incident’ that prompted Rosemary to write The Sailor.  The ‘U-2 incident’ occurred in 1960 when the Russians shot down an American spy plane in their air space and the pilot, Gary Powers, was captured and jailed for a couple of years – embarrassing for the USA.  OK, 1960 is the year Dobson published the poem, but did Rosemary state that the poem was inspired by the U-2 incident?  Even if she did, I can’t see the connection.  Here’s the extract from Companion to Australian Literature, quote;

“In ‘The Sailor’, May 1960, a poem prompted by the U-2 crisis between the United States and the USSR, Dobson writes her own version of the male explorer poem, which registers both a fascination and a repulsion towards the figure of ‘Man Alone’, and still manages, in four compact stanzas to encompass all of the Australian continent.”

Is Birns suggesting the ‘sailor’ with the oar on his back is an early explorer exploring into the heart of Australia – ‘version of the male explorer poem …’?  Oh come on!  Where does ‘fascination’ and ‘repulsion’ of seeing this sailor, this ‘Man Alone’ come from?  By Birns not knowing the old navy dit, I believe he is interpreting the description of reactions of people as they come out to see the sailor as being either ‘fascinated’ or ‘repulsed’.  Not so.  The description of people’s reactions in the poem simply carry along the notion that as the sailor walks further inland he is still being recognised, identified as a ‘sailor’ (until he gets to a place where people don’t know what an oar is, and that’s where he figures he’ll stay!).  If Rosemary really was prompted by the U-2 incident to write The Sailor, then I believe the connection is only in the last two lines (the three main stanzas being from an old navy dit).  Perhaps with the U-2 incident and the media attention at the time, Rosemary felt for the captured pilot, Gary Powers.  In the Cold War with tensions running high here’s a dude right in the spotlight – got himself shot down; his country’s trying to lie about and deny his mission; he’s facing trial, imprisonment or execution – in 1960 everybody in the world knew who ‘Gary Powers’ was.  So I reckon Rosemary couldn’t help think what she reckons Powers would be thinking -
"I’ve half a mind to hoist a gun
And follow the way that sailor’s gone …"
There’s another Rosemary Dobson poem that I like and it has a military theme.  It’s called, ‘The Major-General’. 
The Major-General
(Rosemary Dobson, 1920 – )
Grounded in Greek he kept his stoic phrase
Ready like a revolver in his drawer,
Ex-army, major-general, could outstare
Weakness, opinion and, at last, old age.
He beat the mischief from his younger son;
His wife grew tremulous, pity and grief
Aroused her protests, but she did not speak.
Sustained by shoe-trees, trouser-press and cane –
A rough-cut blackthorn with a silver knob –
He kept his bearing, earned a wide respect
And envy for his wife.  Each morning strolled
About the well-kept garden, cut two flowers,
One for his tweed lapel, and one for her
Laid on the breakfast-table like a threat.

This is not Rosemary playing with humour.  You know that the poem is an observation made by a civilian, from the term in the third line, ‘Ex-army’.  Civilians usually use the term to describe people they know who were in the military.  Rosemary paints a rather disturbing picture of a man who has carried his military behaviour over into his family and retired life – ‘kept his stoic phrase, Ready like a revolver ….’  One can only imagine a modern equivalent, Greek for, ‘suck it up princess!’  Trouble is, these people exist; the military can breed people like this.  When I read this poem I think of a favourite film of mine, The Great Santini (Robert Duvall).  How the competent hard-arse military man is equipped and can destroy his family from within.  Read The Major-General, and it is completely devoid of love.  It is a description of life with not a speck of love; killed by the ex-army fellow who believes (no, demands) approval, command, obedience and unquestionable loyalty.  We, military people need to be awake to this more than a lot of others.  I dwell on the last line, ‘Laid on the breakfast-table like a threat’.  How is it a threat?  It would surely not be the major’s purpose to place the flower as a threat.  In his mind, surely he would be placing the flower as a gesture of, weak consideration (affection or love not something being familiar to the major).  But even something as clinical as consideration can’t be construed as a threat.  So the gesture in placing the flower is not even from weak consideration!  It is a completely hollow gesture that the major has learnt powerful people do, and it means, ‘play the game, or else!’
My link to Rosemary Dobson is via her poem, The Major-General.  I grew up in an era and atmosphere of stoic, tough men; male aggression and dominance.  I take comfort in knowing it is being challenged and corrected (in our society at least).  I know I carry traits of my up-bringing, but who knows, if I hadn’t joined the company of men in the Navy I could be a lot worse!

2006.   Queensland cattle and farming country - where I grew up.  Returning to some of the towns and regional airports I see examples of tough men, aged now, but would have been considered good providers and protectors in their day.  Men who called a ‘spade’ a ‘spade’ without worrying about political correctness.  Men who got where they got by being physically superior.
On Observing a Man’s Man.
Like an old bull elephant
but not dignified
or false dignity
false bravado
old posturing
ignorant posturing
old ego posturing
old posturing
from a life time of bullying
over standing
bull frog puffed up
physical posturing
barrel chest
fat gut
but all above the gut
thick arms
ensured ignorance
struck respect
deterred challenge
bull head
bull expression
get fucked exaggerated stance
on old legs
spindle legs
with the condition gone
exaggerated stiffness
John Wayne awkwardness
bandy legs
step, step, step
around, turn,
on display
used to standing out
played footy
still wanting to take a stand
ready to have a go
in absurd Kenso cargo pants.
                                                                                                               J. O. White


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  2. Enjoyed your observation of a Man's Man, Joe, and also the Rosemary Dobson poems. I must find a book or two of her poetry. A poet I recently got back in touch with is the Adelaide born poet Ian Mudie. He has a lovely lyricism about hs work coupled with a deep understanding of Old Australia. 'The Blue Crane' is the volume I recently read along with an anthology he edited 'Poets at War', which is the voices of Australian servicemen from WW2 and contains some fine poetry. Many average servicemen had a facility for verse back then.
    Keep up the good work. Your two contributions to WHITE ENSIGN will be published in the magazine next week.

    1. Hey, thanks Allen. Ian Mudie? I'm on his trail! I did get a thrill to see the culmination of Kevin's art and my contributions in White Ensign. I hope your readers get something out of it.