Saturday, 18 April 2015

ANZAC day 2015 - Wilfred Owen; Siegfried Sassoon

Into April and almost ANZAC day once more – an Australian remembrance of the blunder at Gallipoli and how the Turks kicked our arses all the way back to Bondi.  Oh alright then, it’s a celebration of historic events that defined us for who we are as a nation and epitomises the ‘Aussie’ spirit of mateship, true grit and cheerful perseverance in the face of struggle and adversity – there!  Of course few of the poor beggars who took part in Gallipoli would have appreciated that.  Normally at ANZAC day I’m looking for a Naval poem to post – the Navy being my background and tradition.  But this year happens to be the 100th anniversary of when Australian and New Zealand troops were put ashore at Gallipoli, so I thought it might be more fitting to revisit favourite poems that come out of the great war (WW1) – poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Blunden, Rosenberg, Graves …..  Reading these guys makes you appreciate how the art of poetry can capture a moment in time and make it as moving and stark as any artist’s painting or cameraman’s photo – more so I believe, because it is through the arrangement of words forming our civilised tongue that common emotion is stirred within us most strongly.  That’s how I feel about Wilfred Owen’s, Dulce Et Decorum Est.  Wilfred was English and must have been a man of true grit – he enlisted in 1915 (2nd Lieutenant), treated for shellshock, sent back to the UK, returned to France and the front line in 1918 and was killed in action on the fourth of November (one week before Armistice Day).  Wilfred Owen was strongly influenced and mentored by another great WW1 poet, Siegfried Sassoon.  He and Sassoon met when Wilfred was being treated for shellshock in the UK.  Both these poets tell of how life really was at the front, in the trenches – pull no punches; a strong protest against war which is in contrast to some of the patriotic fervour written at the start of the war by poets such as Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas.  The title of the poem, Dulce Et Decorum Est forms part of a more complete quote given in the last line – “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, (The old Lie: It is sweet and right to die for your country.).  Literal translation of the title?  Sweet and Right/Fitting/Honourable/Glorious it is!

 Dulce Et Decorum Est
(Wilfred Owen – 1893 to 1918)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.  Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood shod.  All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …..
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes
Writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen has not chosen the title of his poem by accident – way back around 50 BC a Roman poet named Horace coined the phrase in one of his Odes, III.2.13.  The quote was also inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1913 (wonder if it’s still there?).  I reckon Wilfred must have sat in that chapel as a young, raw officer, reflected on those words; perhaps romantically embraced them at the time and then spat them back bitterly when he had a taste of reality of war on the western front.
Two things in a poem for me – ‘content’ and ‘construction’.  Dulce Et Decorum Est satisfies my need for content – clear that it’s about a company of soldiers making their way out of the front line to a rest area (“towards our distant rest began to trudge”) when they come under a chlorine or mustard gas attack.  Standard procedure is for somebody to yell “Gas! Gas!” (expelling air from their lungs so as not to breathe it in).  This alerts others to put their gas masks on (“…. fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets ….”).  One man is slow to react and is overcome by the gas before getting his mask on (“…. someone  …flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …”).  The effect of the gas is horrific (“… guttering, choking, drowning.  The blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs …”).  Another reference to gas masks is in the second stanza (“ ..through the misty panes and thick green light,”).  This is the poet looking through the green tinted glass that was fitted to WW1 style gas masks.  “Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines …” tells us that the soldiers have moved beyond the range (“outstripped”) of the enemy artillery firing 5.9 calibre shells.
I have to admire the construction of this poem also.  Look at the rhyme structure – it supports the presentation of two sonnets – the first one speaks of action in the present tense (the poet is there as things are happening).  The second sonnet puts the poet at a distance from the horror.  He’s having nightmares about what he’s experienced and they are full of sights and sounds of the human body in tortured death.  Oh there is no glory (tell with such high zest …”).

Now my link to Wilfred Owen and Australian soldiers in WW1 was formed last year when I was fortunate to visit Ypres in Belgium.  Many Australian soldiers fought and died defending that town in the five battles of Ypres (some 36000 killed or wounded).  Plus many more UK and Commonwealth troops marched out of Ypres on their way to the front crossing an ancient bridge and moat at a place called Menin Gate.  After the war, a memorial was erected there to commemorate the names of over 54000 men who died and have no known graves (bodies not identified or found).  The names of the soldiers are carved on the stone walls.  Menin Gate is now a very popular tourist attraction.  Something I found out while researching for this post (which tells me now that it’s good to do your study before going on holiday), prior to WW1 there were two stone lions guarding the Menin Gate (not there now).  They were removed to prevent them being damaged during the war, and then after the war they were donated to Australia and now sit at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra – how about that; visited there many times but I’ve never noticed them lions.  Also, if you are going to visit Menin Gate (being a poetry lover), research beforehand the origin of Latin quotes carved on the external walls of the memorial.
Having walked down the road to Menin Gate to witness a ceremony of the last post, I wanted to write my observations, my thoughts, feelings – I thought the emotion would be ‘moving’, ‘reverent’ – and I’m sure it could have been except for the millions of other people who seemed to be jostling desperately to be a survivor.  And then I thought, I guess this is akin to the WW1 western front experience – go with it!  So I wrote, At Menin Gate 2014.  The first line of Wilfred Owen’s poem gave me my first line, “Stretched craning like goons at an accident site.”
The opening ceremony for the Menin Gate memorial was held in 1927.  At that time the English poet, Siegfried Sassoon wrote a poem titled, On Passing the New Menin Gate.  I include it here as an extra because it is such an emotional, strong protest on how he, a soldier who experienced the war feels betrayal and insult by those who sent young men to wasteful slaughter, and then try to honour it through a pile of stones built in an arch (“ ..ever an immolation (sacrifice) so belied (failed to act up to)”).
  On Passing the New Menin Gate
(Siegfried Sassoon – 1886 to 1967)
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, -
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.
Here was the world’s worst wound.  And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

2014.  September – we meet up with our UK friends and do a motoring tour of Europe.  First stop is Ypres (Leper).  I’m done over by what I can only describe as the ‘touristification’ of significant sites, the bus loads of camera snappy visitors.
At Menin Gate 2014
Stretched craning like goons at an accident site.
Bodies pressed tip toe skittish as meerkats,
we cuss arriving late for taps at the Menin Gate.
Now a mob has amassed in ignorance already,
amidst this lurking, baffling smell of horseshit,
but for the horse, there appears to be not one.
Two Romanians roll loose tobacco and stare at women.
School girls on foreign excursion flirt in frayed shorts,
run away and giggle from youths
become weary with walls
which they know are meant to be sad,
but really man, what can ya do?
And the Japanese girls comprehend nothing at all.
Then a trumpet rustles it to silence and look.
And from the silence as many lit iPhone screens
on sticks,
rise irreverent to capture something on facebook –
You went to Ypres, what was it like?
And casting around at the common eyed curiosity,
a sense of dull pity dawns, this
the surviving DNA?
While the best of mankind’s seed went to waste?
Spilled in the fields of Flanders,
And all up over the walls of the Menin Gate?
                                                                                                                 J. O. White

Monday, 6 April 2015

Judith Wright - Eve to Her Daughters (Easter)

As we prepare to celebrate Easter once more, my thoughts lead me in search of poetry that might express spiritual mystery, meaning of life.  But I like a poem that’s not too ‘heavy’, easy to read, and maybe entertaining with a bit of humour.  That’s why I’ve chosen a poem for this post from our Australian poet, Judith Wright; it’s called, Eve to Her Daughters.  I like it – it’s written in a conversational voice where I can imagine Eve (from Adam and Eve and the fall of man), is sitting down and trying to explain to her daughters how and why she and Adam see things differently – female sensual intuition vs male mechanical logic.  The little I know of Judith Wright’s life makes me think she’s suggesting in this poem that mankind and earth is being led to eventual destruction at the hands of the male of the species through a humanistic belief that scientific discovery is salvation and that it is achieved purely by man without a God providing revelation.  So the religion of science with its dependence on proof (‘demonstration’) allows no place for faith and hope in the spiritual unknown.  That’s men for you – but we obedient, ‘submissive’ women; we, with lesser ‘jealousy’, lessor ‘ego’, have not broadened the separation with God to such a point that we no longer believe.  Happy Easter ………

Eve to Her Daughters
(Judith Wright, 1915 – 2000)

It was not I who began it.
Turned out into draughty caves,
hungry so often, having to work for our bread,
hearing the children whining,
I was nevertheless not unhappy.
Where Adam went I was fairly contented to go.
I adapted myself to the punishment: it was my life.
But Adam, you know ….. !
He kept on brooding over the insult,
over the trick They had played on us, over the scolding.
He had discovered a flaw in himself
and he had to make up for it.
Outside Eden the earth was imperfect,
the seasons changed, the game was fleet-footed,
he had to work for our living, and he didn’t like it.
He even complained of my cooking
(it was hard to compete with Heaven).
So he set to work.
The earth must be made a new Eden
with central heating, domesticated animals,
mechanical harvesters, combustion engines,
escalators, refrigerators,
and modern means of communication
and multiplied opportunities for safe investment
and higher education for Abel and Cain
and the rest of the family.
You can see how his pride had been hurt.
In the process he had to unravel everything,
because he believed that mechanism
was the whole secret – he was always mechanical-minded.
He got to the very inside of the whole machine
exclaiming as he went, So that is how it works!
And now that I know how it works, why, I must have invented it.
As for God and the Other, they cannot be demonstrated,
And what cannot be demonstrated
doesn’t exist.
You see, he had always been jealous.
Yes, he got to the centre
where nothing at all can be demonstrated.
And clearly he doesn’t exist; but he refuses
to accept the conclusion.
You see, he was always an egotist.
It was warmer than this in the cave;
There was none of this fall-out.
I would suggest, for the sake of the children,
that it’s time you took over.
But you are my daughters, you inherit my own faults of character;
you are submissive, following Adam
even beyond existence.
Faults of character have their own logic
and it always works out.
I observed this with Abel and Cain.
Perhaps the whole elaborate fable
right from the beginning
is meant to demonstrate this; perhaps it’s the whole secret.
Perhaps nothing exists but our faults?
At least they can be demonstrated.
But it’s useless to make
such a suggestion to Adam.
He has turned himself into God,
who is faultless, and doesn’t exist.
In her life, Judith Wright was very active in conservation, the antiwar movement in the 1960’s and the plight of the Aboriginal peoples.  Her frustration with what is happening in the world (economic rationalism; environmental disregard) comes through in Eve to Her Daughters.  Yet note that even woman-kind with her more attuned sensual sense still cannot speak with certitude, so Eve (after blaming Adam for acting pig-headed), continues to question the meaning of life, ‘perhaps the whole elaborate fable    perhaps nothing exist but our faults?’

In my own attempt at poetry, I toy with that style where it’s some time in history ages ago and the poet imagines how the characters might have acted and felt at the time – sort of like how it is with Eve to Her Daughters.  I imagine this with characters who actually met Jesus – before anybody was ever to discover that he was famous ……..

Yes, I Remember Jesus
John’s Gospel, Chapter 1, verses 35 - 39.  Andrew and Phillip on meeting Jesus.
Yeah, me and Phillip
just happened to be helping out
with old John,
when this guy walks by,
and we’re looking at him
when John pipes up and says,
there goes the lamb of God.
The lamb of God?!
You don’t say!
We knew enough
about the lamb of God,
being John’s disciples for so long,
always going on about it, anyway
we decide to follow this, ‘lamb of God!’.
We’re sort of trailing him,
staying back a little,
when he suddenly turns around,
like he knew we were trailing him.
He says, what are you two trying to find?
Surprised us, it did
and we were a bit lost for words,
so we blurted something stupid, like
um, just wondering
where you’re staying.
I thought he would tell us
to rack off
but he didn’t.
In fact,
he invited us back to his place
and we talked
and hung out
most of the day.
John’s Gospel, Chapter 2, verses 1 - 5.  Mary on events at the wedding. 
I remember it well,
We were having such a good time at the wedding,
when word went around
that they’d run out of wine.
Like, how does that happen?
Poor organizing, I reckon.
Anyway, I mentioned it to my son
because he looked as if he was heading for a refill,
when he goes and snaps at me, Woman!
Woman! he says,
How rude!
To me his mother!
And he says, what does your concern have to do with me?
Your concern!
Well, excuse me!
My concern!?
Honestly, I could have slapped his face,
right there and then, but
he mumbles, my hour has not yet come.
Oh, pissed, I thought
I can see why there’s no wine!
And to the servants who were hanging around
I just turned and snapped
whatever he says to you, do it!
John’s Gospel, Chapter 4, verses 4 - 26.  A Samaritan woman on fetching water at Jacob’s well.
Oh, that fellow,
I remember,
bit of a charmer, he was.
It was about midday,
when I went down to the well
to get some water,
and when I gets to the well,
there’s this fella
sitting on the edge,
not bad looking, mind you,
tall, dark,
but still, a Jew,
so definitely out of my league.
Anyway, I don’t say anything,
draws the water,
and he goes and asks me for a drink.
I says, how can you, a Jew
be asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink?
I was a bit cheeky,
but he takes it in his stride,
and says to me, that if I knew
I happened to be talking to God,
then I would have asked, him
for a drink,
and he, would have given me,
living water.
Now he’s being cheeky,
so I play along,
but sir, you don’t even have a bucket,
and the cistern is deep, so
how can you possibly
get this living water?
And he keeps it going, with
how you will always be thirsty again
after drinking water from the well,
but you will never thirst
if you drink living water.
I laughed, and asked him,
kind sir, to give me this water then,
so I wouldn’t have to go
to the well anymore.
He was nice.
Then he asked me
if I was married,
and I thought, here we go,
I told him I didn’t have a husband
and he comes straight back
and says I was right about that!
that I’d had five husbands,
not counting my current partner!
I’ve been to clairvoyants
who were never that clever.
I was sure he had to be a prophet,
even the Messiah
……. and he didn’t say he wasn’t.
                                                           J. O. White.