Poppies and Poetry

The 11th of the 11th is not far off. The Australian War Memorial here in Canberra is demonstrating the community’s sorrow over all those who died in World War 1, the war to end all wars. Not. Crocheted and knitted poppies have been planted in the lawn, 62,000 of them, one for each of the dead, forming a sea of red spilling out in front of our beautiful war memorial building.

Poppy posts and photos are appearing all around the country. I’ve read that 62,000 poppies was the goal for the project, but the women (mostly women) contributed many many more. The extras have been used in a display in Parliament House and in towns around Australia. I made 12, and I taught my Japanese student to crochet and then she made 12. Our 24 poppies are there in the crowd somewhere.

All this talk about the centenary of the armistice reminded me of a poem I read in my father’s poetry book that he brought back from World War 2. He recorded poems he wanted to remember, and re-reading this one leaves me wondering what it meant to him, especially the final verse. The poet was Rev. G. A. Studdert Kennedy who allowed it to be circulated among the soldiers. It speaks of a death by gassing and may have comforted some of those who had lost mates to this horrific weapon. My father’s father was gassed in 1916, but survived. Perhaps Dad had him in mind when he recorded this poem in 1942. Here’s his first page:

‘Thy Will Be Done’ by WW1 poet G.A. Studdert Kennedy, in my father’s poetry collection from WW2

Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was a volunteer British chaplain to the army on the western front, and was also known as Woodbine Willie for the Woodbines he smoked and handed out to the wounded and dying. He was a great anti-war poet.

Here’s the whole poem written in 1917 in soldier-dialect :

Thy Will Be Done
A Sermon in a Hospital

by Rev. G. A. Studdert Kennedy, from Rough Rhymes of a Padre, 1918

I WERE puzzled about this prayin’ stunt,
And all as the parsons say,
For they kep’ on sayin’, and sayin’,
And yet it weren’t plain no way.
For they told us never to worry,
But simply to trust in the Lord,
“Ask and ye shall receive,” they said,
And it sounds orlright, but, Gawd!
It’s a mighty puzzling business,
For it don’t allus work that way,
Ye may ask like mad, and ye don’t receive.
As I found out t’other day.
I were sittin’ me down on my ‘unkers,
And ‘avin’ a pull at my pipe,
And larfin’ like fun at a blind old ‘Un,
What were ‘avin’ a try to snipe.
For ‘e couldn’t shoot for monkey nuts,
The blinkin’ blear-eyed ass,
So I sits, and I spits, and I ‘ums a tune;
And I never thought o’ the gas.
Then all of a suddint I jumps to my feet,
For I ‘eard the strombos sound,
And I pops up my ‘ead a bit over the bags
To ‘ave a good look all round.
And there I seed it, comin’ across,
Like a girt big yaller cloud,
Then I ‘olds my breath, i’ the fear o’ death,
Till I bust, then I prayed aloud.

 

I prayed to the Lord Almighty above,
For to shift that blinkin’ wind,
But it kep’ on blowin’ the same old way,
And the chap next me, ‘e grinned.
“It’s no use prayin’,” ‘e said, “let’s run,”
And we fairly took to our ‘eels,
But the gas ran faster nor we could run,
And, Gawd, you know ‘ow it feels
Like a thousand rats and a million chats,
All tearin’ away at your chest,
And your legs won’t run, and you’re fairly done,
And you’ve got to give up and rest.
Then the darkness comes, and ye knows no more
Till ye wakes in an ‘orspital bed.
And some never knows nothin’ more at all,
Like my pal Bill–‘e’s dead.
Now, ‘ow was it ‘E didn’t shift that wind,
When I axed in the name o’ the Lord?
With the ‘orror of death in every breath,
Still I prayed every breath I drawed.
That beat me clean, and I thought and I thought
Till I came near bustin’ my ‘ead.
It weren’t for me I were grieved, ye see,
It were my pal Bill–‘e’s dead.
For me, I’m a single man, but Bill
‘As kiddies at ‘ome and a wife.
And why ever the Lord didn’t shift that wind
I just couldn’t see for my life.
But I’ve just bin readin’ a story ‘ere,
Of the night afore Jesus died,
And of ‘ow ‘E prayed in Gethsemane,
‘Ow ‘E fell on ‘Is face and cried.
Cried to the Lord Almighty above
Till ‘E broke in a bloody sweat,
And ‘E were the Son of the Lord, ‘E were,
And ‘E prayed to ‘Im ‘ard; and yet,

 

And yet ‘E ‘ad to go through wiv it, boys,
Just same as pore Bill what died.
‘E prayed to the Lord, and ‘E sweated blood,
And yet ‘E were crucified.
But ‘Is prayer were answered, I sees it now,
For though ‘E were sorely tried,
Still ‘E went wiv ‘Is trust in the Lord unbroke,
And ‘Is soul it were satisfied.
For ‘E felt ‘E were doin’ God’s Will, ye see,
What ‘E came on the earth to do,
And the answer what came to the prayers ‘E prayed
Were ‘Is power to see it through;
To see it through to the bitter end,
And to die like a Gawd at the last,
In a glory of light that were dawning bright
Wi’ the sorrow of death all past.
And the Christ who was ‘ung on the Cross is Gawd,
True Gawd for me and you,
For the only Gawd that a true man trusts
Is the Gawd what sees it through.
And Bill, ‘e were doin’ ‘is duty, boys,
What ‘e came on the earth to do,
And the answer what came to the prayers I prayed
Were ‘is power to see it through;
To see it through to the very end,
And to die as my old pal died,
Wi’ a thought for ‘is pal and a prayer for ‘is gal,
And ‘is brave ‘eart satisfied.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 37

1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.

Opening line, Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, 1847

A dark novel with not one happy moment. At least not for me. I’ve read it twice without pleasure. Still, the opening line is worth studying for its invitation to read on, to find out what kind of trouble the neighbour will cause.

Emily was 29 when her only novel was published. She died the next year.

I have a little black Penguin book (no. 63), “The Night is Darkening Round Me”, containing 30 of Emily Brontë’s poems. Many of them suggest she knew her life would be short and death was not far off. She also writes of others who are already dead and buried, as though thoughts of them, and knowing she would soon go to be with them, were constantly turning in her mind. Take, for example, the first stanza of Remembrance:

Cold in the earth – and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far, removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Or take the last stanza of The Old Stoic:

Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
‘Tis all that I implore;
In life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

Charlotte Brontë, in her ‘biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’ ( pseudonyms of Emily and Agnes Brontë), described her sister Emily as “stronger than a man, simpler than a child”. “Under an unsophisticated culture”, she wrote, “lay a secret power and fire”; “Her temper was magnanimous, but warm and sudden; her spirit altogether unbending.”

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Today as I was waiting for some singers to sing in Sydney, I read Emily’s poems. Many are grim, yet in their truthfulness are more satisfying than the novel. I would put this small Penguin book on a recommended reading list. I wonder what Emily would have thought if she were looking into a crystal ball in the 1840s, seeing a woman on the other side of the world reading her poetry while drinking coffee with a heart painted in its froth…

Coffee with Emily Brontë at Bellaccino, Hornsby

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46 Great Opening Lines: 22

In Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, which adorns numerous war memorials around Australia, there is a verse that every Australian knows:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…

Opening line of the Author’s Note, Desert Boys, Peter Rees, 2012

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I’ve heard the line ‘They shall grow not old…’ every year of my life, yet it still catches me out. Wars need poets.

Australian soldiers in North Africa, 1941/42

When I look at the photo above from my father’s World War Two album, taken during his time in North Africa in 1941/42, I wonder whether these soldiers fell or grew old. Unfortunately the photo is uncaptioned and I have no names for them. They seem to be posing, demonstrating a lesson in warfare.

I’m struck by its similarity to the image on the cover of Desert Boys by Peter Rees, a book about Australian soldiers who fought in the desert in both world wars. In each photo there are five young Australian men in helmets, focusing on something to their left. Perhaps these cover men are also posing. In any case, their photos remind us that they went to the desert to fight, and may not have returned to grow old.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 16

The sun burns hotly thro’ the gums
As down the road old Rogan comes —
The hatter from the lonely hut
Beside the track to Woollybutt.
He likes to spend his Christmas with us here.

First lines, A Bush Christmas, C. J. Dennis, 1931
 

Clearly, if you’re reading a poem entitled A Bush Christmas and the first line says ‘The sun burns hotly…’ you can be sure you’re not in northern Europe.

My Christmases have always been hot. Where I grew up in Queensland, the morning temperature in the kitchen would have been, say, 25 degrees celsius, but Mum would never hesitate to turn on the oven and roast the chicken, a luxury. (No turkeys for us.) After a couple of hours of cooking, it would have easily been 35 degrees in that room. I’d keep out of the way and splash around in my small canvas pool while the grown-ups of my family would sit chatting in the shade of the yard. Dad in his long sleeves and trousers, which he wore in all weathers, would be chain smoking on his bench. We’d all wait for Mum to finish roasting the vegetables or making gravy, and then she’d call us to the table. The sweat dripped from her face as she served the food.

“It ain’t a day for working hard,” says the father in A Bush Christmas, and of course, as he speaks, the mother is roasting and boiling and baking in the soaring temperature of the bush kitchen. She’s hot, but guess what the poetic father says…

“Your fault,” says Dad, “you know it is.
Plum puddin’! on a day like this,
And roasted turkeys! Spare me days,
I can’t get over women’s ways.”

Traditions from the old country, the wintry Christmases of England, Scotland and Ireland, are dying hard in Australia, even now. For those from the old country who sought a better life in Canada or the northern parts of the USA, Christmas temperatures were just like home. But those who came to Australia kept up the traditions despite the upside down climate.

A few hours after our Queensland Christmas dinner was over, it was invariably followed by sharp cracking thunder, lightning flashes and a cooling torrential downpour.

But old Rogan of the poem is celebrating Christmas out in the bush, far from any city, where there might not have even been the relief that comes with a storm. Instead, Rogan passes the afternoon telling the kids “his yarns of Christmas tide ‘mid English barns”, “of whitened fields and winter snows, and yuletide logs and mistletoes”.

The children listen, mouths agape,
And see a land with no escape
For biting cold and snow and frost —
A land to all earth’s brightness lost,
A strange and freakish Christmas land to them…

Old Rogan was the lonely neighbour invited for “a bite of tucker and a beer”. They offered him company and a meal, and in return he offered them that valuable form of nourishment for children’s minds, a good yarn.

…The sun slants redly thro’ the gums
As quietly the evening comes,
And Rogan gets his old grey mare,
That matches well his own grey hair,
And rides away into the setting sun…

In the end, the father relaxes with a full belly, and his wife washes up.

“Ah, well,” says Dad. “I got to say
I never spent a lazier day.

This is how it was in my childhood. I’m glad to say some things have changed.

Cover, “A Bush Christmas” by C.J. Dennis, illustrated by Dee Huxley

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Great

After the US election, Ailsa at Where’s my backpack wrote Great, a poem. I read it out loud (no one was listening) and heard myself almost rapping… It’s a two-part verse, beginning in darkness, ending in light.

Encouraging bloggers to add some goodness to the dish on the other side of the scale, she has challenged us to do something GREAT:

Create something beautiful and share it with the world. Write something true from the depths of your humanity and share it with the world. Do something kind for someone in need. Embrace a different culture. Volunteer. Plant a tree. Tell someone how much they mean to you. Reach out to someone in your community you’ve never even noticed before. Try to understand someone else’s point of view. Learn something new. Teach your kids something new. Stand up to bullies. Protect those being victimized. Be brave. Be gentle. Be vulnerable. Nurture. Encourage. Forgive. Love. Shine.

The word Volunteer leapt out at me with its capital V. It’s what I do. I’ve done voluntary English tutoring for years, but previously only once a week. This year, it has been five days a week, a few hours each day. The rewards for the students are free language instruction and friendship, but for me the rewards are many and varied. They buy me flowers, plants, perfume from France, skin products from New Zealand, clothes from China (!), crockery and meals. But mostly, it’s coffee.

We meet in local cafés, where the owners have come to know me and my students. They even know what we’ll order, each student ordering the same thing every week.

This week I combined the great thing that is Ailsa’s poem with my volunteering: I used her poem in a lesson. I asked my student to read it out loud, tell me what poetic devices were used, and tell me what it all meant. Here she is expressing her feelings about the negative half, words about words that are ‘meant to shock, intimidate, demean and mock’, followed by the positive half, words about words that ‘serve to heal, unite, encourage and appeal’.Now, I doubt that any great act on my part will counteract the new US president’s policies, but one day at a time, one person at a time, is a policy that’s working to make life better for me and my students in this part of the world.

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Weekly photo challenge: Look up

Friday was grim, grey, an on and off drizzly day. My latest translation had been rejected. My weekly gathering of friends had been cancelled and no one told me. I was more than half-way through The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and had to escape from that dark story.

So, grabbing my umbrella, the one made by Pep’s in Paris when I was a brief neighbour of the small business, I walked out into the great outdoors. I’ve rarely used my Parisian umbrella in this city of more sun than rain. But this winter, it’s wet.

I looked up and saw this spidery mesh of branches.

Wet wintry walk, CanberraIt didn’t make me feel better. But I kept walking, my gloom burning off with each step. As I turned down a bush track, I looked up again and saw this Sulphur-crested cockatoo flying up to the branch above my head. I felt a little love for the world. Even gratefulness for the rain.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo in gum treeBack home, I had to prepare a lesson for a student for the next morning. It was to be poetry, something not too deep, not too obscure, something which might have meaning for her. I selected The World by William Brighty Rands, a poem I’d never read, by a poet I’d never heard of. After Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde had earlier dragged me down, I was pleasantly relieved to read about The World according to Rands. His poem lifted me, and things began to look up.

Great, wide, beautiful, wonderful World,
With the wonderful water round you curled,
And the wonderful grass upon your breast –
World, you are beautifully drest.

The wonderful air is over me,
And the wonderful wind is shaking the tree,
It walks on the water, and whirls the mills,
And talks to itself on the tops of the hills.

You friendly Earth, how far do you go,
With the wheatfields that nod and the rivers that flow,
With cities and gardens, and cliffs, and isles,
And people upon you for thousands of miles?

Ah, you are so great, and I am so small,
I tremble to think of you, World, at all;
And yet, when I said my prayers today,
A whisper inside me seemed to say,
“You are more than the Earth, though you are such a dot:
You can love and think, and the Earth cannot.”

*****

Thanks WordPress for the Look up photo prompt.

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Tobruk – 75th anniversary

The siege of Tobruk began 75 years ago on 10th April, 1941, and yesterday in Canberra the anniversary was marked at the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ memorial on Anzac Avenue.

Tobruk is a small town on the Libyan coast with a deep water harbour, which Australian, British and Indian troops were charged with protecting in 1941 to prevent Rommel and his German forces from accessing the port and advancing into Egypt. The men of the Tobruk garrison withstood attacks for eight months, never retreating or surrendering. The Nazi propagandist ‘Lord Haw Haw’ said they were like ‘rats in a trap’, and from then the Australian troops proudly called themselves the ‘Rats of Tobruk’.

My father arrived in North Africa in September and worked in the hospital where he saw numbers of wounded men from Tobruk. Other soldiers gave him some photos of the harbour and town of Tobruk in various states of ruin, which he brought back in an album when he returned to Australia. A couple of photos are enough to give an idea of the bay in 1941.

The monument on Anzac Avenue is modelled after another one which you can see in the black and white photo, constructed in the cemetery at Tobruk but destroyed a few months after. Beside it is the present monument in Canberra in a photo I took today. On the front of the new one is a bronze eternal flame that faces the avenue, below which were laid wreaths for the 75th anniversary of the siege:

The Tobruk siege is significant for two firsts. It was the first defeat of Hitler’s troops on land. And Corporal John Hurst Edmondson, who died from wounds and is buried in Tobruk cemetery (and whose grave photo is also in my father’s album) was the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the war (awarded posthumously).

Finally, a poem. Here are the first two stanzas of Wounded from Tobruk, recorded by my father in his poetry book, but written by James Andrew “Tip” Kelaher and published in The Bulletin on 29 October 1941. Sadly, Tip Kelaher was killed the following year at El Alamein in Libya. Here’s the page in my father’s writing, followed by my transcription with corrections:

Wounded from Tobruk by James Andrew "Tip" Kelaher, 1941
Wounded from Tobruk by James Andrew “Tip” Kelaher, 1941

You come limping down the gangplank
Or you’re carried down instead,
Covered by a dusty blanket
With a boot beneath your head,
And you all look lean and hungry
Underneath that Aussie grin,
Sick of bully beef and biscuits,
But the sort that won’t give in.

Perhaps you’re smiled at by a bearer,
Who is muscular and big,
Fishing fags out of his pocket
With a “Better have one, Dig”.
And you take it as he lights it,
And return the wry old grin,
Making little of your troubles,
But there’s no one taken in.

Poets, photographers, artists, sculptors, and a corporal who saved a man but sacrificed his own life. We must write about them lest we forget.

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Handwritten

The Daily Post writing prompt for 11th September was Handwritten:  When was the last time you wrote something by hand?

I write by hand many times a day, and indeed was handwriting something for another blog post only moments before I began typing these words.  But writing for this blog is something I do infrequently, unfortunately.  Translating literature is what I do every day, writing the translation by hand before keying it into my computer.  Usually I write with a cheap ballpoint pen or pencil on cheap note paper.  However, a German friend recently sent me a calligraphy pen and coloured inks, and a French friend sent me a Clairefontaine notebook with its silky smooth papier velouté.  To test them both out, I wrote the fourth verse from St. Patrick’s Breastplate:

St Patrick’s Breastplate v.4

The last lines are particularly meaningful to me, for I love the sea and its rocks, not to mention stability…  Just this morning, in the small bay of Lilli Pilli Beach, I was snapping waves as they crashed against rock projections:

LilliPilli Beach NSW
Lilli Pilli Beach NSW

I once heard that when you’re focused on a subject or scene to photograph it, you can’t feel depressed.  Your brain is too busy getting the shot right.  Similarly, when you’re writing out your thoughts by hand, your disappointments and confusions flow out of your head, through the pen and onto the paper.  But no one needed to tell me that.

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Weekly photo challenge: Signs

When the Australian government, among others, announced this week they’re sending troops off to Iraq to fight (if only in the skies for now), I thought Here we go again.  As I rode past this bin today, the sign “General Waste” reminded me of the futility of war.  It might seem an obscure connection, but when you see the page from my father’s anthology of war poetry compiled in about 1942, you’ll think what I thought.  First, the bin:

General Waste bin

Second, a poem entitled “General Waste”, originally written in World War One by Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, who volunteered as a British chaplain to the army on the western front.  He was also known as Woodbine Willie for the Woodbines he smoked and handed out to the wounded and dying.  But he had a threefold reputation, for he was also a great anti-war poet.

In Dad’s poetry book, I’ve often read “General Waste” and felt the hollowness of war.  Studdert Kennedy wrote it in about 1917, but his poems were recalled by soldiers fighting again in World War Two.  Dad has called it “General Waste”, though searches online suggest it was called simply “Waste”.  There are a few spelling errors in his script, so I’ve transcribed it:

Waste of muscle, waste of brain,
Waste of patience, waste of pain.
Waste of manhood, waste of health,
Waste of beauty, waste of wealth.
Waste of blood, waste of tears,
Waste of youth’s most precious years.
Waste of ways the saints have trod,
Waste of Glory, Waste of God.
War!

"Waste" by Rev. Studdert Kennedy, c1917
“Waste” by Rev. Studdert Kennedy, c1917 (my father’s script)

Thanks WordPress for this week’s photo challenge.

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Orange

From Éloge de l’oranger by Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695)

Orangers, arbres que j’adore,
Que vos parfums me semblent doux !
Est-il dans l’empire de Flore
Rien d’agréable comme vous ?

"Orange de Malte", P. Doumerc, Oingt, France
“Orange de Malte”, P. Doumerc, Oingt, France

My translation, wherein I change the plural orangers to a single orange tree, for the sake of rhyme:

Orange tree, my desire,
How thy scent is sweet to me!
Is there in Flora’s empire
Anything as lovely as thee?

Blood oranges at EPIC market yesterday
Blood orange eighths
Blood orange eighths

Thanks Ailsa for the orange prompt!

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