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Australian Poetry

BEACH BURIAL

 

Beach Burial was written in 1944 by Kenneth Slessor, a war correspondent with the Australian Army during the North African campaign. His intrinsic desire to keep literature free of the corruptions of propaganda, and preserve its humanity, permeates the tone of his poem. It is written in the third person perspective, which exemplifies his journalistic objectivity. Slessor adopts the approach of critical nationalism by employing a skeptical treatment of some traditional paragons of national identity, such as blind patriotism and the honour of dying for one’s country.

The poem, inspired by the Battle of El Alamein, explores the ‘tragic idiocy of the human race as expressed in man’s ineradicable eagerness to shed life on the barren battlefield and on the shallowest pretext’. The poem elucidates the tragic anonymity of death in battle, the absence of ceremony that accompanies death, and the notion of the displaced soldier dying in a foreign realm.

In the opening line, Slessor describes the soldiers being led like lambs to the slaughter; meek, impressionable gentlemen lured into the brutal sphere of the Arabs– Softy and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs. The convoy of dead sailors implies that death in war is inevitable and occurs en masse. The unceremonious, stark language serves to dehumanize the men. Come embodies the luring invitation of nationalistic piety.

The souls of the dead sailors are forever etched in the hostile landscape; they sway and wander in the hidden waters like shackled ghosts. Their geographic displacement at the time of their death means that their identity and nationality has been stripped from them. They are eternally seeking a final resting place and a sense of peace and belonging in the borderless ocean, free of the demarcation of country or territory, abandoned by their own nation. The meter of the poem echoes the repetitive swaying of the waves of the ocean.  The romantic myth of dying for one’s country is shrouded and concealed by the impenetrable cloak of night.

However, in the stark light of morning the tragic waste of innocent life is exposed, as the sombre reality spits out the dead in the form of rolling foam. The humble man is no match for the formidable force of the ocean and death.  Slessor’s initial stanza fosters a false sense of calm by employing gentle metaphors, such as softly, humbly, sway, wander, rolls, and foam.

Then abruptly, the second stanza begins with the violent clubbing of the gunfire; which signifies death and horror, and this is juxtaposed with the cowardly sound of sobbing. In the face of imminent and brutal death, all the courage that once galvanised the young soldiers has abruptly dissipated, and they are now merely part of the perpetual, noisy machinery of war; which is signified by the clubbing sound. Irrespective of the ostensible dignity of their personal sacrifice, they are inevitably humbled to become nothing more than nameless corpses. The only sound to herald their deaths is what destroys them; the machinery of war is inanimately sobbing for the dead.

Slessor describes the unidentified Someone who buries the dead, implying that the living soldiers with the grim task of secreting the dead are as nameless as their lifeless counterparts.  They are plucking their exposed bodies from the shallows, where the horror and the futility of war is as clear as tranquil water, to quickly bury them deep underneath the ground in secrecy, in the concealment of burrows, like soulless animals. There, the dead lie vulnerable and naked, exposed to the merciless elements of a hostile land. The treading over the corpses is tantamount to walking over a grave, which is a sign of disrespect towards the deceased. Tread also implies repetition and continuity, which is reflected in the infinite images of the ocean and death. The rhythm of treading on sand is reflected in the poetic meter, where every second line rhymes: The convoys of dead sailors come…../ But morning rolls them in the foam.

However, the anonymity of the unidentified gravediggers raises the possibility that they may have been foes of the dead Australian sailors.  Death is the ultimate leveler, and a semblance of moral order and humanity is exhibited in the act of burying the dead enemies, instead of leaving them rotting and exposed.

In the third stanza, each cross symbolizes the noble death of the Allied forces for their Protestant mother country, under the patriotic symbol of the Union Jack. This echoes Penton’s writings from the same year; “It is towards the Pommy that our national bosom is thumped most vigorously”. It also evokes the image of Jesus dying gallantly on the cross, sacrificing his life for a cause that was greater than Himself. The Tidewood that forges the cross is makeshift, rushed, utilizing whatever is available to them at the time; perhaps denoting the unexpectedness of the decimation.  The Tidewood has been rendered into a dangerous implementation of violence as it becomes a driven stake. The cross bares and is burdened by the sailor’s eternal legacy, the last inscription of men.  Slessor is mirroring his own words in this inscription; his poem is also a succinct work of bewildered pity. His tone reflects the perplexed perspective of the survivors of the battle; who are forced to reconcile the beauty of the beach and the romantic rhetoric of wartime sacrifice, with the brutality of what’s unfolding in front of them. Slessor, like these inscriptions, is attempting to give words and meaning to death, and to prevent the legacy of these tragic men from disappearing into the ether, even though his words are doomed to choke as they begin.

In the fourth stanza, the profound anonymity and futility of battle is starkly elucidated. The Unknown seaman is forever faceless and his name is irrelevant in death. Soon he becomes faded and forgotten with the transparent, transient ghostly pencil. This ephemeral ink functions as a metaphor for the impermanence of Slessor’s language and for life itself. The regal purple drips denote the sacrifices for the freedom of one’s queen and country, but this illusion drips away as the leveling ferocity of the wet season vanquishes it. The blue of the dead man’s lips, both the colour of ocean and the colour of death, washes away the inscriptions and signatures as these omnipotent forces impose their supreme authority.

In the final stanza, all the bodies, irrespective of nationality or creed, or Whether as enemies they fought/ Or fought with us, have merely become Dead seamen. Both sides were striving for the same landfall, the same frontier, and the same Utopian myth of dying for their respective ideologies. Now they are equal in death, as death is not mindful of sacrifice or national identity. Only in death do the soldiers find eternal peace and unity in the borderless sea. The impenetrable sand joins them together in its cold grave, and they are nameless and plentiful as the grains of sand. They are enlisted on the other front, the front of death, together as one.

Beach Burial is an ironic war elegy; instead of celebrating military valour or conveying nationalistic fervour, it is a cynical epitaph to Australian soldiers and their foes, whom are ultimately united in death. It condemns the indiscriminate waste of young life for a false heroic ideology; such as the one postulated by Palmer: that there is no hope for the Australian man “unless the breath of the heroic… stirs him to come out of the body of this death” of being subjugated by a foreign enemy. Ultimately, the inevitable battle between life and death is the only battle left, and perhaps the only battle worth fighting.

 

HAPPINESS

 

Happiness, written by Katharine Susannah Prichard in the 1930’s, explores her adherence to the dual ideologies of Communism and Vitalism, two of the prominent intellectual undercurrents of the era. Both ideologies are entrenched in the real, the dynamic, with a broader critique of bourgeois values like romance and moralism. Prichard was an Australian cultural nationalist, with a desire for social justice and an aversion to formulaic commercial literature.  She sought to infuse the Aboriginal story with realism and humanity,  free of European influence, and perpetuate the existence of their ancient culture while precluding them from becoming “degenerate puppet people, mere parodies of what their race once was” . Her respect to the indigenous language and their song establishes her as a student of the The Jindyworobak literary movement, whose non-aboriginal members sought to promote Aboriginal culture through their literary endeavours.

The story opens with a mystical ode to the land, and we feel Nardadu’s spiritual connection to the landscape. She is surrounded by “blood and filth”, a milieu that may elicit abhorrence from the puritan perspective. Yet to Nardadu, it symbolises the circle of life and the giving of the land, which energises Nardadu with complete contentment because she was simply “pleased to have found something she could cook… to satisfy the hunger of Munga”. Nardadu sits there, oblivious to the flies, cooing a loving aboriginal song. The legacy of this song, brought “from beyond those wild hills” by her mother, also symbolises this continuity of the land; a theme that dominates the text. Contrastingly, Megga attempts to soften and modify the hard landscape by planting the “bushes with curds of blossom… light green and fluttering”. Prichard also shows the diametric physicality of the characters; Megga is “tall and gaunt and hard”/ “bleached and stiff”, while the indigenous woman is a “small squat woman, with broad features”, which reflects the contrasting aesthetic of the land.

Nardadu’s affinity to the land is also contrasted to the intruder Meetchie’s disgust at its brutality, when she pleads “take me away… it’s so bare, and hard, and ugly”. This portrayal of Meetchie exemplifies the historic idealisation of white women as a defenceless and pliable entity; where the landscape serves to strip her of her “soft young beauty, becoming almost insane in her weariness”. Pritchard juxtaposes this to the strong character of Megga… “two men could not do what she did”. Yet, irrespective of how capable Megga is, Nardadu’s antiquated opinion of the traditional male/ female power dynamic remains unmovable: “Nardadu did not understand how a woman came to have such power with a man”.

In colonial Australia, Aborigines were dispossessed of their land and forced to become unpaid station hands without any agency, in order to receive items of food and clothing to sustain them.  The white man’s cultural decimation is inextricably linked to his economic power. Nardadu reveres John as “Master he might be of all the country… the all-powerful, giver of food and clothing, whose anger and boot you avoided”. The text also illuminates colonial insensitivity to Aboriginal cultural beliefs. John doesn’t understand Nardadu’s fear of the Narlu who haunted the mulga thickets and led her husband to his death. Yet, when Meetchie takes the children and abandons John, Nardadu feels his pain explicitly. “Nardadu listened” to everything around her, she is quietly observing and sensitive to their plight. However, there are occasional quiet vestiges of cultural respect exhibited by the white protagonists: “Nardadu had even heard (John) trying to whistle her own little song”.

Nardadu can’t identify with the excessiveness and ownership inherent to colonial culture. “It was beyond anything natural… the way (they) lived in their house… with an abundance of food and clothing”. The people of the uloo laugh at the “kurrie… having plenty of cream in her tea”, while Nardadu utilises all the provisions of the earth when she plucks over the lengths of rotting entrails to source food for her grandson. This Euro-centric desire for possession is further exemplified when John claims an Aboriginal woman as his sexual property. “A young gin was sent to John Gray’s camp… she did not return”. He thanks the old men by presenting them with material gifts.

Prichard illustrates the colonist’s attempts to civilise and assimilate the Aborigines into their culture by “teaching girls from the uloo to scrub, polish”, and not allowing their perceived impure bodies into the pure realm of the whites – “Only two of the gins were allowed in the house, after they had scrubbed their heads and bodies all over”. This shows the white’s ubiquitous effort to actively alter Aboriginal tribal customs, believing them to be incongruous to their puritan idealism. This illuminates the colonialist Manichean allegory; where the world is divided into mutually excluding opposites- the whites as rational and virtuous, and the blacks as savage and uncivilised[13].  However, this view is subverted by Prichard: the white people are depicted as chaotic, feuding and at odds with each other throughout the text, while the Aboriginal people are described to be hard-working, enduring, spiritual and united.

At the end of the tale John has been stripped of the spiritual possession of his family, and “Misery and bitterness” envelopes him. But Nardadu finds exaltation in the simple pleasure of observing her grandson Munga become a great horseman.  John has lost his kin; while Nardadu’s legacy in the form of her grandson, who is contributing to the land she is bonded to, vests her with ultimate joy.

Through its sympathetic examination of the characters, Happiness subverts any notions of European cultural ascendancy. It explores the differing elements that provide the protagonists with fulfillment, and ultimately shows that true “happiness” is entirely subjective and unpredictable. Prichard summons a realistic anthropological influence to illuminate the humanistic element of Australian life. Her writing is imbued with a sense of place, and the social and physical environment pervades and shapes the lives of the characters. Prichard shows that all protagonists endure their own unique heartbreak, and irrespective of their individual culture, are equally human.