It is the theme of time as a remorseless thing of terrible beauty in much of Kenneth Slessor’s work that strikes most powerfully. He conceives of time as a great force, intricate with the state of the natural world, conjured as the “hundred yachts” in ‘Out of Time’, an unstoppable flotilla of grace. Part and parcel with this is a partly ironic consideration of the way humans measure time, and thus attempt to place limits and controls on their understanding of nature, which is not governed by a time moved by “little fidget wheels”, as he puts it in ‘Five Bells’. That is, the time kept by pocket and wrist watches of bankers and businessmen, of the everyday world. Slessor attempts to define a deeper, more ethereal concept of time, one which the imagery of water easily intertwines with; time, and the ocean, drown everything with completeness, they are vast and mysterious entities.
This idea of being drowned and thus lost to time is literal in the subject of ‘Five Bells’ (“The tide is over you / The turn of midnight water’s over you”) and ‘Beach Burial’, both of which engage in acts of remembrance for dead men lost at sea, and conflate time, the ocean, and night into a singular whole, a state of formlessness. Consider also in ‘Out of Time’, where “(t)he moment’s world as it was; and I was part / Fleshless and ageless, changeless and was made free.” Slessor’s concept of freedom seems precisely to invite a boundless disintegration of form, a complete immersion in the totality of things. “The gulls go down, the body dies and rots / And time flows past them like a hundred yachts.” The physical world decays, in the relentless march of time. There’s no intimation of a god or an afterlife here; it’s more as if time itself is the god, neither cruel nor pitying but implacable, that Slessor envisions.
Thus the nautical measurement of time, the ringing of the ship’s bell, seems to have a more crucial, salutary relationship for Slessor to the nature of time, the sea, and memory, both in a purely imagistic fashion – the toll of a bell sounds sonorous and mysterious, the image of ‘Five Bells’ ringing out in the dark before dawn, it and it evokes a prayer chime. Compare this to Cook’s two chronometers in ‘Five Visions of Captain’. One clock hangs back, the other races forth, just as Cook’s intent races forth and the minds of his crew hang back; the clocks evoke the splitting of the scheme of things into past and future, death and hope, known and unknown. The two clocks evoke Cook’s relentless, almost alchemistic grappling with the future, the unknown, and the drag of the past, of the old world, which is of course where Alexander Home ends up again, blind, with his vision left in the new world, that land of blinding sun, an adventurer left narrating great tales to empty chairs. The dark, sightless old world and the bright, overwhelming new world concords with the sluggish time and the quick time, the memory of home and past and the act of racing into the future.
It’s ironic that Slessor gets high on the image of Cook as the great captain, advancing into the future, when Slessor’s concept of his own present, the future for Cook and his men, is so mutable; Home is a first victim of this. The march of time in the five stanzas ‘Cook’ is in itself telling, moving from the pre-scientific codes of alchemy and sorcery and legend, the Captain conceived as a shamanistic conqueror of the limits of the earth, to the drag of “the most important things / That serious-minded midshipmen could wish / Of plantains, and the lack of rum”, and then, finally in Home’s situation in the conclusion, a blind man with a wife “who lived in a present of kitchen fumes”, with visions of new worlds, ironically, irretrievably in the past, lost amidst the mundane and the domestic.
It’s a concept linked to ‘Fixed Ideas’, and the tedious tyranny of the familiar and the settled. In ‘The Night-Ride’, the everyday commuting world is alchemised into something alien, the destination and the reason for travelling vague, only the immediate transformation by dark and wet of the familiar into something, dare I say it, rich and strange (everything in these poems seems to be suffering a sea-change), of any reality, a reality which is utterly dominated by Slessor’s perception and poetic imagination. In a similar fashion to the way the ocean and time transform things, so in ‘The Night-Ride’ the identity and nature of things melt and invert; passengers “slow blowing” and the engines “yawning”, the precisely identified and described objects somehow taking ownership of the humans, “Black sinister travellers” who are “hooked over bags / Hurrying, unknown faces”. In the night journey, the world is submerged in a version of his ocean of time, dissolving boundaries between things, eating away at the settled concept, the firm identity. It’s like the image of “the Cross hangs upside-down in the water”, the cityscape inverted and transformed into a dream painted on the sea.
In ‘Beach Burial’ the annihilation of identity is crucial, for Slessor sees the former enemies, whose bodies are buried in the sand, halfway between the settled earth and the boundless sea, going off to some undefined “other front”. Slessor’s vision here isn’t as entirely hopeless, or at least morbid, as it appears elsewhere; the change, the loss of form, involves a constant alteration, a kind of alchemy, into something else. Time transforms everything, whether we want it to or not. The troubling quality is that somehow the act of dying and the act of discovery are joined; it’s a sort of morbid romanticism that despises the immediate, sensing truth only lies in the vast ocean of time and the act of trying to penetrate that veil of mystery.
A common element in ‘Five Bells’ and ‘Beach Burial’ is that each is, in a fashion, an act of mourning, and yet they are also different kinds of mourning. The first is an utterly private meditation, a private reckoning of what the acts of remembering, and indeed the act of dying, means, in terms of the human relationship with time and existence. ‘Beach Burial’ is something different; it’s a public work, an act of eulogy engaged with the tragedy of war, which conjures a vision of some variety of transcendence, but one which is felt in uniquely apolitical, indeed, asocial, utterly private terms. Either way, in Slessor’s two poems ‘Five Bells’ and ‘Beach Burial’, the dead are not quiet. In ‘Five Bells’ it’s a firmly metaphorical disquiet – the narrator is taunted by memory that lacks neither form, firm grave marker, the “Nothing that was neither long nor short”.
Slessor of ‘Five Bells’ takes little comfort from the “funeral cakes of sweet and sculptured stone” that mark the graves of “a thousand men / Staked bone by bone”, where the frigid perfection of “tablets cut with dreams of piety” of the totems built by Joe’s blinded father contrasts Joe’s lonely seaborne death and also the hastily fashioned crosses of driftwood that mark the sailors’ graves in ‘Beach Burial’. It’s as if death was Joe’s family business. That wood has a kind of seaborne, natural purity, denied the weighty confections of the graveyard. In ‘Five Bells’, Joe’s death is glazed in mystery, his life remembered, the intrusion of his spirit only identified as fragments of a life stored within Slessor’s memory. In ‘Beach Burial’, they seem something more, there’s a hint of an afterlife allowed, the unknowable “other front”. Either way, it’s the act of creating totems of remembrance that each poem essentially celebrates; indeed what each poem is. Slessor creates in each poem a kind of clear space where the phenomenon of death and the reaction of the living to it given attention. He doesn’t mollify with promises or prayers. The afterlife and religious significance even in ‘Beach Burial’ is hazy, but the desire to make a kind of sense, to achieve a resolution, of the relationship between living and dead is crucial.
There is private urgency in both poems for Slessor. The first is a poem about a dead friend, the second expresses a divided spirit, being as he was from a German family, trying to work through a haunted notion that literally splits his identity in two. Thus the poem is presented in a translation, and his final hope for some reconciliation. The act of translation, of communication, of remembrance, ties together with a salutary desperation in the “last signature of men, / Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity” that is the sad appellation ‘Unknown seaman’, which “The breath of wet season has washed their inscriptions / As blue as drowned men's lips” ties together the decay of identity with the decay of the flesh and of the anonymous, totemistic name. Names, bodies, human existence – a ‘ghostly pencil’ the same hue as a drowned man’s lips sketches a bland memorial for men. Writing, one form of language, and lips, purveyors of another, each equally blue, sapped, dead, lost to the men who are dead, their buriers “tread the sand upon their nakedness”, men who are no longer men. Like Joe in ‘Five Bells’, these dead are not dead, for “(t)he convoys of dead sailors come; / At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,” searching out the place where they wish to be laid to rest. They demand memorialisation. The ghostly pencil’s sketch matches the rough-hewn memorial of the “driven stake of tidewood”. What the sea throws up is sapped, denuded, rendered a shadow of its real self, and yet the driftwood retains a spiritual emblematic power. The people who bury the washed-up corpses remain invisible, unidentified, their motives opaque, they who wield the ghostly pencil. The “sob and clubbing of the gunfire” that punctuates the war zone seems to mourn itself for the dead men. The state of the world becomes their enveloping graveyard.
It’s a contrast to the memories of Joe in ‘Five Bells’ where Slessor recalls most vividly that it was “(s)o dark you bore no body, had no face, / But a sheer voice that rattled out of air” – the human voice a penetrating actualisation, the proof of presence, the island of intelligence in the great darkness. Where Joe and Slessor (who is, of course, only the narrator Slessor) exist inseparable and eternally separated by their life and death, the dead sailors of ‘Beach Burial’ have found a kind of communality denied them in life in death. Slessor recalls himself and Joe caught in the dark, “(t)he naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky, / Knifing the dark with deathly photographs”, a phrase that illuminates that inner state of mind Slessor ceaselessly captures, the brief intense vision, the momentarily lit scene. Sight and darkness have powerful symbolic value for Slessor; The blind Alexander Home in ‘Five Visions of Captain Cook’, Joe’s equally blind tomb-making fiddler father in ‘Five Bells’, and Joe himself speaking out of the enveloping black, tied together in offering visions of other worlds, of south sea islands and afterlives, fiddle music, exotic women and Milton, all coalescing in a hazy mid-ground between sensuality and annihilation in the narrator’s imagination. Life, and the human consciousness, is a moment of brightness in sea of dark. Only the totemistic moment, act, recollection, the act of creating a totem, be it art or driftwood cross, offers a bulwark against nothingness.