Monday, 11 December 2017

The Dark Train - Travelling Through the Night with Kenneth Slessor

Much of my life is spent on trains or on railway platforms, so at times I naturally gravitate towards poetry relating to these settings.  I am also a night owl, who regrets the lack of a twenty four transport system in this country - though considering the yobbishness which plagues our trains in even daylight hours, perhaps this would not be such a good idea.  I am, though, used to traveling late, and well recognize the nocturnal depictions in The Night Ride, by Kenneth Slessor (1901-1971).

Pull up the blind, urges the narrator, blink out - all sounds are drugged; / the slow blowing of / passengers asleep;/ engines yawning; water in heavy drips.  The poem, which describes its author's observation of a group of soldiers entering the carriage on which he is riding through the night, begins, not with any sense of nocturnal stillness or moonlit eeriness, but a sense of clamour and hurry:

Gas flaring on the yellow platform; voices running up and down;
Milk-tins in cold dented silver

 

Slessor's interest in the scene is mostly stoked by the arrival of Black, sinister travellers, lumbering up the station - a silhouetted cast of characters half-obscured by gaslight, whose "mysterious ends," and "private fates" are reflected on with obliquely:

one moment in the window, hooked over bags;
hurrying, unknown faces - boxes with strange labels -
all groping clumsily to mysterious ends,
out of the gaslight, dragged by private Fates,
their echoes die
And the future's blank, foreboding page is suggested bleakly by the external scene, in which a darkened slideshow is underscored by subtly inserted sound effects: 

The dark train shakes and plunges;
bells cry out, the night-ride starts again.
Soon I shall look out into nothing but blackness,
pale, windy fields, the old roar and knock of the rails
melts in dull fury. Pull down the blind. Sleep. Sleep
Nothing but grey, rushing rivers of bush outside

 

 The sounds of motion dulled by the wintry elements, the vision of the train and its passengers transfigure a human journey and the search for destinations against a hostile landscape.  It is interesting to speculate on how, had the poet not encountered this unexpected collective of fellow travelers, The Night Ride might never have been written.  Was its composition prompted purely by their unexpected presence?  Or was there something in the poem's nocturnal setting, of watching a darkened world go by and sitting by a window reflecting on the transience of life, that was instinctive to its author?  To know something of Slessor's life is to appreciate something of the underlying "baggage" present in his poem.

Kenneth Slessor was born in New South Wales, the son of a Jewish mining engineer, whose Australian mother's family was of Hebridean origins.  The Slessor household was known for its bohemian liberality, and regularly hosted musicians and artistic gatherings.  The family spoke French at mealtimes, and the young Kenneth was encouraged to develop a European outlook, not to be negated by his love of country: at 17, his poem Jerusalem Set Free won the Victoria Prize for Patriotic Poetry.

Slessor would go on to win great acclaim and prizes for his poetry, and come to be regarded as perhaps the quintessential Australian poet of his age.  With a first class honours degree in English, and a successful career in journalism, he was appointed official war correspondent by the Commonwealth government in 1940, and his life and poetry were the subjects of several celebrated critical studies and biographies.  Yet one of the defining moments in Slessor's life came in 1927, the death by drowning of his friend Joe Lynch, an artist who died after falling into Sydney Harbour.  The thirty year old Lynch, whose most famous work, a sculpt called Satyr, was both praised, and damned as "pagan" by critics and contemporaries, was drawn to a hedonistic lifestyle.  The night he died, Lynch had been drinking with friends and was traveling with them back across the harbour, en-route to the house of cartoonist George Finey.  All the party, which did not include Kenneth Slessor, were carrying copious amounts of alcohol to be consumed later, but once on board the boat which was to convey them to their destination, Lynch removed to the rear of the deck, and without warning threw himself over the edge.  It is said that he was followed into the water by a friend, desperately trying to save his life, but resisted the attempt, and that was the end of Lynch, who was eventually found dead with two bottles of beer still stuffed into his pockets.
Slessor later recalled how Joe Lynch was prone to a nihilistic attitude, and remembered in an interview how “Joe was a devout nihilist and frequently (over a pint of Victoria Bitter) said that the only remedy to the world’s disease was to blow it up and start afresh.”  The unhappy artist's famous sculpt, cast in bronze forty years after his death, now faces the sea in which its sculptor drowned.


The sad death of Joe Lynch might have almost gone forgotten - another tragic statistic in the history of Sydney Harbour - even before the opening of the Harbour Bridge, suicides were numerous, with a further forty happening since the bridge was built in 1932 - were it not for Kenneth Slessor.  Perhaps Slessor's most famous poem is 1939's Five Bells, a meditation on the five ringing bells of ships, in which the death of his friend is remembered. Frequently anthologized, inspiring multiple contemporary songs and novels, and a mainstay of many on Australian school syllabuses, Slessor's  tribute to Joe Lynch is tender and respectful, and articulates the persistence of a grief which has not ebbed twelve years after the sculptor's death.

I looked out of my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand . . .
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat's whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds' voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.

How present, then, was this loss in Kenneth Slessor's mind as he sat on board the dark train, gazing beyond its watery windows into a black, cold distance?  We can only imagine now, more than half a century from when the poem was written, how deeply his years as a correspondent reporting on the horrors of World War Two were present in the poet's mind as he watched the anonymous soldiers boarding, bound on their journeys to mysterious, uncertain fates.  And we can only imagine how strongly the thought of his drowned friend might still have reverberated in his mind, as the train pulled in and out of stations, like a ship in a harbour, shaking and plunging through the night.  Bells cry out, he tells us in the poem, a line laced with knowing sadness, the night-ride starts again.

The Night Ride

Gas flaring on the yellow platform; voices running up and down;
Milk-tins in cold dented silver; half-awake I stare,
Pull up the blind, blink out - all sounds are drugged;
the slow blowing of passengers asleep;
engines yawning; water in heavy drips;
Black, sinister travellers, lumbering up the station,
one moment in the window, hooked over bags;
hurrying, unknown faces - boxes with strange labels -
all groping clumsily to mysterious ends,
out of the gaslight, dragged by private Fates,
their echoes die. The dark train shakes and plunges;
bells cry out, the night-ride starts again.
Soon I shall look out into nothing but blackness,
pale, windy fields, the old roar and knock of the rails
melts in dull fury. Pull down the blind. Sleep. Sleep
Nothing but grey, rushing rivers of bush outside.
Gaslight and milk-cans. Of Rapptown I recall nothing else.















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