Her father embarked at sunrise
with a flask of water, a samurai sword
in the cockpit, a shaven head
full of powerful incantations
and enough fuel for a one-way
journey into history
but half way there, she thought,
recounting it later to her children,
he must have looked far down
at the little fishing boats
strung out like bunting
on a green-blue translucent sea
and beneath them, arcing in swathes
like a huge flag waved first one way
then the other in a figure of eight,
the dark shoals of fishes
flashing silver as their bellies
swivelled towards the sun
and remembered how he
and his brothers waiting on the shore
built cairns of pearl-grey pebbles
to see whose withstood longest
the turbulent inrush of breakers
bringing their father’s boat safe
– yes, grandfather’s boat – safe
to the shore, salt-sodden, awash
with cloud-marked mackerel,
black crabs, feathery prawns,
the loose silver of whitebait and once
a tuna, the dark prince, muscular, dangerous.
And though he came back
my mother never spoke again
in his presence, nor did she meet his eyes
and the neighbours too, they treated him
as though he no longer existed,
only we children still chattered and laughed
till gradually we too learned
to be silent, to live as though
he had never returned, that this
was no longer the father we loved.
And sometimes, she said, he must have wondered
which had been the better way to die.
If ever a football game was considered “a game of two halves,” then this is “a poem in three parts.” The first lasts for just six lines, with the second containing the bulk of what is happening in the poem, heading down from line seven, to line
thirty. The final section, to the end though, is perhaps the most graphic, the most shocking thing I have ever had to read or teach in a classroom because the final section is laden with conflict in more than one way.
The themes of conflict begin for the fifteen year old student as soon as they see the title. Any good teacher – and if they do not tell you what ‘kamikaze’ means, sharing with you the Japanese social history of WW2 and what these men did, then they are useless as teachers and should be sacked – will show you a picture of a man like this one. This is a picture of a pilot in the Imperial Japanese Air Force, in WW2, who chose to give up his own life rather than return home. His Kamikaze Mission was a suicide mission. It is as simple as that.
This poem however, is about the same kind of man, but one who does return home and it details the shame and utter embarrassment for his family as they have to live with the knowledge that for whatever reason, their brave and noble father is nothing of the sort. This tension in the family is the conflict of this poem, but it is set, in the first and second parts, in a time of conflict that made men and women do some very strange things that we today would find incredible.
World War 2 is famous for people like Hitler and Goebells, Churchill and Stalin, but what can get forgotten is that when the war ended in 1945, the conflict with Japan raged on in places like the Philippines. It was only the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Google them) that brought Japan to surrender and some of them did not do that too willingly either. A lot of officers would sooner commit Hari Kiri, or kill themselves, rather than surrender. It was in their psyche at the time, from the days of Bushido and Samurai.
Thus, we see this poem, if we know this, in this light, as the man, the kamikaze pilot, sets off on his “journey into history.” That first section is so evocative of the time; the pilot, the “incantations,” or prayers if you like, helping him to perform the task, rather like a suicide bomber of today. One might ask what would drive a man or woman to do such a thing, but one also has to get into the mind of the person doing it. They have been fed a diet of lies that it is noble and honourable to die for your country and yet, when we read Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, we see how much of a lie that is.
So the pilot sets off on his mission, shaven headed, Samurai sword at the ready, just in case he fails, so he can kill himself (not defend himself) and yet, in line seven, we see something change in the poem, as the grand-daughter thinks how he might have been flying over coastal regions on his mission and seen fishermen and their boats below him. She thinks he may have seen “children” and “fishing boats,” reminding him of his youth, which in one sense, is strange. Fishermen tended not to make pilots in those days. People with a knowledge of the sea would usually end up in a Naval Destroyer somewhere. Land people would end up serving in the Army. So, this man, being a former fisherman, is an oddity, or a writer’s fantasy, because the writer might not have realised her error.
She thinks how he must have “looked far down at the little fishing boats” and remembered his past, his youth, the good times with his father and his boat and how things like flag waving were fond memories as the flag, presumably the national flag of Japan, “waved first one way, then the other in a figure of eight” as it moved through the air in that representation of nationalistic pride of the person waving it. She thinks how he must have remembered all the fish in the sea, his “brothers waiting on the shore” and then felt the pang of conflict inside him. This is the conflict in this poem in this middle section. Inasmuch as the conflict in the first section is about him heading off on his mission and his nervousness at doing so, this section includes a different kind of conflict and it has to be seen by the modern reader.
She thinks how he might have remembered certain things; “bringing their father’s boat” safely home, or the different fish that were caught on their fishing trips, with the metaphor of “the dark prince” being the epitome of their trips to sea. Catching a full blooded Tuna would have been a magnificent thing for them because of its size and monetary value, so she thinks how his mind has now become distracted by these memories, taking his thoughts away from his incantations, into the realms of memory, as he thinks back to those better days of peace and prosperity.
But then the third section of this poem begins on the word “And” and the tone changes dramatically once again, (note how section 2 begins on a “but” as well?) as does the conflict in a power-ridden familial home. Suddenly, there is loathing and hate, depression and embarrassment, shame and a desire to never speak of these things again because they are all ashamed of the man who came back from his “one way journey into history.”
Now, this man who was once so brave, is seen with derision even by his own family. This is the nature of the family at that time. I do not know whether such things are still held to in Japanese culture, because the world has moved on since these days, but I dare say there is still a very strong sense of pride for fathers and mothers in that culture, more so than here in the UK, which has lost the idea of the love of family, but unless we are aware of that (and many fifteen year olds are not, sadly) then we can become educationally dumb to the idea that such attitudes existed back in 1944 or so.
And so, “he came back” and the speaker says “my mother never spoke again in his presence, nor did she meet his eyes,” which to me, is harsh. I remember my Grandfather fondly and yes, I know his history towards my mother, which was violent but I do not hate him or his memory and this is the conflict now being shared in this poem. But it goes even further than that, because “the neighbours too, they treated him as though he no longer existed” and never spoke to him, or ignored him in the street, or whatever other kind of abuse they could hurl in his direction simply for being the man who came back.
Now there is no reason given in the poem, directly, that shows “why” he came back. Perhaps he was shot down and taken prisoner? Perhaps he survived the mission and was wounded rather than died? We simply do not know, so we are left to fill in the blanks. To me, the poem does suggest that maybe, he turned back out of cowardice. There is a hint to this in this last section, as the enemy of silence shows its ugly head in his life. I feel sorry for this man. I really do. To live a life after the war where even your children and grandchildren learn to never speak to you out of their familial shame, must be intolerable to endure, a far worse death than driving a plane straight into an aircraft carrier in the South Asia Sea.
This is what happens to this man as they all learn “to be silent, to live as though he had never returned, that this was no longer the father” they loved. Suddenly, love has evaporated, like the mist above the once “translucent sea” and what is left is a lifetime of wondering “which had been the better way to die.” Now that is conflict at a primal level, to me, a lifestyle that no one should ever have to go through and yes, I could mention the fact that blank verse and/or free verse is used, or that there is a lot of enjambement used in this poem, but this would detract from the raw, sheer power of the language used this poem and its brilliant ability to show just how much shame can destroy a family.