In the United States this is a long holiday weekend, ending with Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember those who died in wars. Other countries have similar days, but in the US it has largely become the embarkation point for the joys of summer. Yes, oh yes, there are those who have specific and somber memories in Memorial Day, but despite our generally observed notion of honoring all who fought in our wars on our side, whatever the war, for whatever the reasons, this day, set aside for those who gave their lives, may include only brief offerings to them.
Intentional death, for whatever reason, is a complex subject. Perhaps it’s best if we don’t think about this unless we’re really ready to think about it. There are so many questions, some of which I have no answers for even after a long life, and even if I did have answers, what matters more (if you are younger than me) is your answers—and what you do while waiting for answers.
Is it always “Sweet and proper to die for one’s country?” Note, we know that phrase from Latin, written as it was by Ovid. It’s used in several English-language poems, often still in Latin, as it is engraved over an entrance to the U. S. Arlington National Cemetery: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” So, it’s not an American phrase,* not even written knowing what America was!
Oddly Memorial Day comes out of Decoration Day when the graves of the dead from both sides of the American Civil War were visited and decorated by those who lived through that war, honoring those who, as in all civil wars, were seeking to kill their own countrymen.** That’s a complicated act, is it not?
So, it’s perhaps understandable that for many of us our outdoor grilling, our sports and play of summertime, our readying for graduations and vacations are not deeply troubled by the Memorial in Memorial Day, as huge and final as those sacrifices are, for those sacrifices are both simply total—and complicated.
Today’s piece doesn’t use words by an American either, it’s by Australian Modernist poet and journalist Kenneth Slessor, and it comes from observations he made while serving as a war correspondent accompanying Australian ground troops during the battle of El Alamein during WWII.*** I believe it to be a masterful poem by a writer too-little known outside of Australia.
Kenneth Slessor as the official Australian WWII war correspondent
I could go into it line by line and point out what Slessor does that makes this poem work, but I also believe “Beach Burial” needs only your attention to make itself felt.
I’ll add only one thing, though I’ve long lost the notes to where I found it. Some other explications of “Beach Burial” are puzzled or make out the nakedness of the bodies as only metaphorical. The account that I read said that the sea-torn bodies from the burned and sunk ships that were washing up were indeed naked or nearly so, and that this was part of the effect Slessor chose to make with his poem and account, that the men doing the hasty burials in the midst of battle could not tell friend from foe from non-combatant.
Still they probably understood, as Slessor did, that some of those they were burying were their mortal enemies. It they, or you, were to think about the moment in Slessor’s poem, it’s complicated. This is an example of the sort of act I speak of above, things you might do while you are waiting for answers.
As it happens, today’s audio piece is an older live LYL Band performance recording from before the Parlando Project got underway. I hear some imperfections in it that are different than the imperfections I still hear in more recent pieces, but perhaps a different sort of imperfection will seem fresh to you. The player gadget to hear the LYL Band performance of Kenneth Slessor’s “Beach Burial” is below. The text of the poem, for those that want to read along is here.
*One American phrase, made famous in the movie Patton as spoken by the titular general is “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
**I’m sorry, but I must add that one side was fighting of course for the chattel slavery of other of their countrymen. This doesn’t make the acts of these early Decoration Days less complicated, only more so.
***And I point out, one side in this battle was aligned with the cause of an odious tyranny that sought to extract via meticulous death and slave labor the lives of many, due to some crackpot racist nationalism. That doesn’t make this poem less effective, it makes it more so.