Susan Laura Sullivan reviews This Intimate War by Robyn Rowland

Robyn Rowland. This Intimate War: Gallipoli / Çanakkale – İçli Dişli Bir Savaş: Gelibolu/Çanakkale 1915. Turkish translations by Mehmet Ali Çelikel. Parkville: Five Islands Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-7340-5100-4

 

Susan Laura Sullivan

 

On Remembrance Day, we stood in the classroom, jarrah floorboards underneath, something that both state housing and state schools had in those days. Had we listened on the radio to the stories of Simpson and his donkey? As part of the legacy of World War One, Gallipoli was told as a tragedy from teachers and historians of the right age to have had parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, sisters and brothers participate. At least in my experience, though it is not necessarily the experience of Robyn Rowland, the author of This Intimate War (McBride 2015).

As part of this day we stood for one quiet moment on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. A commemoration of the armistice that halted the war to end all wars. Elevens loom strongly for parts of western history. Poppies are another such symbol – the symbol of Remembrance Day. The deep black heart of the red flower a reflection of loss and misery. The implied opiate needed perhaps to overcome the pain and the enormity of the casualties – to fool humans into fighting (“. . . poppy seeds, perhaps enough / to charm a winged monkey, put a lion to sleep / on their trudge behind the rainbow”, 112). ANZAC Day is commemorated on April 25th – the day that Australia and New Zealand joined forces and set out for Gallipoli – and along with Remembrance Day, carries with it, for me, sober reflection on death, not glory. Simpson was remembered for his role as a stretcher-bearer, after all, not for valiant battles (Australian War Memorial n.d.).

Stories of the day when both sides stopped, gathered their dead and shared cigarettes were broadcast into our classroom (Sydney Morning Herald 2008). Rowland reflects on this camaraderie between supposed enemies in her poem “Close”, 36-40. World War One, for Australia, in some aspects went down in history as a war that conned the people, and the people seemed to control the narrative for some of the time. That is, until those who originally participated passed away, and ANZAC day was appropriated as an exercise in jingoism, though propaganda from the times also played upon and encouraged nationalistic sensibilities, as reflected in “Children of Gallipoli”, 42-45. (See also, Akça 2015; Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre [KSP Writers’ Group] 2015, May 2015). Alan Seymour’s play, The One Day of the Year, certainly regarded it as a flag-waving celebration to be avoided, and maybe it has devolved to that again (Delaney 2015).

Rowland uses this reflection, reflects on this jingoism, and incredibly diversifies this war narrative in her poems. That diversification goes beyond national identity, or includes more identities within that record, by covering all those that war affects, but who are maybe not officially remembered, mourned or lauded. The book is translated into Turkish by Mehmet Ali Çelikel, and the Turkish script sits alongside the original. This fact alone widens the potential audience, acknowledges more stakeholders, and broadens the intention of the account. Inclusive as opposed to polarised. Us, rather than “us and them”, even while that theme is also explored. Gallipoli was fought on foreign soil after all, and the soil was not foreign to those who lived there.

As the title suggests, this is also an intimate book for Rowland (her sister-in-law is Turkish), as much as it is an important historical document, giving voice to those often lost in this wartime depiction – the minority soldiers, Aboriginal, Maori, Scottish, Irish, child; the Turkish; the women left at home in many countries; the women at war on either “side”; the doctors, the nurses, the deserters, the fearful, the questioning; those left behind, those returned to; war in art, in music, in consciousness, in cynical policy, in misguided loyalty – all are covered. The majority sacrificed for a powerful minority, as always seems the way with the actual intent of war (Akça 2015), have a voice within this collection. Rowland terms it as “not a history”, but as “poetry out of history” (2016, 179).

The women, Turkish and British, who in their respective countries took on tasks previously deemed to be out of the female realm, gain a voice as Rowland outlines their contributions to war efforts, including supporting the military machine that might ultimately kill their own kin. The Turkish women have special dispensation to remove their head scarves while packing bullet casings. Did it make them closer to God, or more removed? The British women who wasted their youth creating weapons to kill their own young, albeit indirectly, and the tragic stories of those who went down the mines in the name of destruction, never able to reproduce life again, are explored. And the question is asked, “What if we just said no?” (“Production Lines”, 54-57).

A Turkish mother receives letters from her deceased son, secretly packed into sardine tins, inadvertently returned to her (“Second Skin”, 94-95). The censors on either side would not allow the reality of fear and questioning to be communicated, lest it spread like wildfire, especially amongst the troops (“Luck”, 86-89). She sits with a spoon of jam, suspended, preserve oozing along her skin, immobilized in her grief for at least two hours, with the refrain that she needs to clean up, much like the “mopping up” (46-54) needed as medical teams patched together broken men in order to break them again, and in the way the allied forces retreated from Gallipoli once the order was finally given (“Anybody left? Anybody left? No?’”, 80-86). The symbolism of the jam, plum, her son’s favourite, is not lost.

It returns in the last poem of the collection, “Poppy-picking” (112-15) where poppies are again poppies, and jam is jam, and combined, they are both. Physical items able to give and replenish life rather than representatives of loss. The protagonist of the poem, the “we”, the Irish-Australian Rowland, possibly, and her Turkish family, pick “bucket” and “basket” loads of the flower to make lokum, a Turkish sweet. Now the protagonist is ready to return to “a country where red poppies only ever meant / grief over fields full of the bodies of dead young men, / a generation of women left unmarried, alone”, with the poppy-syrup-infused confection that leaves “the sweetness of jam on the tongue” (114). Poppies are used, not as a symbol of remembrance for those gone before their time, or an escape from horrors endured, nor as a symbol of blood spilt, but as a fruit, as a flower, whose parts can be used to create jam for the living to savour, to provide sustenance for bees (“Pollen-loaded stems are / shocked, naked, worrying how to attract bees”, 114). Poppies revert to a regenerative role, and jam becomes a reminder of life-affirming experiences, rather than its opposite.

Simpson died after just four weeks of gathering bodies (Australian War Memorial, n.d.). Rowland writes of personal loss, such as in “Second Skin”, but she also writes of the broad sweep of the same. Fatalities through the Great War (and as a result of) were acute, and this acuity has been a common theme in western literature, both at the time and after. Many claim the battles of Gallipoli and the war as a defining moment for the newly federated Australia (Akça 2015). In fact, Peter Lalor’s grandson, also Peter Lalor, was killed at Gallipoli (Greenmount Primary School 2015, 170). However, the substantial combination of mass warfare (possibly the first for our modern times) and human flesh (“Sky Fighting”, 74-77; Rowland 2016) strafed not just the skin of the soldiers.

Rowland often writes of the bay and other areas as crimson or scarlet with the blood of men gunned down, but not just men (26-28; 34-35; 46-53). The horses and mules too. Drawing on Sydney Nolan’s art, she describes their legs protruding like periscopes, swollen and bloated floating in the water (102). Elsewhere, their dead bodies are lined along the shore, having been shot at retreat, their services no longer required. “Lines of dead horses shock the Turkish scout” (82). The landscape itself is barren and intimidating, though also bitterly idealised as green and welcoming, through the eyes of, and as an analogy of, youths sent to their deaths (“Nightingale”, 30-33).

The physical harm of war is immediate, but the sociological and psychological harm reverberates throughout the following decades, and as one war piles upon the other, resounds still. As mentioned above, Rowland’s sister-in-law is Turkish, and she herself has an Irish-Australian background (Mcbride 2015). Reading through the poems and reviews on the collection, the groundwork that was put into their creation is apparent, research leading to fortuitous discoveries such as coming across paintings commemorating scenes from Gallipoli by Fehmi Korkut Uluğ (III Cankkale revisited, 104-10), one of which graces the cover of the collection.

Turkish Uluğ was born 1945, but his grandfather was in Gallipoli (Rowland 2016), and he might retain a closeness to the effects of conflict that an Australian born in the nineties would be hard-pressed to feel. Perhaps humans only have the capacity to consider the importance of wars in terms of their destruction for a century or so, as generations with first-hand experience, whether that be through their parents or grandparents, die out. The Boer War was certainly something I was not mindful of until the release of Breaker Morant, and many argue, including Rowland, that Peter Weir’s Gallipoli defined and changed their perception of Australia’s involvement in the campaign (Rowland 2016; Akça 2015). Fundamentally, though, the experience of the generations before impacts those after, as described in the stanza below about Uluğ’s grandfather.

In Last Photo Before Death there are only 10 soldiers,

as if a close-upshot was taken. And a young deer.

But in the black-and-white image from 1915 there are

80 men, all sitting, two dogs and the deer curled up, ears pricked –

the 12th infantry division from Izmir.

Uluğ’s grandfather is Hasan Fehmi, fifth man from the right,

handsome, his back upright, moustache even.

Wounded, he will be the only man left.

Binoculars hang from his neck, his face

half-shadowed, tired, resigned, set-jawed.

Each anniversary following –

for nine years before his death – he will offer

a prayer at the mosque for each of his fallen comrades.

It must have taken a long time.

(108).

Whether that reflection has the strength to stem the onslaught of the war machine has yet to be seen.

Rowland writes of the flowers appropriated from the earth to represent the people, animals, histories and cultures who sank into the earth and other forms of abyss to die and suffer for policy not written by their own hand. She returns to the flowers that spring from the earth, the tulips in “mosque gardens” and daffodils in “church parks,” (54) and poppies. The last in particular she reclaims so that they represent “friendship in spring, wild flowering and its fruit” (114). Shells on the Gallipoli front burst “open their flowering death” (54), but Rowland urges us to not temper such destruction with dissociated metaphor, with absence (98-101). As such, she encourages the reader to honour and seek that which nurtures the human spirit, even in reflection of loss, rather than that which neuters connection and denies the intimacy that lies between human and human, human and earth.

 

References

Akça, Catherine. 2015. “Transnational Identity in Robyn Rowland’s Australian/Turkish Poems: This Intimate War: Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 – İçli Dişli Bir Savaş: Gelibolu/Çanakkale 1915.Epiphany: Journal of Transdisciplinary Studies, 8(3) (Special Issue): 23-45.

Australian War Memorial. n.d. “Simpson and His Donkey.” Forging the Nation: Federation – The First 20 Years.

Delaney, Brigid. 2015 “The Many Faces of Anzac Day: How Grief Became A National Rallying Point.The Guardian International Online, April 24.

Greenmount Primary School. 2015. “Soldier Profiles”. In Blackboy Hill Is Calling, ed. Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, 159-78. Greenmount, WA: Wild Weeds Press.

Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre. 2015. Blackboy Hill Is Calling. Greenmount, WA: Wild Weeds Press.

May, Mardi. 2015. “The Power of Poetry.” In Blackboy Hill Is Calling, ed. Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, 179-86. Greenmount, WA: Wild Weeds Press.

McBride, Charlie. 2015. “‘When I Grew Up You Would Have Thought Australians Won at Gallipoli.’ Poet Robyn Rowland”. Galway Advertiser, June 11.

Rowland, Robyn. 2016. “The Transitional Heart: Writing Poetry on War, Grief and the Intimacy of Shared Loss”. Australian Feminist Law Journal 42(1): 177-195. DOI: 10.1080/13200968.2016.1177251

Sydney Morning Herald. 2008. “Gallipoli’s One Brief Shining Moment”. May 19.

 

Susan Laura Sullivan writes poetry and prose. Her most recent work can be found at Westerly: New CreativeMiNUS TiDES International, Communion Journal and The Font: A Literary Journal for Language Teachers. She resides in Japan where she teaches at Tokai University.

 

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