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November 8th Voices of the Benares

Recently reread Voices of the Benares by Pauline Rowe, and was thinking about the poems again today in light of the memorial service held at the local park.  This is a short review i wrote last year for Pauline's book: 

REVIEW of Voices of the Benares by Pauline Rowe

 42pp, £10.00, Lapwing Publications,
c/o Ballysillan Drive, Belfast BT14 8HQ, www.lapwingpoetry.com

ISBN 978-909252-76-9

From the beginning, with its simple language, Pauline Rowe’s elegiac Voices of the Benares presents the facts of the sinking of the vessel, City of Benares, as a moving lament for the departed and those left behind. 

The final poem of the small powerful collection, ‘Litany’, is a fitting title to close the work in which a reference to prayer and faith is never far: ‘… their ornate sashes mother-of-God blue.’, (‘The Children’s Song’);‘some as brave as guardian angels.’ (‘After the Torpedo’); ‘… the deer that yearns / for running streams.’ (‘A Young Man’s Prayer’); and ‘Rope is our prayer’ (‘Holding On’). 

The presence of prayer is one of several hallmarks of this work. Others include the use of space, naming, contrast, repetition, and the reference to mother – a reminder that the tragedy involved children. 

I admire the use of space creating a silence and reverence on the page, and adding a starkness that allows every note to be heard and sets a tone of foreboding which recurs throughout the work, ‘He thought he heard a song / carried from the river.’ (‘Farewell’); and ‘The wind blows hard, /carries death within its call.’ (‘The Commander of the Hurricane’).

I loved the naming that was a distinctive feature of such poems as, Farewell (the naming of places the children had come from), The Children’s Song with its exotic Asian place names, ‘Serang, paniwallahs, / bhandaris. Cassab, Topass, Tindal,’, The naming of people, ‘Connie, Violet and me…’ in ‘Letter from Gussie’, and the reference to naming in ‘A Sailor’s prayer’. 

The presence of mother, as mother-of-God in ‘The Children’s Song’; in Colin’s Rescue Song as a form of hope, ‘My mother told me’; ‘The Man’sVoice in the Sea’ reference, ‘I feel my mother’s heart / against my own,’; culminating in ‘A Mother’s Lament’ with its strong beat and rhymes, gives the sense of an omniscience of the mother and yet of course there is the tragedy that at times even a mother cannot help. 

One of the moving qualities of Pauline Rowe’s collection is the use of contrast and repetition. Repetition is used to great effect throughout, culminating in the plea, ‘remember them’ in ‘Litany’ while repetition also evoked a sense of muttering prayers – an action of a person of faith facing tragedy. 

Contrast between what is said and what is felt in ‘Letter from Gussie’ is exposed through repetition of ‘I’m not afraid of the sea’. Contrast is also revealed between the voices in the sea as they face death, and between the words of celebration of ‘The Men in the U-Boat’. Even in this contrast though, Pauline Rowe manages to highlight how all those trapped in the conflict of war long for home. ‘We dream of home, / our children sleeping…’ (‘The men in the U-Boat’).

I was moved especially by the contrast in the language and oneiric quality evoked in each of the voices ‘in’ the sea – poems from the point of view of a girl, a woman, and a man. These poems are brimful of imagery, ‘the sun against my face’, ‘free like the geese / on the lake / their full grey wings / ready for escape’; (‘A Girl’s Voice in the Sea’); ‘There’s a splinter of moon / on my hand / as brief as a kiss…’ (‘A Woman’s Voice in the Sea’); Salt is gone from my mouth / for a spoon of syrup…’, ‘A fragrance lifts me…’ ; and the beautiful, ‘Om Jaya Jagadisha Hare’ of the Hindu prayer.  (‘A Man’s Voice in the Sea’).

Throughout the narrative, during which the reader is drawn into the solemn tragedy made all the more harrowing by the stark presentation of facts, the characters rise before us as though on waves of a shared memory: the prayer of the Captain and his assertion, ‘My duty is to stay with her and die.’. The viewpoint of the crew man watching the ship sink and the imagery and characterization of the ship and sea leave a lasting impression like a flare in the middle of the ocean, ‘Nature’s Blitzkreig’ (‘In the Life-boats’), 

‘…then she lights up.

One defiant burst of life, 
a dazzling brilliance 
as though she burned with rage  
from within.’               
                                                            (‘ACrew Man Watches the Ship Sink’).