Recently we set this poem as an unseen for Year 10, studying IGCSE Literature (Edexcel). It is also a set text at GCSE in some boards. It is long for an unseen and I want to capture the highlights as an unseen completed in around 25 minutes.
by Beatrice Garland
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.
The poem explores the relationship between an unnamed ‘father’ and his extended family as well as his place in a wider society in post-war Japan. He is a kamikaze pilot, embued with the religious solemnity of that role, with his ‘Samurai sword’ and ‘shaven head’ full of ‘incantations’ as he leaves on his last mission. Garland describes him ’embarking’ on his journey suggesting a willingness to undertake the task and we note the wholly impractical regalia he takes with him as a mark of the high status of these young men who would ‘journey into history’. Aptly he embarks at ‘sunrise’, tying the idea to the national flag of Japan – the rising sun.
As the second of the 7 line stanzas which trace the intellectual path of the poem begins,the pilot, with his purifying water notices the beauty of nature and the fecundity of the sea. Garland opens the stanza with ‘but’ suggesting a change of perspective which comes as more of a surprise to the reader due to the enjambment between the stanzas. It is as if these memories are a flow of information onto which the poet has imposed a structure. The third person narrative is foregrounded at ‘she thought, recounting it later…’ establishing the poem as a memory of the daughter rather than of the wife. This perspective will change in later stanzas as the memory becomes too ‘real’ to be told at a distance and we receive the First person narrative directly.
What is seen utilises colour to enhance the beauty of the images which help to turn the pilot from his chosen course -suicide. the fishing boats are ‘like bunting’ suggesting something celebratory in their progress and the sea -green-blue translucent – is beautiful and welcoming. Garland uses the simile of the fish ‘like a huge flag’ to recvall the symbolism of the National Flag which would be waved in ceremonies. In this case the jingoism of that action is replaced by a sense of nature calling the pilot away from his mission -the ‘figure of eight’ suggestive of infinity and seeming to embody a circular action such as the ouut and return of a normal flight. These fish are valuable – ‘silver bellies’ shining in the sun.
Using enjambment again, Garland is able to convey the seamless nature of his memory of childhoodand tie in his action of building ‘cairns’ – little memorials – with the idea of his sacred duty as a kamikaze – this is no disrespectful young man,, rather one who is aware of his heritage and by implication his role as a progenitor.
At this point Garland introduces the second voice of the poem -the direct address of the speaker whose subjective emotion and thought process will begin to take ove rthe narrative. Presumably interrupted by a child-listener she establishes the sense of generations descended from the father until the stanza listing the bounty of the sea ends on the word ‘dangerous’ as though foreshadowing the inherent danger in the action he takes to ensure his safety.
This danger is explored in the concluding section of the poem in which we read of the shame brought onto the family by the father’s wish to cling to life and we consider the effect of ‘honour’ in Japanese society. To many, the safe return of a pilot at war is a thing to be welcomed. Here it brings shame – mother never spoke again / in his presence reinforces this idea. The enjmabment helps to emphasise the father as the non-person who is to be removed from communication. Mother can speak, but chooses not to do so in the presence of her shame-laden husband. This behaviour is mimicked by the wider society and eventually by the children themeselves who are educated to believe that this ‘was no longer the father we loved’.
In the final couplet the narrator reflects on the mother’s understanding. This is somewhat ambiguous. It can be read as the mother showing sympathy and perhaps a realisation tha tthe treatment of the father was treated inhumanely and that she pities him in his living death of ostracism; it can also suggest a more objective response – the idea of the father needing to constantly weigh up his action in the face of the response -either way he is ‘dead’ – maybe the relatively swift death of the Kamikaze wouyld have been preferable to the log death of the loss of his loved ones.