Personal Choice 33
Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.
Between the sob and clubbing of the gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness;
And each cross, the driven stake of tidewood,
Bears the last signature of men,
Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity,
The words choke as they begin –
‘Unknown seaman’ – the ghostly pencil
Wavers and fades, the purple drips,
The breath of the wet season has washed their inscriptions
As blue as drowned men’s lips,
Dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall,
Whether as enemies they fought,
Or fought with us, or neither; the sand joins them together,
Enlisted on the other front.
Kenneth Slessor (1901 - 1971) was born in the city of Orange, in western NSW. His father was of German Jewish background, his mother's family from the Scottish Outer Hebrides. He was educated in Sydney and began his career as a journalist working for the Sydney Sun. He was a journalist with Smith's Weekly from 1927 to 1940, when he left to become official war correspondent, serving in Greece, Crete and the Middle East, and later New Guinea. In 1957 he became a leader writer for the Daily Telegraph.
In the annals of war poetry this is by far one of the finest and echoes Wilfred Owen’s ‘The pity of war’ with such a poignant beauty.