Years ago I had a student just beginning Year 12 at a Jewish school north of Sydney; Bruce Dawe’s poetry was our first mission. Over the Christmas holidays (well, that’s what I’d call them 😉 ) he went to Queensland, found Bruce Dawe in the phone book and rang him up. “Hey, I have to study your poems!” Result? An invitation to come over for a cup of tea, and some good points to make in class…
An Air Force veteran himself, and veteran too of all manner of jobs, this very down-to-earth Australian poet found his voice and his anger during the Vietnam War. “Homecoming” is just one of many he wrote at that time, but is justly the best known.
All day, day after day, they’re bringing them home,
they’re picking them up, those they can find, and bringing them home,
they’re bringing them in, piled on the hulls of Grants, in trucks, in convoys,
they’re zipping them up in green plastic bags,
they’re tagging them now in Saigon, in the mortuary coolness
they’re giving them names, they’re rolling them out of
the deep-freeze lockers — on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut
the noble jets are whining like hounds,
they are bringing them home
— curly heads, kinky-hairs, crew-cuts, balding non-coms
— they’re high, now, high and higher, over the land, the steaming chow mein,
their shadows are tracing the blue curve of the Pacific
with sorrowful quick fingers, heading south, heading east,
home, home, home — and the coasts swing upward, the old ridiculous curvatures
of earth, the knuckled hills, the mangrove-swamps, the desert emptiness…
in their sterile housing they tilt towards these like skiers
— taxiing in, on the long runways, the howl of their homecoming rises
surrounding them like their last moments (the mash, the splendour)
then fading at length as they move
on to small towns where dogs in the frozen sunset
raise muzzles in mute salute,
and on to cities in whose wide web of suburbs
telegrams tremble like leaves from a wintering tree
and the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry
— they’re bringing them home, now, too late, too early.
Sheer magic, that ending.
Here some Year 10 students (not mine) made a YouTube on the poem:
Great job, people.
What really made me choose this poem today
Last night ABC showed the documentary Bomb Harvest; this is the ABC’s summary, but the link is to the film itself where you may watch a trailer.
There are bombs scattered all over the landscape in Laos, left from the US’s Secret War over 35 years ago, which was conducted during the war in neighbouring Vietnam without the knowledge of most of the outside world.
Farming in Laos has been hampered by the presence of unexploded bombs – people blow themselves up whilst trying to cultivate the land – and bomb scrap has become the new cash crop. Local kids are quick to learn there is money to be made in bomb scrap metal, and as result the death rate of those killed by bombs – almost half of whom are children – is on the rise. This is a terrifying reality of the new generation.
In Bomb Harvest, the discovery of yet another child victim brings Australian bomb disposal specialist Laith Stevens to a small village in Laos in South East Asia to diffuse the bomb responsible, only to discover that another live aircraft bomb is lodged spectacularly in a rice paddy behind the children’s school.
But Laith is forced to leave the live bomb unattended so he can train up young Lao technicians to become “Big Bomb” qualified. Without their manpower, the bombs can’t be taken care of. Time is short, as Laith is fearful that the bombs will automatically detonate or the foraging children will trigger it before he gets back, and he has to quickly take the fledgling bomb disposal technicians through a course where any mistakes can prove fatal.
The film shifts between the high tension of dealing with live bombs – which could turn them all into ‘pink mist’ in an instant – and the camaraderie between the team members who do such a dangerous job. We also meet some of the elders and surviving victims of war – people who experienced an illegal air war which delivered tonnes of bombs to their country.
Bomb Harvest explores how three generations of people, in a largely forgotten country, have been left to deal with the mess of an air war long after it is over.
Go to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) whose work Laith Stevens, an oh-so-typical Aussie ex-soldier and in my book a hero of humanity, is part of.
The most bombed country in the world, a war crime by any standards, and it achieved absolutely nothing in the long run… See Laotian Civil War. And even if it had achieved something in the long run, the very great wickedness of carpet-bombing a whole people indiscriminately because you can with high explosive bombs and cluster bombs would remain.