Dialect with Army and Navy

David Wheatley

  • The Donkey’s Ears: Politovsky’s Letters Home by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 176 pp, £7.99, May 2000, ISBN 0 571 20426 0
  • The Year's Afternoon by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 81 pp, £7.99, October 2000, ISBN 0 571 20427 9

Among the more unusual relics of the fishing industry in Hull’s maritime museum is a holed fragment of the trawler Mino, sunk off the Dogger Bank in October 1904. At the time, the Russian fleet was making its way from the Baltic to the Pacific the long – the incredibly long – way round, where they hoped to engage the waiting Japanese. Mistaking a group of Hull trawlers for enemy craft they opened fire, a mere 18,000 miles off target. Leaving two dead fishermen and an unseemly diplomatic incident in its wake, the fleet loped on down to Spain and Africa, into the Indian Ocean and finally the Pacific, where military annihilation swiftly followed. Among the crew on this epically futile journey was Flag-Engineer Eugène Sigismondovitch Politovsky, author of From Libau to Tsushima, published after his death in May 1905. Dredging Politovsky up from history for a commission he received from the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull in 1983, Douglas Dunn has made him the narrator of his book-length poem The Donkey’s Ears. It’s been a long journey for Politovsky this time round as well: after leaving the poem for many years Dunn picked it up again in 1997, about the time he found himself with lots of solitary evenings to fill, to judge from the dates attached to some of the poems in his other new collection, The Year’s Afternoon. Writing and solitude are strong themes in both books.

The Donkey’s Ears begins with Admiral Rozhestvensky’s seventy-strong fleet steaming out of Kronstadt to a backdrop of ‘tarsticky bumboats’, bunting, brass bands and hanky-waving womenfolk. Once out of harbour it doesn’t take long for Politovsky to size up his ship, the Suvorov, as ‘a leaking, battered, worthless ironclad’, and his junior officers as a shower of workshy good for nothings. Naval dilapidation has featured in Dunn’s work before, as in ‘Sailing with the Fleet’, a sort of maritime reworking of Larkin’s ‘At Grass’ with its final vision of ‘Such rust-reminders. Such steel. Such waitings’. The crew of the Suvorov know all about waiting. Apart from opening fire on passing fishermen (‘Our enemy is everything that floats’), life on the ocean has little to offer in the way of excitement, so while his comrades turn to vodka, Politovsky tries his hand at verse. As you’d expect, he’s read his Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov, but Politovsky has clearly dipped into Tennyson too, since his narrative is written throughout in In Memoriam stanzas. His verses, however, are not an elegy but a letter to the wife he has left behind. That’s the theory, though minute descriptions of naval repairs and battle strategy wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of husbandly billets-doux. But then again he is writing into a void, or near void: when a telegram comes from Sophie, it contains the single-word message ‘Well’. He isn’t tempted by the fleshpots of French Africa or Nossi-Bé when the Suvorov drops anchor; rage against futility and injustice is his real passion, and he gets ample chance to indulge it.

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