The poem tells the story of a Japanese kamikaze pilot who failed to carry out his suicide mission and instead returned home in dishonour. The poem includes the perspective of his daughter, imagining how she told the story in turn to her own children.
Kamikaze 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 has seven stanzas of six lines each, with an irregular, unrhymed rhythm. This freedom of form suits the poem as a drifting reminiscene that shifts its focus from one character to another and moves through time. The shape of the poem is then simply created by the writer's choice to tell or to stop telling details of the events and feelings. The second and third sentences both begin with 'And', helping this sense of a story verbally retold.
Choice and consequence
The pilot's choice not to spend his life by attacking his enemy may have saved lives, but he seems to have made new and more personal enemies out of his wife and family: 'they treated him | as though he no longer existed'. In fact if the poem didn't include the shift of perspective and time at the second sentence, we might not know that the pilot returned from his 'one-way' mission. This means that there is an air of mystery about his reasons: his daughter imagines why he may have turned around, but in truth his family simply do not know. On top of this, the fact that they never spoke about it means that she did not even know whether he regretted his choice to return. In fact, the daughter is sure that 'he must have wondered | which had been the better way to die.'
Kamikaze is made of only three sentences: notice the full stops after the description of the tuna ('the dark prince, muscular, dangerous.') and the two in the final lines. This gives the first part of the poem - the first five stanzas - a flowing unstoppability, like the train of thought that takes the character of the pilot from the fishing boats to the sea, to the fish and on to his memories. There is something inevitable and unstoppable about his choice for life instead of death.
The poem begins as told about a woman ('her') and her family, but the poet uses italic font to mark when the poetry becomes the woman's own words. We can tell because of the shift of pronouns to include 'my mother' and 'we children'. As we saw earlier, this shift of perspective is effective in putting his behaviour in context and actually explaining his return.
Beatrice Garland describes the fishes beneath the boats as 'a huge flag waved first one way | then the other in a figure of eight'. She turns the individual fish into a collective - a shoal - just as the individual can become lost in society, particularly in a society with very rigid codes or in wartime. The 'flag' that the pilot imagines in the water mocks the flags of nations at war: the fish are simply waving their flag for the joy of movement. In fact, this massive flag is much more significant, viewed from the air, than the tiny flags of the 'bunting' of the fishing boats.
The poet also uses the senses to give a sense of immediacy and reality to her writing. She references the colours of the 'green-blue translucent sea', the 'pearl-grey pebbles', the 'silver fish' and so on, as well as describing the shapes of the shoals, the cairns and the boats. She references the 'salt-sodden' texture- or perhaps taste or smell - of the grandfather's boat.
The poem is written in a set of nested tenses. The first stanza takes place in the past, but then time moves forward when 'she thought, | recounting it later to her children' is placed in a continuing past tense. Then in turn, the pilot remembers his own father. When the daughter speaks her own mind, remembering what happened on her father's return, she explains how she also changed: 'till gradually we too learned | to be silent…' There is a palpable sadness about this memory, but also love and respect for the father, just as he sadly chose to value his family and peace over his own duty.
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