Kamikaze by Beatrice Garland is a narrative poem wherein she explores the journey of a kamikaze pilot toward battle, and his sudden decision to turn back, and the kind of treatments and reactions he gets from his near and dear ones as well as neighbors after arriving home. Beatrice Garland once said: “I spend a lot of the day listening to other people’s worlds”. The poem, Kamikaze gives an example of the imaginative writing of the poet who chooses to write a subject that she had never experienced with and been into.
Who are Kamikaze pilots?
The ‘kamikaze’, or divine wind, was a type of new lethal weapon that was introduced by the Japanese Imperial Army Air Service. The army had to use this weapon at the end of World War Second in a desperate, final attempt to bridle their losses in the Pacific. In the poem, Kamikaze by Beatrice Garland, the poet visualizes a lone pilot who returns from his suicide mission and turns back to a life where he was subject to face a lot of disgrace and disrespect from his family members and neighbor.
The speaker in this poem, where the poem can be read in full here, is certainly not the pilot, but his daughter whereby the poet explores the testimony of a Kamikaze pilot. The daughter of the pilot is the narrator who explores how her father showed the courage and readiness to board the plane at sunrise (in the morning) with a flask of water, a samurai sword in the plane’s cockpit, a shaven head, full of powerful incantations, and enough fuel for a one-way, journey into history. Pilot’s daughter (the narrator) says that her father was going on such a journey that was to be written in the golden letters of history.
This stanza describes the narrator’s father getting ready for the battle, and how he was embedded in the Kamikaze attack that the Japanese used against the US Navy during World War Two. The use of the word ‘embark’ in the very first line of this stanza has a double meaning; first to board a plane and second to embark upon a new adventure. This is a willingly done positive connotation, but reading the whole poem it comes out the word ‘embark’ is suitably used in terms of the relevance of the poem’s theme.
On the other hand, in line six of this stanza, the meaning of the word ‘journey into history’ brings into light the recognition and honor the pilots are awarded for their heroic and meritorious service and courage during any battle or war. In line with the use of phrases like: ‘a shaven head full of powerful incantations’ stands for the Japanese rituals according to which the soldiers have to shave their heads. The shaven head not only shows their readiness but also their dignity after their death.
From line eight, the tone of the poem suddenly changes, and begins to describe the abrupt decision of the pilot when the narrator says, ‘he must have looked far down.’ From line eleven to twenty-five, the narrator highlights the pilot remembering details of the games he played with his brothers, the patterns, and colors of the fish, and the taste of the sea salt. These vivid memories denote what he may lose and depict a powerful sense of home-sickness. Yes, the feeling of homesickness is conveyed through these lines, but the lines like ‘but halfway there, she thought, recounting it later to her children’ confuse the readers as it becomes quite difficult to know whether the narrator of the poem is narrating her father’s Kamikaze story to her children or grandchildren.
When I searched the meaning of these lines online, I came to know that the daughter (narrator) is telling the story of the pilot to a whole new generation of grandchildren who might have never met him. These references are enough to establish the outcome of the pilot’s decision – and the way his entire community and family judge him, based on the decision he took while going on a journey of Kamikaze (suicide mission). The poet here also invites the readers to question whether the judgment the pilot receives from his near and dear ones as well as from the community is harsh or not. The readers are also invited to question the practice of suicide missions in the war.
Though many analysts have interpreted the decision of the poet in their own words, in my opinion, this is only the home-sickness that changes the mind of the pilot when he sees he remembers his father, brother, mother, and his childhood activities with his family members and friends. With the use of the phrase: ‘she thought’, the poet may want to show that while narrating the story of the pilot, she took a pause to think and imagine why her father took the decision of turning back from the suicide mission. Here the narrator may also be confused about whether she should reveal this fact of her father to her grandchildren or not. But after a little pause, she starts telling the reasons of her father taking such a decision, and therefore, she uses the auxiliary word like ‘must’ to show the firmness of her father.
While all these reasons relate to pilot’s past and his playing with his father, mother, brother, and friends yet, they vividly describe what all reasons made him take this decision. This also shows how the narrator tries to hide the cowardice of her father for which he was subject to sarcasm and disrespect by his community, friends, and family members. With a view to showing all these, the poet has used every possible literary device to portray the real state of her father taking such a decision. For example: ‘she thought’ whereby the poet wants to whether the thoughts of the pilot’s daughter are reliable or not’, and ‘recounting it later to her children where the readers are stressed to think why would she tell her children about these events, and what message she wants to convey through this story.
In simile like ‘like bunting’, the meaning of bunting usually relates to the celebration that contrasts the main idea. It also encourages the readers to consider what the pilot stands to lose, miss out. As I said above, the use of ‘must’ is to show the relationship between the narrator and pilot, and an attempt to justify the pilot’s decision. Here the narrator is shown sympathetically toward the pilot.
Thus, the first section of the poem is full of vivid impressions of the senses. Colour is explored; ‘green-blue translucent’, ‘dark shoals’, ‘flashing silver’, and ‘pearl-grey’. The senses of touch (‘feathery’) and taste (‘salt-sodden’) are brought to mind. These impressions remind the pilot he is alive and life is to relish. There is hardly anything mentioned about the senses in the section of the poem that relates to the events after his decision. There is silence and it is ‘as though he had never returned’.
– yes, grandfather’s boat – safe
With the introduction of the above phrase, the flow of the story is interrupted. The poet presents it in italics and can be claimed as the actual words of the storyteller i.e. the pilot’s daughter, instead of the third-person recounting we’ve been up to this point. This line may also suggest the children are already familiar with the story, or they may be joining in when the narrator says, ‘- yes, grandfather’s boat’. This line may also be an answer to the question of the children who might have asked if the grandfather’s boat was safe or taken to the safe side. This may also mean if he has betrayed the army and returned safely to his home.
In stanza 5, the narrator tells the children that grandfather’s boat was taken to the shore, which was salt-sodden, and full of butt-marked mackerel, black crabs, feathery prawns, the loose silver of whitebait, and once a tuna, the dark prince, muscular, dangerous. The phrase: ‘safe to the shore, salt-sodden’ is the example of alliteration that the poet has used to portray the way the pilot has returned. The use of letter ‘s’ in the words like the shore, salt-sodden, awash is an indication of sibilance, and this rhythm could mimic the sound/movement of the sea. The pilot turns back just like the sea, whereas the ‘whitebait’ is a kind of small immature fish that often travel together in schools along the coast. The ‘dark prince’, muscular, dangerous mean listing marine life, that is quite similar to the fish which is caught in nets and trapping of war.
In stanza six, the narrator again changes her tone by putting ‘he came back’ in italics. The poet says that while my father had arrived home, neither my mother nor our neighbors showed any respect to him. He had become a non-existing thing for all of us. It was only we children who were still chattering and laughing with him, but with the passage of time, we too lost interest and ignored him completely. Now he was like a dead man with no mission and no respect. The meaning of ‘my mother never spoke again in his presence’ is that narrator’s mother was emotionally punished for not completing his mission.
Because of my father return without completing his mission, my mother was not able to face my father because; this looked very disgraceful to my mother. But I want to ask whether the sacrifice mission was forcibly imposed. Because of the way the pilot was being treated by his near and dear ones and community, it was not a sign of respect rather a sign of hatred. Does the narrator want to teach through this story that your mission is bigger than your life? Does she want to tell the children that they must never give up on their lives? Does she want to tell them that the work undertaken by them must be completed without any ifs and buts? The ‘we children still chattered and laughed’ indicates childhood innocence.
This last part of the poem carries forward the para six wherein the poet says that on the arrival of my father, not only our neighbors, friends, and family members reacted sarcastically, but ‘we too learned to be silent, to live as though he had never returned’. The narrator and other children in the pilot’s home now began to say that ‘this was no longer the father we loved.’ The last two lines of the poem highlight the mental stage of the pilot through the narrator when she said, ‘he must have wondered which had been the better way to die.’ The last line expresses the internal and mental conflict of the poet, and has a huge impact; the narrator says it would have been better if the pilot had killed himself instead of turning his head back to his home.
Through the word ‘silent’, the poet creates terse in the poem, while the modal verb ‘must’ brings about a bond between the pilot and the narrator. It may also be justifying the pilot’s actions. There is also a hint of desperation in his tone as if the narrator wishes the readers to be sympathetic and show mercy. The end of the poem with the word ‘die’ shows its somber tone, and this use of word lays emphasis on the primary function of a Kamikaze pilot.
The poem, Kamikaze by Beatrice Garland, is one of the best poems I have read so far. However, it also disappoints me with the kind of treatment is given to a Kamikaze pilot. Though the story of the pilot’s return to his home may be based on the imagination of the narrator, it does touch me when he takes his decision of turning back from his mission remembering his childhood memories. Whatever may have been the reason for his return, the kind of stigma he is labeled by his community, family, and friends is really not to be appreciated. In all, this poem is an excellent masterpiece of Beatrice Garland that no poetry lover would ever wish to forget.