‘Kamikaze’ is an early 21st century poem by the English poet, Beatrice Garland. Garland was born in 1938 in Oxford. At school she was punished for misdemeanours by being made to memorise large sections of poetry. The poetic lines stuck with her and she says sometimes they were ‘like sweets, something that could be saved up and enjoyed for their marvellous taste.’
She became an NHS clinician and worked as a researcher and teacher in the field of psychological medicine. She never lost her love of poetry however and began to join poetry classes and workshops.
‘Kamikaze’ is taken from her first collection of poems, The Invention of Fireworks. The collection includes a number of poems that look at the cultural divide between the west and the east.
Her poem ‘A Kosovan Ghost Story’ refers to the shame and dishonour brought about in war – in this case the fact that women who were raped in the war were seen to have brought dishonour on their families; therefore the atrocities of war were often not spoken of to the investigators who arrived to investigate war crimes. ‘Kamikaze’ also references the shame of war.
The word kamikaze means ‘divine wind’ in Japanese. It was first used to describe a series of typhoons (serious storms from the sea) that prevented two of Kublai Khan’s attempts to invade Japan in the 13th century.
The word was later used by the Japanese press to describe the flying units of the Japanese military that agreed to carry out suicide missions during the Second World War against American warships. The aircraft were often modified to hold explosives and bombs, carrying only enough fuel to reach their target. The pilots were expected to fly their plane directly into warships, causing maximum damage.
The title of the poem is precisely the subject of the poem. The poem tells us about a kamikaze pilot during the Second World War. He embarks on his final, suicide mission with thoughts of glory and his country filling him but then sees the world below him as he flies. With memories of his childhood entering his head, the pilot turns back from his suicide mission and is afterwards shunned by his family. This was often the real response to pilots who chose not to complete their suicide mission.
‘Kamikaze’ is a free verse poem, free from the constraints of a regular rhyme or rhythm. This makes us feel a part of the pilot’s daughter’s reminiscences as she explains to her own children what her father must have felt like as he progressed on his suicide mission. The opening stanza is full of the patriotic words that might have fuelled his decision to begin the suicide run. Later, as he looks down at the boats, the poem revolves around the glories of nature and the sea. There are two sections where the narrator (the pilot’s daughter) interjects and the poem becomes a first person narrative. The last two stanzas of the poem are written in this way as the daughter explains the impact of her father’s decision to return home. The father’s voice is never actually heard in the poem. Even the thoughts about what was seen below his plane are actually the daughter’s. This further enhances the sense of disconnect from the reader and the man’s family.
Ideas and Language
The poem tells us about a Japanese woman’s father. He was a kamikaze pilot during the Second World War, fighting for the Japanese. He set out on his suicide mission one sunrise. Half way there he looked down at the boats below him on the sea and began to remember his childhood. He realized he couldn’t commit suicide and returns to his base. He is shunned, even by his own wife, from that moment on.
The poem ‘Kamikaze’ deals with elements of Japanese culture and the militarily sanctioned suicides of Japanese pilots during the Second World War. As such, it presents the national identity of Japan in various guises. The opening stanza begins with a mention of the ‘samurai sword’ carried by the pilot, a clear indicator of the culture from which the pilot comes. Rather than simply an indication of Japanese culture, the sword is identified with the samurai, the ancient warriors of Japan known for their code of honour (bushido). This signals the continuation of the samurai tradition through the actions of the kamikaze pilots.
At the beginning of the poem there is a sense of the overwhelming pride in one’s nation that fighters were meant to feel in the war. The patriotism and honour of the kamikaze pilots is felt with the words ‘one-way journey into history’, showing that the pilots felt that their actions would bring both themselves and their country glory in some way. The pilot has a ‘shaven head’ which is full of ‘powerful incantations’, both images more indicative of Buddhist or Shinto monks and priests than soldiers and pilots. The ‘powerful incantations’ line gives a reader a sense of the mystical and almost fanatical nature of the way the pilots were prepared for their journeys. There is also a deeper, darker reading of brain-washing and state manipulation in the line.
The pilot’s actions were meant to be bold and affirmative and bring honour and glory to the nation. This pilot however turns back and is forever shunned afterwards. The words spoken in the later stanzas are the daughter’s imaginings of what her father saw and thought (‘half way there, she thought’) rather than the pilot’s own. The daughter imagines why her father chose to turn back, seeing the earth and sea below him and remembering his own childhood. There is a lengthy sequence dealing with the strong imagery of the sea and the power of nature. The tuna, a ‘dark prince’, reminds us of the dangers and menaces of the natural world. The words are spoken with wonder however. The word ‘safe’ is repeated across two stanzas, perhaps reflecting the pilot’s desire for safety himself. The first full stop of the entire poem occurs at the end of the fifth stanza as the pilot makes the life altering decision to turn back and the remainder of the poem is in the voice of his daughter.
Throughout the poem the father/pilot is silent. His voice is lost because his family chooses to shun him. This reflects the Japanese notion of honour and saving face. His action (of returning home rather than committing suicide) shamed the entire family and the nation. Indeed, the pilot’s wife ‘never spoke again in his presence’ and the children eventually ‘learned to be silent’. The pilot’s daughter reflects on whether this shunning was like a death in itself: ‘he must have wondered which had been the better way to die.’ Her father was a ghost of a man from the time he chose to return home. Although his decision was made because of a deep desire to remain with his young family, the result was not that of a happy family unit.
The theme of national identity can also be explored in the poem ‘Checking Out Me History’, ‘The Emigrée or ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. The theme of memory can also be explored in ‘Poppies’ and the theme of the power of nature can be found in ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘Storm on the Island’.
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