On September 13th, 1940, the Ellerman Line ship “the S.S. City of Benares’”set sail from Liverpool for Canada. Among the passengers on board were 90 evacuee children. Late in the evening, on September 17th, the ship was sighted by a German U-boat, which fired two torpedoes. The torpedoes missed, but just after midnight, a third torpedo found its mark, and the Benares, fatally holed, sank within thirty minutes.
It is almost impossible to imagine the panic and distress experienced by the passengers, as they attempted to escape the stricken vessel, in the dark, in the middle of the ocean. But Liverpool-based poet Pauline Rowe has imagined just this experience in her latest collection, a multiple voice poem-cycle of over twenty verses dedicated to the children and adults who lost their lives on that fateful night.
Rowe has used extensive archival material to piece together the details of this voyage, which began so hopefully in Liverpool, bearing children from all over the UK away from the immediate danger of war. Of course we already know the ending, thanks to the author’s “Introductory Note”, which explains the story in bleak statistics. Of the 90 evacuee children, 77 were killed, and in total 248 of the 406 people on board did not survive. One lifeboat remained at sea for 8 days before being rescued. However, the reader expecting to come away from this collection unsurprised and unshocked will be disappointed. Rowe uses this same dispassionate economy to craft a highly-emotive narrative of individual human experience.
Some of the poems are sparse; lines clipped, imagery simple. With two or three well-chosen words, Rowe cuts to the heart of the tragedy. Each little vignette holds up to scrutiny; the poet’s strength lies in her masterful depiction of character through tone and language. The ship’s passenger list becomes a cast of individuals beneath her pen. We have the children, of course, “holding the hands of strangers” in their “given clothes”. We have Captain Nicoll, dutifully obeying orders, but questioning the wisdom of setting sail “in the darkest dark.” The sailors have a voice here too;
In shock, half frozen, dying
my eyes see groups of people
sitting unsupported in the sea
There are mothers and guardians, unnamed men and women. There is the passenger who calls, “Om Jaya Jagadisha Hare”, a Hindu invocation, as the ship goes down. Rowe has also included the crew of the U-boat, dreaming of returning to their own wives and sleeping children:
We celebrate and cheer
Our bodies want to dance
[…]we do not know there will be
many days, many hours,
days to come that will see us
conquered by our own sorrows.
It is this foreshadowing of doom, carried out with such a light touch as to be almost imperceptible, which gives this collection a unique power. Throughout the reading, one gets a sense of the turbulent aftermath, the reckoning and the loss. Captain Nicoll repeats the phrase, “I’ll never put my foot on land again.” Even Gussie, one of the evacuees, writes defiantly in her letter home, “I’m not afraid of the sea.” The children are “as snug as bugs”, she asserts, and “Every meal’s a banquet”, but her upbeat tone soon falters:
We eat barley sugar
We are sea-sick.
We are home-sick.
After reading this collection as a whole (as one must, for the full effect) the cliché “emotional rollercoaster” springs to mind, but instead I would suggest that “Voices of the Benares” casts the reader adrift in a lifeboat, riding out the peaks and troughs, while on the breeze, the lost voices of the past seize one more chance to tell their story.