To Russia, With Love: On Douglas Dunn’s The Donkey’s Ears
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
On the 27th of May, 1905, in a war almost completely forgotten outside of the participant countries, the Straits of Tsushima in the Sea of Japan played host to one of history’s great military disasters. The Baltic Fleet of the Russian Navy, hastily redesignated the ‘Second Pacific Squadron’, was annihilated at the hands of the Japanese Empire in a battle which would be known as the ‘Trafalgar of the East’, an event which shocked the world, sounded the first death knells of the Tsarist regime and gave a lethal boost to Japanese imperial self-confidence. Among the Russian dead was Eugene Sigismondovitch Politivsky, Flag Engineer aboard Admiral Rozhestvesky’s flagship, the Prince Suvurov. Politivsky had been responsible for maintaining Russia’s badly-maintained, obsolete battleships, which were sailed by drunken, incompetent officers and unwillingly conscripted sailors over a mammoth, record-setting cruise all the way from the fleet’s base at Courland (modern Latvia) to the Far East, via the African Cape (fittingly, Richard Hough’s 1958 description of the campaign was titled The Fleet That Had to Die). During the eighteen-thousand mile journey, the Russian leadership faced mutiny, regular breakdowns and the ‘Dogger Bank incident’, in which nervous Russian gunners opened fire on a British trawler fleet after mistaking them for Japanese torpedo boats, inflicting considerable damage on their own vessels through friendly fire and nearly igniting another war with Britain. Politivsky’s letters to his wife, sent over the course of the voyage, ignited the inspiration for one of the most remarkable yet rarely discussed poems of our time: Professor Douglas Dunn’s The Donkey’s Ears.
Dunn, an accomplished poet in his own right, constructs this verse novel from a simple proposition: what if Politivsky secretly wrote poetry? The result is an incredibly finely crafted story of immense detail and power, based on the engineer’s actual letters, in which Politivsky pours out his heart to his wife in verse:
Strange, Sophie! Me! This woeful mariner’s
Signed up as one of poetry’s beginners!...
I don’t know why. Vodka, or else the Sea,
Or maybe just an ambush in my blood
Waiting to happen, turning it to ink
Out of the hurt of something (Love, sea, drink)
And then this gush, this most pathetic flood…
Writing by candlelight as his ship sails to destruction, Dunn’s Politivsky fills his stanzas with a stunningly immersive description of the miseries of life aboard a battleship – the heat and cold, the alcoholism and squalor, the mounting terror of battle. By the second page we already empathise with him and, as we progress through the novel, we feel like we’re looking into the mind of a living, breathing human being, desperately homesick, beset by futile love and agonizingly aware of his own mortality:
...us, who quake to think
What happens when two armoured fleets engage
In modern battle. No-one knows that rage.
That’s why we drink. I’ll have another drink…
Indeed, ‘death’ is probably a good point to start from if we intend to understand The Donkey’s Ears. One of the tragedies of Politivsky’s story is that, like Romeo and Juliet, we know how it ends – for Politivsky, for the Suvurov, for Russia. From the opening, Dunn introduces this as a war story from an unusual angle – not about war at all, but the boredom and frustration that precedes it – and, accordingly, paints a bleak picture of the fleet’s departure:
The Emperor, in his imperial yacht,
Sailed round his gun-saluting battle-fleet.
Salvoes of deference, loud but obsolete
Gunnery, hailed our cap-waving despot.
Reval at dawn. That blank Courlandian shore!
Its miles of marram thrust a nothing on
My mind already numb with premonition
Cued by autumnal coastline metaphor.
What should be a triumphal scene of military power instead draws attention to the disaster to come, highlighting the despotism of the Tsar and the desolation of the world seen from the Suvurov’s bridge. From a technical standpoint, the structure (ABBA rhyme) is clearly reminiscent of Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, associating it with that poem’s quiet, first-person ruminations on mortality. For almost all of the poem, death haunts Politivsky, whether in a drunken heart-to-heart in the officer’s mess, or when watching the brutal execution of deserters, or in his bed at night. We cannot help but empathise with him, largely because Dunn really opens the throttle on his poetic skill early on, giving a wonderful description of the disaster at Dogger Bank:
‘Guns flashed and sucked the air from ears and lungs,
Each white blink showing us how we might die
In nightmare, up-to-date mortality.
I left the bridge, rung by vibrating rung…
Even a half-Lieutenant whom I’d seen
Read treasonable pamphlets in his bunk
Went mad with bloodlust on the Dogger Bank
Prepared to die serving a six-inch gun’.
As a piece of war poetry, the maturity of this passage enables it to stand with far better known and renowned writers. Meanwhile, as Politivsky crosses the oceans, what really stands out about the poem is Dunn’s fine-detail construction of the Suvurov and the rest of the fleet, building up atmosphere with brilliant confidence and bringing to life a creaking, heaving battleship in the age of Joseph Conrad. We can almost smell the smoke and taste the salt in some scenes:
...They shovel coal
Down in their hot and grunting odium
And sing to moonlight with a lyric from
Old Russia’s anachronistic soul.
A clockhand searchlight drops its silver on
Small waves that shatter it. From Suvurov
I watch these little lights float...
Indeed, Dunn’s descriptions of the sea are consistently impressive, which is unsurprising when one examines his other work, such as his beautiful description of crossing the Tay Bridge from his 1988 collection, Northlight (‘A sky that tastes of rain that’s still to fall/And then of rain that falls and tastes of sky…’). Those who have crossed that particularly beautiful piece of Scottish water would recognise how accurate that description is, and it’s clear that Dunn finds the sea to be an inexhaustible topic. We are thus startled by the majesty of Politivsky’s descriptions of the sea’s ‘affront to the soul’, salting what would otherwise be a desperately sad story with pictures of intense, moving beauty.
Meanwhile, some of Dunn’s most immersive poetry is found in his descriptions of life on board, with the snobbery, depression and drunkenness of the officer’s mess brilliantly brought to life. A particularly memorable moment exquisitely describes a servant wiping cognac and cigar ash from a map after a party in the navigation room:
...Like a ghost
His spectral steward wiped the cognac stains
Ringed in wet liquor on the numbered mains,
Indelible off the Korean coast,
All eighteen thousand miles of buts and ifs
Away. His hand stretched past- starched, spotless cuff,
Mopping the sea-miles in the Suvurov,
Wiping the brandied bays and ash-flecked reefs.’
In this, and in so many other equally powerful moments, Politivsky’s shipboard life is reconstructed with fantastic confidence. Yet the bickering of amateurish ‘ennui’s aristocrats’ also serves for excellent comic relief, with one hilarious scene seeing the fleet’s captains trading insults over semaphore (‘You syphilitic shit! You nincompoop!’). A lighter but no less amusing moment sees the officers, dismissed by Politivsky as ‘under-read and overdressed’, misquoting Shakespeare as they cruise past the cliffs of Dover, drunk after cafe-cognacs at breakfast:
‘Fog-bound, unpeopled, legendary cliffs
Encourage Fillipovsky to confuse
King Lear with Hamlet. A literary cruise
For taffrail fops in rakish neckerchiefs!’
It’s this combination of bored frustration and the omnipresent fear of death that means that when one of the more philosophical passages appears, it’s hard not to be swept along in Politivsky’s thoughts. There are literally scores of passages that one could hold up here as remarkable in their intense ruminations on life, love and death, but as good a one as any is a bittersweet moment where Politivsky contemplates the news that men, mad with the starvation and brutal discipline of the Tsarist fleet, had thrown themselves overboard – complete with an apparent reference to the opening of Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ (‘To see the world in a grain of sand…’):
‘...Can’t get used to it, can’t get blasé-
“Oho! Another coward jumped today!”
It is to enter salt, to go through a door
In a grain of it, into the universe…’
At times, it feels like Politivsky is writing less to his wife and more to Russia as a whole. As a minute cog in the clash of empires, he bemoans the incompetence of the Admiralty and the tyranny of the Tsarist regime – on several occasions he likens the latter to the sharks circling his ship, calling them ‘Nature’s autarchs’. A darkly comic hint at political repression comes when his servant discovers his writing:
Golovko found my jottings and protested.
‘I served a master once. He was a scribbler.
His hair fell out! I warn your worship. Sir,
As well as bald, he got himself arrested!’
Yet Politivsky also writes of the execution of mutineers and the seething, filthy world of conscripted lower-class sailors below decks, giving a real sense of tragedy to the voyage. It’s here that Dunn is best at creating an immersive experience for the reader, plunging us headlong into the world of the Suvurov and making us experience the tension and heat of an armada at breaking point. The sheer futility of his story, peppered with ships breaking down and endless news of Japanese victory, reaches a head in a scene where Politivsky is confronted by the ‘Mad Ensign’. The resulting passage is one of the most enduring set pieces of the text, disturbing us with its implications even as we are entranced by Dunn’s descriptions of back-breaking heat and sizzling rain as the fleet wastes away off the coast of Madagascar:
...Then he laughed out loud,
Spreading his arms, and pointing, “All this is
The armoured filth and spawn of Russia’s
Mistakes, and cruelty, its floating shroud,
Its sheer incompetence…” I thrust my hand
Against his mouth, and gagged him. “Romanov”
Slipped through. I struggled. “Shit!” then “Hate!” then “Love”
Pressed through my fingers- words tattooed on my hand.
If poetry can give goosebumps (which it can) then this scene – a mad naval officer screaming the name of Russia’s doomed dynasty to his sinking fleet – must surely qualify. The irony is not lost on the reader that the fleet’s resident madman should be the one telling the truth, or that Politivsky should be forced into complicity with censoring his dissent – and it’s fitting, given the Orthodox religion that considered the Tsar as God’s chosen monarch, that he later calls the mad ensign an ‘iconoclast’ as he watches his corpse float past. The occasional swipe is directed at the backwardness of Russia: a captain tosses his library of literature overboard to avoid such art encouraging mutinous thoughts among the crew, and Politivsky draws contrasts between the high-tech Japanese gunnery and the extensive staff of priests on standby to bless the Russian ships with icons and holy water before combat. Dunn has a certain form with left-leaning politics: his impassioned songs of Scottish language and culture, published from the ‘60s to the 2000s, seem to defiantly shout the validity of Scotland as a culture and nation in a manner reminiscent of cultural nationalists such as Yeats doing the same for Ireland. More straightforwardly, in one of his earlier poetry collections Dunn wrote ‘Green Breeks’, which takes a sober yet sympathetic look at Sir Walter Scott’s autobiographical childhood stories of him and his fellow middle-class scions fighting running battles with the urchins of Edinburgh. It’s thus hardly surprising that many of Politivsky’s best moments are those that highlight the sheer wastefulness of the Tsarist system, often expressed through the mouthpiece of the brutal, reactionary Admiral Rozhestvesky. Not always, though – one fascinating set-piece sees an officer, overcome by the endless heat and fear, break down in the middle of dinner:
“So be a darling, Flag, and pass the mustard,
And the vodka. No mustard? Don’t pretend…
The world is coming to a fucking end!
No mustard?...Gentlemen, it’s too absurd!
No fucking mustard! No wine’s been decanted
For weeks! We’re lowering our standards, sirs!
No longer gentlemen and officers…”
Yet as Politivsky’s voyage goes on, we begin to realise that, of the dangers facing his homeland in the era of mechanised destruction, the stupid, self-destructive hubris of the Tsarist aristocracy is the least of them. Hindsight is a fickle thing when introduced into historical fiction, and Dunn accordingly uses it with care. But occasionally, Politivsky’s thoughts begin to touch on the hell that awaits not only him, but Russia itself, at the beginning of a century which would see ever-increasing Tsarist repression, the First World War, the revolution, civil war, purges, famine, the Great Patriotic War – and those events only for Russia herself. The full force of this hits us in one staggeringly effective moment, almost breathless with imagined tears, where Politivsky confesses:
With the besmirch of April, 1905,
Our recent century. Apocalypse
Never was my forte! - Too many ships
To look after, trying to stay alive,
As an Engineer, and as a man who thinks,
Who prays like this: “Dear clock, heal this. Please heal.
Please heal the century and what I feel
Heads towards us.”...
And as he reaches the end of his voyage, dressing for battle and almost certain death, Politivsky fights tears as he contemplates
On Absence, water, love and the far Europe
Which, I’m convinced, will suffer this century
As no other. Suffering’s relative-
Of course it is. I wish I’d time to live…
Appropriately, the battle in which the Suvurov would be destroyed was an important incentive to Japanese expansion and thus a milestone on the road to Pearl Harbor, and all that came with it – and it’s appropriate that Dunn published it at the beginning of another century: our own. The real brilliance of Politivsky’s story is that Dunn combines immersive, atmospheric descriptions of the present with a narrative that sails both through space and through time, seeing its narrator poised on the edge of a European-dominated world about to tear itself apart.
We may ask where literary parallels for The Donkey’s Ears can be found. Politivsky’s romantic introspection and aristocratic dialogue are both reminiscent of Pushkin, such as in the faltering yet entrancing descriptions of love in ‘Count Nulin’. More straightforwardly, reading The Donkey’s Ears’ description of Russian military squalor, many valid comparisons can be drawn with Tolstoy’s autobiographical account of the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War – right down to the language of the ‘dandified officers’. Yet in the conclusion to ‘The Gypsies’, Pushkin (in Anthony Wood’s magical translation) applauds how ‘Russia stretched her mighty arm/To show her frontiers to Stamboul,/And where our double headed Eagle/still proudly flies without an equal’ – such Tsarist chauvinism exists in The Donkey’s Ears only to be derided. Tolstoy’s placid ideas in War and Peace of human impotence against the endless, self-righting tide of history ring hollow against Politivsky’s story, in which human greed and fecklessness doom him and his fleet, even as he contemplates a century of atrocities to come.
Accordingly, the literature of 19th-Century Russia is gently dismissed by Politivsky as outmoded for his ignoble, modern war; he jokingly calls himself ‘No Pushkin for our Tsarist Odyssey’ and when considering their chances against the Japanese, another officer sarcastically tells him to ‘pray for Napoleonic snow’. Given that what we are really studying is Dunn’s work (especially with his own background as a poetry academic) we should look for parallels in English poetry. Politivsky’s focus on a distant, unreachable female lover and the fascination with the equally potent loneliness of the sea is reminiscent of Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, while the freewheeling, soaring style of Politivsky’s verses seem to hint at Larkin’s ‘Whitsun Weddings’. The latter is particularly credible as Dunn spent time as a librarian under Larkin’s supervision at Hull, and credits conversations with North Sea fisherman in the local pub with the initial inspiration to write about the Dogger Bank incident, and thus Politivsky’s story. Then there are the various literary parallels (not least Joseph Conrad and many other writers from his period) who give comparable descriptions of the endless and endlessly changing sea. But a more unusual comparison is ‘The Act’, a wonderful poem by the 1970s and ‘80s leftist poet Tony Harrison, describing flying between Belfast and Newcastle on a plane occupied largely by drunk soldiers on R&R from a violent tour of Northern Ireland:
‘The rowdy squaddy, though he doesn’t know it
(and if he did he’d brand the freak as ‘queer’)
Is sitting next to one who enters ‘poet’
Where he puts ‘Forces’. But what is it?
My purpose? His? What are we doing here?’
Beyond the similar sense of secret writing in the booze-soaked masculinity of the armed forces, Harrison’s poem, as it is entranced by nature and soars to quiet yet determined poetry on the tragedy of youth at war, is distinctly reminiscent of The Donkey’s Ears:
I don’t like the thought of these lads manning blocks
But saw them as you drove me to my flight,
Now khakied up, not kaylied but alert,
Their minds on something else than scotch or skirt,
Their elbows bending now to cradle guns.
The road’s through deep green fields and wheeling flocks
Of lapwings soaring, not the sort of sight
The sentry looks for in his narrow box.
‘Cursed be dullards whom no cannon stuns’
Of course, the penultimate line from this excerpt is easily recognisable from ‘Insensibility’ by Wilfred Owen, the prophet of war poetry; re-examining Dunn’s work, it isn’t difficult to find scenes reminiscent of Owen’s descriptions of the tortures of men at war – though Poltivsky focuses instead on the boredom and loneliness that makes up much of that torture. Probably the most comparable moment is when Politivsky finds a sailor who has slipped into insanity and nailed himself to the deck to stand, Christ-like, awaiting the approach of the marines, or another moment, equally reminiscent of Owen, when a sailor who stole money to buy alcohol is sentenced to death and executed by aristocratic drunks. But ultimately, what’s most memorable about The Donkey’s Ears, and what allows it a place in the canon of war poetry, is the sense that it captures not war’s pain, but war’s tragedy:
…Let them go unsaid.
Half said, or kept as secrets as we sail
Over uncharted waters on our frail
Iron- and steel-clad and full-steam-ahead
Argosy to nowhere we’ve been told about.
At night the balalaikas play, and songs
Give full voice to our sorrows and our wrongs
But there’s no scream, and no defiant shout.
In all, The Donkey’s Ears is a poem for which the phrase ‘unusual’ is an understatement. Douglas Dunn has taken his own formidable skill in rendering the truths of the sea and of men, and used them to give voice to a man whose story is too powerful to ignore. It is a story of a man desperately lonely, already drowning in futile love even as he sails to the destruction of his ship and his nation, and every verse of this wonderful text, every raised glass and seasickness-inducing roll and mouthful of coal-smoke or champagne, is worth reading as history, as philosophy, but above all as poetry of the highest order.
* * *
Finally, on a personal note, it’s worth mentioning that I read this while studying at St Andrews. Good literature should be enjoyable anywhere, but Orwell famously wrote that ‘the best books…are those that tell you what you know already’, and personally I found that some of St Andrews’ most salient characteristics – the close, cramped streets, the bow ties and the bottles, the endless hangovers and the vast, wave-strewn seascape – are reminiscent of some of Politivsky’s experiences. It was the cliffs and reefs of St Andrews that came to mind when I first read The Donkey’s Ears, and, in turn, found that my time there chimed in an imperceptible yet strangely effective way with verses of ‘my glass/a perfect image of a small, clear sea…’. Without wishing to be presumptuous, anyone studying or seriously planning to study in St Andrews should consider reading it – least of all, because Dunn was a professor at St Andrews when he wrote it. ▲
Elliot Jordan took an undergraduate degree in History at the University of St Andrews, and lives in London. He studies English Literature as a hobby, especially poetry, and is a member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.