Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Poetry Corner:The Shooting of Dan McGrew

Another narrative poem, not Shakespeare but a rollicking good yarn nonetheless . . . 

The Shooting of Dan McGrew

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

There's men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;
And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,
As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.
Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do,
And I turned my head — and there watching him was the lady that's known as Lou.

His eyes went rubbering round the room, and he seemed in a kind of daze,
Till at last that old piano fell in the way of his wandering gaze.
The rag-time kid was having a drink; there was no one else on the stool,
So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool.
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands — my God! but that man could play.

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you've a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.

And hunger not of the belly kind, that's banished with bacon and beans,
But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means;
For a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above;
But oh! so cramful of cosy joy, and crowned with a woman's love —
A woman dearer than all the world, and true as Heaven is true —
(God! how ghastly she looks through her rouge, — the lady that's known as Lou.)

Then on a sudden the music changed, so soft that you scarce could hear;
But you felt that your life had been looted clean of all that it once held dear;
That someone had stolen the woman you loved; that her love was a devil's lie;
That your guts were gone, and the best for you was to crawl away and die.
'Twas the crowning cry of a heart's despair, and it thrilled you through and through —
"I guess I'll make it a spread misere", said Dangerous Dan McGrew.

The music almost died away ... then it burst like a pent-up flood;
And it seemed to say, "Repay, repay," and my eyes were blind with blood.
The thought came back of an ancient wrong, and it stung like a frozen lash,
And the lust awoke to kill, to kill ... then the music stopped with a crash,
And the stranger turned, and his eyes they burned in a most peculiar way;
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
And "Boys," says he, "you don't know me, and none of you care a damn;
But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I'll bet my poke they're rue,
That one of you is a hound of hell. . .and that one is Dan McGrew."

Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark,
And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark.
Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that's known as Lou.

These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.
They say that the stranger was crazed with "hooch," and I'm not denying it's so.
I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two —
The woman that kissed him and — pinched his poke — was the lady that's known as Lou.

by Mike Walsh

A banker’s son, Robert Service was born in Preston, Lancashire. Destined to be a bank clerk he went on to break the mould and became one of the great poet-troubadours of all time. 

When he was twenty-one years old Service travelled to Vancouver Island and British Columbia. From there he drifted around North America wandering from California and back to British Columbia. As he went on his merry and not so merry way he took several jobs to keep body and soul together. 

He went hungry in Mexico, lived in a Californian brothel, he farmed and he loved on Vancouver Island. In 1899, Service looked after a store in Cowichen Bay where he had his first verse published. These related to the Boer War. The March of the Dead brings to life the ghost army of dead that followed the triumphal victory parades: 

Of passing interest, Service’s brother Alick with Winston Churchill was among a batch of prisoners taken by the Boers. 

Service fell in love with the Yukon where from his pen the images flowed across the paper sheets. Caught up in the Klondike Gold Rush the essayist brought to life such exotic places as the frontier town named Whitehorse and the famous Whitehorse Rapids; Dawson City and the Yukon River. Mixing with prospectors who poured into the Yukon from the four corners of the earth Robert Service did more than soak the atmosphere up; he was part of it. 

One night, returning from a late night stroll, he heard the sounds of high spirits. Inspiration to write comes to me the same way. The words, “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up,” popped into his head. From that moment on the words of the epic poem, Dangerous Dan McGrew, were already being transcribed in the poet’s consciousness. Dashing to the bank where he worked he grabbed his pen and pad. Thus one of the world’s most famous poems was born. 

A month or so later he heard gossip about a Dawson man who cremated his pal in the frozen wilderness. Inspired by the story Robert Service spent the rest of the night walking through the forest going over and over the words of a poem that was to soon become, ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’. Excuse me saying so but this really is a heart-warming story. 

Service certainly had a way with words: “I have gazed on naked grandeur .. .. ‘ from which was to flow The Call of the Wild. When eventually he had composed sufficient poems for a book the hobo poet sent his work with a cheque attached to a book printer. The poet’s intention was to Christmas gift a copy of the collection to each of his friends. 

The employees at the printer’s workshop were thrilled by the verse they found themselves printing and binding. The firm’s salesman then entertained the printers by reciting the verse. With an eye to the quick buck the printer’s representative sold 1,700 copies of Service’s collection from the printing galley proofs. Robert Service’s cheque was returned to him and with it went an offer of 10 per cent royalties if he were to sign a contract. 

For Robert Service there was no looking back. Copies reached Whitehorse. There, his pastor gave the poet a dressing down for the wickedness of his poetry. Service hung his head in shame but, not far behind came the tourists who arrived in Whitehorse looking for the famous poet. 

Feted throughout the world the English born poet became the richest and most celebrated poet in history. Despite his fame and his riches, Robert Service served with distinction as a volunteer during the Great War. 

A Parisian at the time he was very nearly executed as a spy. He worked as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver whereupon he penned a book of war-related poetry. This anthology was his most successful and brought him the most riches. 

His wealth never separated him from the ‘luxuries of penury’. It is a quirk of human nature that despite his riches Robert Service spoke eloquently for the down and out, the hobo and the drifter. It is this ~ these poems that convince me that poets, like the great musicians, are indeed the voice of God.

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