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Her father embarked at sunrise / with a flask of water, a samurai sword in the cockpit, a shaven head / full of powerful incantations / and enough fuel for a one-way journey into history
Garland immediately establishes the narrative nature of her poem by characterising the "father" as a warrior who "embarked" on a quest. The title, though, contextually grounds this quest as a suicide mission ("a one-way / journey into history"), making the family connection of the first two words all the more upsetting. Someone's father is about to kill themselves.
The usually positive emotive noun "sunrise" here is corrupted by power and conflict. As Japan is contextually known as the 'Land of the Rising Sun', and a rising sun featured on Japan's flag during WW2, here Garland corrupts nature into a battle image whilst reminding us that this is - potentially - the pilot's last ever "sunrise".
a samurai sword in the cockpit, a shaven head / full of powerful incantations
Garland juxtaposes the ancient weapon of the "samurai" - a noble warrior class in Japanese history - with the modern destructive aeroplane through reference to the "cockpit"; the "shaven head" of the pilot being described as "full of powerful incantations" creates a sense that the man has been bewitched by the propaganda of the Japanese Empire and convinced that his mission is a noble one.
journey into history / but half way there
By breaking the idea across two stanzas, Garland uses her structure to signal the turning point in the father's thinking.
the little fishing boats / strung out like bunting / on a green-blue translucent sea
The simile, adjective "tiny" and naturalistic imagery of the "green-blue translucent sea" create an innocent and pretty image in sharp contrast to the militaristic first stanza; as bunting is often put up to celebrate victories, a feeling on sadness can also be created here: no pilot is supposed come back alive so no bunting will be displayed for them.
Garland's verb "thought" and pronoun "she" create a sense early on that the pilot himself has no voice in this story; national conflict has resulted in a family conflict that is not resolved.
cloud-marked mackerel, / black crabs, / feathery prawns, / the loose silver of whitebate and once / a tuna, the dark prince, muscular, dangerous.
The beautifully descriptive list of sea creatures with its semantic fields of delicacy ("feathery"), power ("prince", "muscular", "dangerous") and wealth ("silver") create an intense feeling of the worth and value of the natural world and lives in general. The end-stopped last line mirrors the end of the pilots journey, choosing life and nature over death.
they treated him / as though he no longer existed
Garland makes us feel a deep sense of sadness and sympathy for the father figure which continues to the end of her poem; we see the effects of conflict on a family unit
And sometimes, she said, he must have wondered / which had been the better way to die.
The incredibly bleak final two lines are used by Garland to explore and criticise the destructive results of patriotism: on civilians as well as soldiers. By choosing to preserve life (the father's own and those he would have killed), Garland has his family become ashamed of him to the point that he does figuratively "die" anyway. That the speaker of the poem is still uncertain of her father's thoughts (created through the modal verb phrase "must have wondered") creates a final note of sadness: the pilot - if now dead - never got the life back that he chose to preserve.