I came to words late. I don’t mean I was a slow learner or a poor student. I mean I didn’t really understand the majesty and terror of words until I was long gone from the high school classroom.
Recently, I was looking through a journal I had kept a generation ago when I joined the U.S. Navy. The pages provide a glimpse of a fledgling poet who seemed especially attentive to rhyming words like pity and city, dearth and worth, and, no kidding, oxidation and salutation. These examples were offered within the context of anguished patriotism, infantile jingoism and the inevitable childish laments. It was my good fortune to have parked this journal in the back of my locker for the rest of the cruise. Even now it’s painful to open the thing.
For my early years, my father seemed to own the important words in our house, gaining that advantage through threats and volume. After a few drinks, my old man would climb the abstraction ladder, and if he wasn’t on par with John Keats’ “a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” he longed for that territory, as would any proper Irishman. I can still hear him in my ear, not quite the educator.
My love of language didn’t begin with words on paper. Rather it began with words in thin air, in the middle of the night or floating inches above a following sea. Our ship was stuffed with lots of electronics but we still used flashing light, based on Morse code, to communicate tight ship turn movements, directions during replenishments and other tactical matters. This was particularly true if we were running dark, in simulated wartime conditions or operating “silent” in a Task Force.
I can still remember the thrill when I realized that I had mastered the intricacies of flashing light, including the truncated words, the codes and the chatter that still today seems like a mix of black magic and mime finding its ways into the command: “Come right to 070 degrees.” The dot/ dash ingredients of the code soon became a sign-song version of dah-di-dah-dit, di-dah, dah, coming out at the spoken end as the highly recognizable feline cat.
These were the sounds from my first voyage to the Western Pacific, when I would also learn to pull the sun, moon and stars down to the horizon with a sextant, fingers crossed, hoping for a reasonable fix on our latitude and longitude. Nineteenth century mariners spoke about dead reckoning their positions at sea and this language had a finality that still echoes. This romantic died hard. It would be a few years before I could write: “Moby Dick is the motel sign; Paradise at the end of the line.”
In my first book of poetry, I included a poem, “Apollo of the Early Sun,” about a naked sailor gliding from the mizzen mast “like an aerial queen on a windswept muscle of air, past circus eyes of bullish men hot for a length of womanly white. Yet still you fall, pink as you drop, past sun-stained men of the deck whose muscles move a chest-wide heart, their lips tense, teeth tight as canvas till you break water and the crew sighs, moans as you surface to curl your back against foam. Then you stiffen as coral sharp guns warn you of shark and the boson’s flute pipes you aboard. But Neptune you know in your high diving shame so you bow like a swan and I wait for your blood to be ravaged by salt.”
This poem was written about a decade after I left the service but had settled in my psyche years earlier. One doesn’t spend years at sea without noticing the homoerotic elements. Between my service and this writing I had been to college and read the so-called homoerotic work of Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and others. Perhaps that experience helped in the structuring and framing of the poem, but images of sailors on the main deck watching this beautiful, naked Apollo of the Early Sun dive off one of the outboard booms into the blue Pacific have never left me. Nonetheless, there is danger afoot. Sharks are circling those participating in swim call. Sailors held guns at the ready.
I always thought ships had a specific gravity, a way of pulling you down and into it. To get to the navigation bridge on the 03 level, I had to climb up a number of ladders that were almost at the vertical. When we were in heavy seas I could barely move. Underway, a ship has a unique weight and density. Sooner or later, the ship would pull me down, physically and psychologically.
Spending up to nine months at sea on an ammunition ship loaded to the gills is enough to remind a sailor of his mortality. And sleeping on top of 2000-pound bombs simply drives the lesson home. The ships holds were full of dark firepower, a bomb waiting to go off. Crew members looking for male company could find the shadows among the projectiles. I explore this psychology in my novel “USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story.”
I recall a shipmate visibly upset as we arrived in San Francisco after almost a year in the waters off South East Asia. I learned that his brother, a sailor on another Navy ship, had been sexually abused during a cruise by fellow sailors. This too remained in my psyche and years later I wrote, “Prayer for a Convict’s Brother.”
“Urgent as a pregnant sheath to receive the bloody child, you fled at a mother’s speed to a boy who was daily born. Like a gentleman you climbed aboard the ship amidst the proper exchange. Could the deck show you below to the scene of your brother’s bed? High in the dock a Pennsylvania boy, gun at his side, opened his mouth like a mine, showed tongue in a snail’s curl and breathed between his teeth: Queer, then smiled with knowledge beyond the hold. You struck where the work began and have never spoken since.”
Years later, I lost touch with my friend and never shared this poem. How could I say to him: “Your brother sentenced to the sea’s pink rim, plunged to the level keel on his knees, paying for his passage with his mouth. He was going home the only way he knew.” I still wonder about the word “convict.” Just who was the criminal? His brother had been convicted by the crew. My friend, who pushed his brother to go to sea, had convicted himself. Something still bothers me about this poem.
It is customary for new arrivals aboard ship to be ordered to get a bucket of water line. Of course, this is a joke and the task impossible, but it is a reminder that it will not be the only fiction they encounter. As anyone who has served will tell you, the military is a country’s most useful fiction, at times healing, at times deadly.
I have been thinking about the Republican Presidential candidates, particular Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, and their plans to carpet bomb the Middle East. I wish they had been around when we were carpet bombing North Vietnam with more bombs than we dropped in World War II. Remembering Dresden would be asking too much of them. I wish these politicians could hear the 2,000-pound bombs rolling around inside their dreams, giving their manic daylight thoughts a little weightiness, giving rise to the thought, “you can’t move small enough.”
In “That Kingdom Coming Business,” a poem about Vietnam as a crusade, I wrote: “And chaplains huddled on the 02 harness men’s prayers, a majority plea in all the right words, to a willing wind that answered, telling all that water can be calmed and blankets can still muffle bombs on the way to an explosion. They stopped wind and rain hard by Nagasaki’s shores so men below could tender bombs due to print territory on other people’s faces; the blood of fifty states shed deliriously like an oil blanket leveling waves but making sure if Christ be on his way like a flame from the East faces from all nations will be welded like a veil of Bessemer smoke on mushroom clouds rising high over the city of peace.”