All numbers, knots on a rope. Calendrical. Tally.
Makes twenty-three Novembers
I've known hate was coming in the mail.
"Merry Christmas, killer
Of my son/slash/husband/slash/lover."
Stockpiled years' unease. I've squirreled a dresser-drawer-full.
Bent over in dying's life-raft, I idled
Letters too, in my head. Waste; no way to send them.
Dear Mrs. Johnson, your son has been knifed to death
By his buddy, wild from three days in the sea.
Last words he heard were "You dirty Jap!
You're trying to kill me!" from a rasping lunatic throat.
Dear Mrs. Murphy, your son's legs,
Having passed through two-inch teeth and guts
Of a shark, may have found a different heaven
Than the rest of him. Dear Mrs. Whipple,
Your husband on the third day
Reasoned all earth's quadrants were toxic,
Shed his life-vest, let his body sink,
To achieve a life without them. I can't share
His thinking with you, but with hands, if we ever meet,
I'll sketch his downward torque.
Sun in that zone is a scathing use for sky.
Eyes, we learned, can burn straight through closed eyelids.
We thought, being tough, we could maybe last
The way wood of a wharf lasts-warp, not rot.
But "peace on earth" doesn't count ocean.
The ship that shook us off like a dog after rain when it left the world
Left us in a hollow so numbing we knew only war's dead center
Could wear this look, if our eyes could have opened wide enough to see.
Sun should have phases. Quarter. New. But no,
It's never not full, or ever relenting.
Ocean's no different: works like a war-plant
Running three shifts, in slope on slope to cloud at farthest,
Nearest always saying Here's your cliff: dwell.
Fuel oil we had swum through wouldn't come off our skin.
No low or high to tides with no shore to break on.
Need for perimeter trumped all other but need for fresh water.
Ocean doesn't cut it as housing: men look for decks
And bulkheads to function; beams and framing.
One thing only keeps trim in the sea, for a while:-
Thought of the wild card, rescue. But in our case held too long.
(Secret cargo we importantly ferried
From the States across to Tinian
In the days we were smart and shining
Was readied, after we left it, for loading into a B-29,
To crack open new, improved
Varieties of scathing
That take their techniques from the sun.
We learned about it later, those of us who lived.)
Did the radio room have power, after we took hits?
Did we get a message off before sinking?
First day speculation streamed to all compass-points.
Second day it switched to "Today we're slated
To berth in Leyte. They'll note our not coming.
Word'll go up through channels, then they'll send planes."
Sharks, though, knew we were in for a longer haul.
We splashed on ocean's skin to deflect them; it worked, then it didn't.
Close up they're not what you think of as life-forms-
More like chunks of ocean-bottom gouged out, set in motion
By brainless mistake, mechanical, kin to torpedoes;
It wasn't with minds as much as circuitry
They loved our being there.
A different unwreakable animal, didn't want us colonizing,
Lured the men, under orders not to drink, to drink,
Made flesh of our hands so pulpy we wouldn't leave fingerprints.
Acts of contrition being murmured neck-deep in water,
My grip slipping, I whispered "Go home, ocean." It whispered back
"I am home-you're who's out of its bailiwick, and wits."
Song was another thing gone. "Roll me o- ..."
No one could think what came next.
And night, the notwithstanding, claimed its share of us again.
Saltwater ulcers, body-surface pain-sprouts,
Drill inward too:-they clawed our thinking the third day so hard
No given hour would any longer
Make sense of two on either side of it.
Minds went into business as suicide's conduit.
There's an island with a resort hotel, we just have to swim for it.
Fresh water fathoms down, we just have to dive for it.
Swim and dive and die. A lot of good guys did.
Thinned out, hemmed in beyond the bearable,
Day four deformed our luck, though it was turning,
Beyond all recognizing. In still another night,
To rescuers, we lurkers-in-dark were not only doubtful as Yanks,
But, oil-blacked, hunger-leached, doubtful as men.
We heard unsureness in a young voice calling
Out of the strange to test us: "Where do the Dodgers play?"
And one in the sea with a somewhat working throat left
Croaked out "Brooklyn." We were lifted from endless water.
All but the ones who weren't. Eight hundred eighty men.
There's a number for you, Commander Hashimoto,
A tally I live with daily. Hatred's not the issue,
You being only my opposite number-
You sighted us and we hung there ripe, dream-data
Siphoned by your mirror-intake, and your heart-rate
Spiked, as mine would have. You could shift the balance of lordship,
You thought, this late in the action, throughout the Pacific theater.
Triumphs loomed long-term. Why wouldn't you tell your men "Fire"?
Why wouldn't what followed follow?
And now, why shouldn't we cut apart
Our arbitrary twinship, each to his slice of water?
Your tin sneaker's prowled my thinking long enough,
Been part of a winch on my spirit since before the blame came down
Through channels and I learned its docking-place.
Though in the end they couldn't deny me my admiralship,
Or brainless retirement life. Today they think I'm coming
To the country club for cards after lunch as usual-
And they're welcome to wait. I'm joining my crew in the water
To skew the stinking script. I can conjure a shining
Rescue ship nearby to scoop us, all, all healthy,
Out of that filthy water the first day. The first
Hour. It won't be hallucination
When we cheer its coming. I'll make it right. I can.
I raise my thirty-eight, a number. Final one.
You want my story? Here.
There I was, ugliest man in Asia,
having till then been ugliest in Europe-
career of a kind.
My skills are these: I abrade.
When dire straits are boded I bode them.
If the uncalled-for is blurted
it's me doing the blurting.
I twist or puncture, and nothing I knew of
had power to stop me. I planned
to scar this expedition for the rest of them
the moment I joined it,
was only waiting for time
to sneak up and goose me
with inducement. Which time did.
I marshaled my scrawn
To lob harangues at the men.
Beyond their heads, a ruckus of marsh-birds
arc-ed over from Scamander,
brown, green and silver.
Odysseus, snoop, was trying to blend
with the crowd. He didn't succeed.
I cleared my now-or-never throat.
" 'A war in Asia. Super!
Sign me up!' Weren't we unanimous?
Not till landfall here
did the other sandal drop.
kakadiseases whose symptom
is rampaging 'Priam's revenge'-
and secondrate scenery (Ida's
too far south to uplift us), plus
the enemy's aim is better
than we were told. We've had some deaths.
Any's too many. Let's go home."
(Aside to sore-thumb Odysseus:
"Maybe my fritter can't beat up your razzle;
my gibe, however, you'll find, has edge.")
I resumed, to flesh out my thesis.
The marsh-birds contributed backup.
"War's no more
than a snit gone gaga." (Squawk!)
"You don't see us as a zoo? Re-focus.
Agamemnon, alpha lion;
Menelaus, rhinoceros"; (Squawk!)
"Odysseus, Nile crocodilius;
Achilles, stabled racehorse - " (Squawk!)
"The rest of us, dogs and no better.
I-gly, you-gly, he-gly, we-gly-
I'm a test; fail me or pass me.
If you had a fever-tick of sense
you'd metamorph to worker bees,
swarm up in murderous funnels,
rear-end-foremost, to sting
the ranking brass."
(They sucked in breath at the anarchy.)
Go fly a dystopian flag
to mask the sundered seams
on Agamemnon's tent.
Are we apes in trees that we throw things?
Do we like flesh sliced?
Who profits but the armorer?
Is it innate in us,
and must it be?
Our hold on right
is no more fixed
than leaky water."
My gravamen. They laughed
at the way I'm built, but they listened.
Odysseus moved a little nearer.
"What do we do after this,
kill other kingdoms still?
Are we going to be bully of the world
and call it avenging, or justice?
Menelaus has a gripe,
So back in Greece new widows weep ...
Hear me, hulks: there's no real victory-
We die in the end.
If we win it's just winning:
Their grieving could mean more,
all told, with time.
A mission? I could sneer up to here.
Could prophesy the slope to the top
of Ida is going to break out in sores.
Are all other states to cringe as our vassals?
What if they have pride too?
Deprivation's all we've got for them.
They wish we'd go home.
We wish we'd go home.
Follow my killer logic.
(Odysseus, I suspect your pinata
holds nothing much but bluster.)"
I was, as it happened, wrong on that.
He dropped his specialty, reason,
and clocked me, skilled,
with the flat of his sword.
I went down bested,
From the ground, bleeding, I was
my final argument.
Odysseus to the crowd:
The us/them game
Must never end.
What can answer spear but spear?
Chorus of paid mourners:
Rancid punky death,
Apply your quirky powers:
Give him peace in the worms.
Sing da, da, da.
My voice cutting through:
Glum out the dirges
To your livers' content.
No man among you's
Not glad I'm gone.
Our song flouts the fancy
There's any such thing
As dying in vain.
Sing da, da, da, da.
Me again, yes a real ghost:
By blood related
Whose duty it is
To see me planted.
Killing's a kind of caring,
A kind of curing.
It's our belief as a people.
Sages endorse it.
Only a crazy would want
To think different. Da. Da.