Closing to Engage
Second degree of readiness.
From time to time throughout the night the Sub Lieutenant walked about the ship and made his report to the bridge.
But what he saw was not remarkable.
At magazine and shellroom hatches in the destroyer’s Wardroom flat
the after supply party, waiting for the alarm,
sleep through the last of the middle watch.
There is no human sound, but only
ship-noises and sea-tones:
creakings that steal along the wood like live things and scamper away,
hush and wash and thump of the seas along the ship’s side,
rumbling crunch of the screws, urgent
thrilling resonance and surge of the turbines.
One light, swinging to the ship’s going,
shines through the slats of the pantry door
in bright bars that finger slowly back and forward
over the still figures shapeless with exhaustion,
over outflung arms, updrawn legs,
heads pillowed on the bare deck with weary negligence.
There is no movement except in the ship’s hurrying
and in the responsive bars of light that finger
hesitantly forward over the motionless bodies,
and creep back in a dark dreamlike tension,
quiet, beautiful and ominous.
Stripped for immediate action the forward messdecks are
a dishevelled gloom wherein the lifelines rigged from bulkhead to screendoor
conjure the blind groping that will follow a direct hit.
Each sea that periodically mounts to the fo’csle
strikes a compact and stunning blow;
and as the ship’s trembling quietens from the shock
the scraping crunch of waves at the bows
reasserts itself as a ground bass of speed.
The afterwash of the wave, sloshing down the ammunition ports,
films out over the treacherous deck
insinuating into the shallow dreamless sleep
of seamen huddled out of the water’s way.
Seven figures in wet duffel coats,
feet thrust out to secure the bench they sit on,
hunch forward over an electric fire.
They sway in loose unconscious unison
with the ship’s rhythmic plunging. In the dim light
their faces are featureless, unindividual. Their talk
is quiet, tentative, retrospective,
listless as the smoke curling up to the moist deckhead
from their damp foul-tasting cigarettes.
At a time like this it’s better not to think too much
about the immediate future. So they talk
of home and other ships and other shipmates
and a last leave and days before the war.
But their talk has long silences in it,
none being able to keep his thought from wandering
back to the quick future. And anyway
they’re only talking and smoking to thwart the soft
weariness dragging at their eyes. With a will that shrinks
from this ultimate encounter with the power of sleep
they claw their way through the dripping hours
until the insidious chill of the dawn
steals the slender comfort from the fire.
Now there are no words left
and their spirits are cold as the water washing about their boots.
Their only comfort is
they haven’t been at the guns or on the bridge all night.
And the dawn is grey with rain
spreading the night’s misery into the morning
with intermittent shafts. Presently the nimbus lifts
and mauve shadows of broken cumulus hurry
over the bright sea after the tag-end of the storm.
And the wind flirts the blue-green pyramids of waves,
stippling their surfaces with feather-texture,
scoring the hollows with lead-white foam.
And filaments of spray indolently fumble
over the fo’csle, over the foremost guns and the bridge,
and set a small rainbow at the ship’s flying foot.
The destroyer, lipping and snuffling whiteness at the hawsepipes,
lifts in a tense trembling climax of struggle
against the synchronism of the sea,
until a green wave explodes on her falling fo’csle.
She stumbles, shudders free,
and lifts up her head,
her clean flanks creaming.
Enemy in sight.
Against the colour of the fresh-made morning
the battle ensigns are dazzling and extravagant.
Throughout the action a picture forms in the mind,
instant as a gunflash,
obliterating thought like a whiff of flame.
The May dawn, grey with rainsquall,
found the men in the doomed ship
empty and gaunt with sleeplessness and the long cold
vigil at the guns. The headlong hurrying
through the twilight Arctic fog,
Southwards with fate and vengeance on their quarter till they shook the pursuit, detached their cruiser and set course
Eastward with a hope they were too numb to savour –
all is a troubled nightmare-broken sleep,
monotone of days that felt like one long night without a dawn,
too intense to bear remembering, so that the mind
rejects it, all but the acrid taste it leaves.
At some moment the fact of doom
had importuned its way into their minds
like the sun insistently plucking at a late sleeper’s eyes:
and the knowledge passed from eye to eye without a word.
But doom cannot be lightly harboured in the mind.
You must accept it or drive it out, and either way
it is too enormous to touch you closely
without bringing madness or deep calm.
They were calm, their eyes and minds, suddenly selective,
refusing what was not convenient;
so that the aircraft attacking up the last of the light
had never been real despite the gunfire.
Now as the ship like a hamstrung stag
drags herself Northward, away from harbour, away from hope,
there is no bitterness in her
for unfulfilled wild promises and an inexplicable fate.
Bitterness can outstay the farthest limit of hope;
but when the eyes of the mind have looked on doom,
accepting or rejecting the unequivocal,
there is no room even for bitterness, no place
for longing, self-pity or regret.
They settle at their action stations with the quietness
born out of the knowledge of finality.
If they were lucky, their last night
was too full of misery
to let them think what forces concentrated
groping for them in the darkness,
waiting for the light, waiting
with patient relish for the morning kill.
The flames flower red-orange from the ring of guns,
the yellow cordite-smoke drifts clear of the ships,
and down-wind you hear the rumble and torn-silk of the shells
feeling for the viscera to destroy.
The white stupendous shell-splashes mount
slowly as a moment in catastrophe,
hang and drift out in a clinging mist.
A rose-coloured wound glows in the armourplate
where a shell strikes. This is
dull, blinding, incredible.
Even though they interpose
the passionless beauty of the guns
these men are no less fragile
in face of steel and fire,
battle and doom
than Hood’s men were.
Down the wind the silk tearing of the shells
matches the bright pageantry of destruction.
And the picture persists, obliterating thought
like a bright whiff of holocaustic flame.
Two destroyers, homewardbound at low speed, short of fuel,
far from the soberly exultant battle fleet, were found
by a group of avenging German aircraft. The attack started
when breakfast was hot on the galleystoves; but that meal was spoiled
when the cooks ran to action stations.
The Captain places his spatulate fingers
lightly on the azimuth ring, as though the gentle
precision of his fingers alone could ensure the ship’s survival.
His eyes grow cold with the desolation of decision;
but his fingers move with a curious delicate relish
as though he had always known it would be like this.
Spurred by what hope or hunger,
distracted by what lust
come we to the fatal
end of our graal-quest.
The sweet brimming cup
pressed to the burning lips
has the terrible delight
of a lover’s first kiss.
In this cup are mingled
love and fear and courage,
gracefulness and beauty,
hate and ugliness.
Vinegar or wine,
hemlock or hyssop,
blood and water mingled?
Only the dark lees know.
In humble extremity
drink we this cup
of dread and delight,
of burning bitterness.
Blind seeds of hope,
of love and ugliness,
beauty, hate and courage
have come to cruel harvest
in one forsaken cry
and the arms outstretched,
in darkness and cockcrow:
the sea made Golgotha.
It is late afternoon.
The rainsquall has passed; but while it lasted
it brought down the visibility and stopped for a while
the bombing that made the survivors on the messdecks
pensive and inward-looking, smoking many cigarettes.
Fifteen minutes ago the Sub.,
a little pale from his interrupted work in the tiller flat,
reported to the bridge. So now would be a good time.
A Commander quietly leaves the bridge.
He was one with merry ways; but now his eyes
have a distant hungry lost silence in them.
You look at his borrowed grey trousers
and the monkey-jacket too big for him
and know why his eyes look the way they do.
The iron-deck abreast the torpedo tubes still glistens with rain;
and low cloud scurries smokily above the masthead.
A line of men ragged as the clouds,
girded in blankets, barefoot or shod with other men’s boots,
pick their way aft. They are silent and their eyes are downcast.
Neither the white surge of water at the ship’s side
nor the roar of exhaust fans
nor the blackened faces of the gunners at the multiple
touches them with wonder or comfort or irony.
And some there be which have no memorial,
who are perished as though they had never been.
We therefore commit their bodies to the deep,
where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing.
Concerning them that fall asleep:
They rest from their labours,
looking for the resurrection of the body.
Behold I tell you a mystery:
we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
Why do we also stand in jeopardy every hour?
Behold I tell you a mystery:
if there is no resurrection of the dead,
if the dead are not raised at all,
if in this life only we have hoped,
we are of all men most pitiable.
Why do we also stand in jeopardy every hour?
The men straggle forward,
picking their way against the motion of the ship.
The sky clears.
The alarm bells ring.
The sound is like a white-hot needle
plunged upward through the skull.
Blessed are the dead;
for since by man came death
why do we also stand in jeopardy?
For four listless hours since the bombing stopped
there has been no sound on the bridge except
the subdued sighing boom of the folded bow-wave,
the busy clucking of the log-repeat, the gyro’s
quiet hunting, a helm-order and its muffled
echo in the voice-pipe. It is night
and each man is groping in the darkness
to integrate what the day’s attack has cast
adrift from the hinges of consciousness and order.
Ears pulse and tingle with the inexpungible
physical imprint of the crushing gun-note.
Eyelids are a dragging leaden torture
of sleeplessness, mouths have the bitter taste
of sleeplessness; but none dares sleep till he
has ravelled up what the bombs have pulled apart.
The low darker smudge that might have been
another stratum of cloud along the skyline
shapes out of the darkness. Dawn, with cold
translucence, brings to imperceptible birth
before our quivering eyes the land, the land
quintessentially solid, comfortable,
unconcerned. As the light transmutes
the land into Irish meadows green as lawns
the voices on the bridge begin to speak.
Husky, rough and low-pitched with fatigue
they come from a great distance, disembodied,
concealing the pattern of trembling thought that moves
behind the eyes. Sleep lies visible
over the dawning land. But there is no sleep
for us until exhaustion crushes us down
into the deep dark. For the light will slowly
withdraw from the land the warm blanket of sleep;
and others will find no comfort in this dawn
but, unbelieving, will turn again to sleep
hoping to wake from a dream within a dream.
There is not elegy enough in all
the winds and waves of the world to sing the ships,
to sing the seamen to their rest, down
through the slow shimmering drift of crepuscule,
sinking through emerald green, through opal dimness
to darkness. Not all laving of all the world’s
oceans, loving moonwash of warm
tropic seas can ever heal the hearts
smashed to fragments of desolated darkness.
Sink now, life ended, down through the haunts
of trumpetfish and shark and spermwhale, down
to the still siltless floor of the ocean where
no light sifts or spills through the liquid driftings
of darkness, where no eye sees the delicate
dark-wrought flowers that open to no moon.
With you is scattered what treasure to puzzle the eager
submarine historian when the sea
gives up her dead: the hammered, turned, polished,
riveted sleekness and sweet beauty of gun,
plate, turbine, screw, shell, torpedo,
anchor-fluke and studded cable (symbol of
what hope, what faith?), instruments
of electronic daintiness blind
inert unfunctional in ignorance;
perplexing fragments of ingenious skill
that bear no trace of their powerlessness to shield
the germ of life against the sudden steel,
the slow drowsy agony of drowning.
No pity or memory ever ruffled the iron
implacable will of ocean. Yet in its throat
is merciful secrecy, when hope is gone.
When life is a wafer dissolved on the lips of the sea
the desolation of waiting hearts may heal
in ignorance of the haunting dread of fear,
the numb hunger, and terror – dull tensions
that never uncoiled in the cool crystals of words.
In the vast silence of the tideless sea-floor,
fathoms deep, in the birthless womb of ocean,
let the jagged steel, and broken pitiful
beauty born of the smooth loins of women
sleep where the diatom and coral sleep.