The Oscillation of the Waves
The Oscillation of the Waves
1. In the Void
A ledger somewhere said an officer
Plus two enlisted men would be cheaper
Than a single shipyard worker. Down in a Void
I sat with bosun mates Randolph and Elwood,
Waiting to see if water filling up
The dry dock would find some flaw in the ship:
A crack or loose plate that would give this space
Between the hull and the bulkhead of the crew’s mess
Back to the sea. If that happened, I thought
First I’d hear—at the bottom of the pit
We’d been thrown in—a sound like hissing snakes,
And then the water would coil around our necks.
Our orders were to sound off if we found
A breach—and scramble out before we drowned.
But the cold water I felt when they told us
To end our watch was the sweat that itched my face.
2. Something So Small
I didn’t think the ship would try to kill
Me while I dreamed of literary laurels
I might wear. I’d left the fueling rig,
And general quarters ended; the captain’s log
Recorded the routine. Down in the wardroom
Slurping up spaghetti, I felt something jam
In my throat. No matter how I’d cough
Or swallow, it wouldn’t budge. I tried to laugh
When my friend Oscar said: Are you all right?
But no sound came out. He jumped up and brought
The doctor. Telling me just to relax, he
Grabbed me in a bear hug. This had to be
A joke. And—it was a joke—he squeezed the life
Into me by forcing out a bay leaf.
3. The Blue They Use
The blue they use on posters to recruit
The farmer’s son and the high school dropout
Lies calm and still, as though it’s only there
To support the real star: the mariner.
Steaming home from a month at sea, the ship
Surged through the raining dark. I wanted to sleep;
I’d stood the midwatch, working in light that shone
Red as if in honor of the dawn
We headed toward. I climbed down from the bridge,
Leaving its small island for the large
One of the ship itself, waiting for the call
Of the bosun’s pipe for Sea and Anchor Detail.
But what I heard was: Man overboard!
Man overboard, port side! Freezing, I stared
At the grill of the speaker box, then ran
Across the hangar deck to my lifeboat station.
Donning my hardhat and Mae West, I grabbed the ratline.
We climbed into the boat, the five crewmen
And I, straining to hear a rescue chopper lift off.
As the boat was lowered, we couldn’t tell how rough
The seas were—from overhead, they seemed
To throb in spasms of green and black, and boomed
Against the hull. No one told us the swells
Were eight feet high: the bow and stern falls
That held the cables of our craft would have
To be let go at the same time. When a wave
Lifted us on its crest, the engineman
Released the stern fall. But the marine
In the bow couldn’t release his. Our boat
Dropped as the water did, and the bow leapt
Into the air like a porpoise breaching.
One second I sprawled on my back, then swung
By the ratline over the craft, then flat
On my back, then yanked up again. I thought
Of a yoyo. Pushing out to drop
Away from the boat, I let go of the rope.
The cold brine shocked me, but I was too mad
To feel it long. Grabbing the gunwale, I tried
To pull myself aboard. The Mae West
Kept me from lifting my leg up past
That wooden lip. I yelled, Help me, man!
To the engineman; he snatched and dragged me in.
Over the storm, we couldn’t hear the yells
Of the sailors above us, but saw them signal
Something was wrong. They pointed to the dark
Out beyond the ship—bobbing like a cork,
The small light on a Mae West, as if a star
Were drowning. I only counted four
Crewmen: the coxswain had been thrown out.
We headed for him, the swells making the boat
Loop around him in a Möbius strip.
The man yelled, Keep away!—he feared the prop
Would strike him. But the engineman knew his job
And angled near enough till we could grab
Those waving arms. We couldn’t find a sign
Of anyone else out there; where was the man
We’d been dropped in the ocean for? Heading
Back to the boat davits, we wondered: What’s wrong
With the chopper? Why doesn’t it lift off?
When we reached the ship, every swell a cliff
Of heaving jade, it was hopeless. A bullhorn
Shouted down: Go around the stern
To L-3! Over to the starboard side
Our boat pounded; moaning, the wind sprayed
Rain at us like needles. A Jacob’s ladder
Dangled from a huge slab—the elevator
That lifted jets and bombs to the flight deck.
We’d have to tie up to it, and keep the peaks
Of water from shoving us underneath.
We got a line fastened but, like a moth
In a gale, we were being driven too close—
Caught under that platform, the seas would crush us.
The giant hook of the B & A crane,
Massive enough to lift an F-14,
Would have to pluck us from the water as quick
As an angler snapping a trout from a lake.
We hurried to rig a cable with a ring
In its center while the arm of the crane swung
Slowly out, and the hook started to lower.
From it came a keening that filled my ears—
The wind clawing steel. Like a pendulum
The hook began to sway. As if in Poe’s dream
Of the pit, I watched the arcs it carved sweep
Longer and closer. Somehow we’d have to slap
The cable hoop over the hook: I imagined
A weird carousel where the brass ring strained
To reach a finger. The hook rose and fell
Around our craft like a wrecking ball,
The signalman and I trying to dodge it
And still attach the ring. Cursing, I thought:
This must be how the prizes feel inside
A claw machine. Then the hook with a thud
Hit the gunwale, for an instant pinning
My hand. I yanked free as the block sprang
Into the air. Somehow by scheme or luck,
The ring clanked into place. I felt the shock
Of the cable when it jerked taut: the boat
Lurched to one side as we all clung tight.
But a swell shoved up from below as if
The ocean hadn’t battered us enough.
The hook crashed to the boat’s deck, then jumped
Toward the sky when the water dropped. I clamped
My jaws as the cable wrenched us again—
I was sure we’d be torn apart. Come on,
We yelled to the man on the crane: Faster!
I don’t remember how long the tug of war
Went on, how many times a sudden crest
Caught and dragged us back like tar. The hook at last
Pulled us loose—I stared down at an abyss
Gleaming strangely as though made of a darkness
Cold as outer space. I wondered when
The cable would snap, or the arm of the crane
Stop its swing, leaving us to hang like bait
For some kind of eel black and huge as this night.
As though staring at aliens descending from
A star that had exploded, sailors came
Out onto the elevator. A small
Thump was all I heard at first when our keel
Touched down; then it seemed the wind cried
Like something cheated of its prey. Led
Down to sickbay, I stayed there till the sun
Put borders back in a world I thought I’d known.
We learned later we’d risked our necks to save
No one: some sailor had decided to heave
A life ring over the side for a joke—
Like yelling Fire! in a theater. Break
His neck, the coxswain swore, if I find him!
We never did. To forget the whole damn
Thing was what I wanted. Down the chain of command
The word rattled its way: I was assigned
To write out what happened; a report
Turning us to heroes. I couldn’t start—
I was as grounded by this fog as that chopper
Stuck on the flight deck: we had done no more
Than try to stay alive. Since we survived
The attempt to drown us, the ship believed
I’d let it paper over its mistakes.
Like ribbons, medals, all the bric-a-brac
The navy gives to men whose life and limb
It can’t replace, a letter was the sum
Of an apology and thanks we’d get:
Condensing what we risked to one thin sheet.
In that single night I learned the ocean
Is a blue no poster can contain.
It had washed away my thoughts of making it
My life. When the time came, I would climb out
Of the sea—like any new, rough creature
Seeking to evolve—and find a path on shore.