Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947)

[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 21]

[CENTRE]BEHIND THE LOG

There is a language in a naval log
That rams the grammar down a layman's throat,
Where words unwind in paragraphs and lines
In chapters. Volumes lie in graphs and codes,
Recording with an algebraic care
The ways of storms, their lairs, habits and paths;
Or, in the self-same bloodless manner, sorting
The mongrel litters of a battle-signal
In victories or defeats or bare survivals,
Flags at half-mast, salutes and guards of honour,
Distinguished crosses, burials at sea.

Our navigators trained their astrolabes
And sextants on the skies in lucky weather,
Or added guesses to dead reckoning.
They did not wait till miracles of science
Unstopped the naked ears for supersonics,
Or lifted cataracts from finite vision
To make night and its darkness visible.
How long ago was it since sailors blew
Their sirens at the cliffs while nearing land,
Traversing channels; cocked their ears and waited?
"Where did you hear that echo, mate?" "Right off
The starboard quarter, captain. Took ten seconds."
"That's Gull Rock there a mile away. Where now?"
"Two seconds for the echo from port bow."
"That's Porpoise Head, I reckon -- Hard-a-starboard."
With echoes everywhere, stand out to sea.
But when the winds deafened their ears or cloud
And rain blinded their eyes, they were shoved back
Upon their native wit which either had
To find the exits to the runs and round
The capes or pile their ships upon the reefs.

[RIGHT MARGIN]Twenty-one

[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 22] Canadian Poetry Magazine And of that lineage are the men today. They still are calling to the rocks: they get Their answers in the same hard terms: they call To steel gliding beneath the sea: they pierce Horizons for the surface hulls: they hail The sky at night for the plane's fuselage. But though the radio bursts and vacuum tubes And electronic beams were miracles Of yesterday, dismissing cloud and rain And darkness as illusions of the sense, Yet always there to watch the colors, note The V-break in the beam's straight line, to hear The echoes, feel the pain, are eyes, ears, nerves: Always remains the guess within the judgment To jump the fine perfection of the physics And smell mortality behind the log. As weird a game of ping-pong ever played Was on the sea -- the place, off Cape Farewell, Back-curtained by the Greenland ice-cap -- time, The '41 autumnal equinox. The crisis was the imminence of famine And the cutting of the ganglia and veins That vitalized the sinews, fed the cells Of lungs demanding oxygen in air. The wicks were guttering from want of oil, And without oil, the bread went with the light, And without bread the will could not sustain The fight, piping its courage to the heart. Grey predatory fish had pedigreed With tiger sharks, and brought a speed and power The sharks had never known, for they had been Committed to the sea under a charter Born of a mania of mind and will, Twenty-two
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 23] And nurtured by a Messianic slogan. They were not bounded by the parallels. They found their habitats wherever there Was open sea and keels to ride upon it. Off the North Cape they had outsped the narwhals The sawfish off the Rios and the Horn. They did not kill for food: they killed that food Should not be used as food. They were the true Expendables -- the flower of their type. They left their mothers for self-immolation, The penalty the same for being on Or off the target -- for the first to join Their own combustion to that of the ships, And for the second, just to go the way Their victims went -- a drunken headlong spiral, Shunted from an exhausted radius Down fifteen thousand feet or more of sea, Engines, propellers, gyros, rudders, dead. The convoy S.C.42 had tried To circumvent the foe's new strategy -- The concentrated ambush of the pack -- By leaving beaten sea-lanes, east and west, And in the ambiguity of the wastes To seek the harsh alliance of the ice And fog, where Arctic currents were more friendly, And long nights blanketed the periscopes. One half-a-million tons were in the holds, Cramming to the last precious cubic inch The slow-keeled merchantmen -- the sixty-six. How desperate the strait which would commit A treasure of this price to such a journey! Where find a steward who would risk his name To close the page of such accountancy, When every mile along the ocean highway [RIGHT MARGIN]Twenty-three
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 24] Canadian Poetry Magazine Was calling for protection, and in calling Demanded life and life's expenditure? And here the call was answered with a guard Whose substitute for numbers was its courage, Four terriers slipped from the Canadian kennel: But one destroyer -- Skeena, three corvettes -- Kenogami, Orillia and Alberni. Upon their vigil hung the life of all, Of ships and men. Of sleeker, faster breed, The Skeena ranged a far periphery At thirty knots, now out of sight and now Closing the convoy as her nose tried out The dubious scents in narrowing ellipses. The slower guards kept closer to their broods, Pushing their way within the column lanes, Emerged to pace the port and starboard flanks Or nuzzle with a deep strategic caution The hulls of those whose tardy engine beats Brought down the knots of faster ships and made The gravest risk and worry for the fleet. North of the sixtieth, they had, it seemed, Found refuge in a sea-berth where the foe, Finding the chill enter his guts, might seek More southern fodder. Least of all the hazards Were winds and waves: for these the ships were built. Their bows could bull the heavier seas head-on: Their hulls could stand the shock beam-to. The keels Had learned the way to bite into the troughs. Such was their native element. The acts Of God were taken as their daily fare, Received alike with prayers or curses. These Were as the dice fell -- whether luck of devil Or luck of God spilled on a shifting floor Close to the steady fringe of the Arctic Circle. Twenty-four
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 25] For seven days and nights without attack! The asdic operator in his hut Had sent his sound waves out and had reported Echoes, but only such as might return As the dull, soft reverberation notes From seaweed or low forms of ocean life Or from a school of porpoises or whales. His hearing was as vital to the ship As was the roving sight in a crow's nest. His ear was as the prism is to light, Unraveling meanings from a skein of tone. Each sound might hold a threat, an overture To a dementia of guns and rockets, Torpedo hits, cries of distress, and all Competing with the orders from the Bridge. He had an instrument in his control Attested by the highest signatures of science. The echoes had traversed wide spans of time: -- Helmholtz and Doppler tapping to each other Through laboratory walls, and there was Rayleigh Calling to Tyndale, Tyndale answering Kelvin, And, all vibrating from their resonators Salutes to Robert Boyle, halloos to Newton. And here, his head-phones on, this operator, Sleeve-rolled mechanic to the theorists, Was holding in his personal trust, come life, Come death, their cumulative handiwork . . . The evening of the eighth day and a moon, High-sailing and impersonal, picked out The seventy ships, deriding the constrained Hush of the blackout. Was the latitude Itself not adequate watch? The sea was calm Although with a beam swell the wallowing rate Was but six knots. The moon illuminated [RIGHT MARGIN]Twenty-five
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 26] Canadian Poetry Magazine The Empire Hudson, leader of port wing, Bursting with grain; the Gypsum Queen with sulphur; The Winterswyck with phosphate; Garm And Scania with lumber; the Muneric, Loaded with iron ore (sink like a rock She would if hit); and others deep with freight, Twelve columns of them in their ordered stations. Thousands of sailors under decks were sealed As in vast envelopes. They ate and worked And slept within a world self-quarantined Against the pestilence of light, by bolts, Bulkheads and battened portholes, for each cell Was like a tumored brain, danger within, Danger without, divided from the world By an integument of iron bone. What chance for life the moment when a shell Trepanned the skull? What would release the pressure Of that stampede to reach the for'ard hatch -- That burial hole in the deckhead -- and come up When the plates buckled in the lower mess? Danger within? Could not the magazines By a raffle flirt of fate be made to turn Against the convoy, as against the foe With final, undeliberated measure, When the oil tanks would join the magazines To the last ton, to the last gram, of blunder? The fires that warmed the galleys could cremate: For oil and fulminate of mercury, Nitrated cellulose and T.N.T. And the constituents of our daily bread, Fresh water and fresh air, could by a shift, Sudden and freakish in the molecules, Be transubstantiated into death. Twenty-six
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 27] Evening at half-past nine and a fresh sound, An instant octave lift to treble pitch From the dull datum of "reverbs" startled The ear. "An echo bearing Green four-0, Range 1500." "Hold and classify." The ping-g-g with its death's head identity! The Skeena heeled port on "starboard ten" To keep the target on the bow. "Steady on two-four-seven." (Harry one at the dip). "Left cut on two-four-six. Right cut On two-five-three." (Reporting Doppler) "Echo high and inclination closing." The range 1200. "Target moving right; Centre bearing, two-five-0." "Starboard ten. Steady on two five-0." Centre bearing, two-five-five." One thousand yards; "extent of target -- ten." Not ice this time but moving steel submerged: Two hundred feet of longitudinal plate, Forged at the Krupp's and tested in the Baltic, Were answering the taps). "Stand by depth charges." Whatever doubt the eye might have imposed Upon the ear soon vanished with the signals. Jedmore reported two torpedoes passed Ahead. Muneric, fourth ship in port column, Attacked, dragged instantly, sank with her iron. Whatever hope had lingered in the brain That one alone was on the prowl was gone. The Commodore -- "Saw U-boat on port bow;" Kenogami in contact with another, A third, a fourth. The pack had trailed and found Them in the Greenland waters. Moonlight full, Without the mercy of the clouds, had turned A traitor to the convoy, canceling The northern length of nights. Like teal not yet [RIGHT MARGIN]Twenty-seven
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 28] Canadian Poetry Magazine Surprised to wing, the silhouetted ships Awaited leisured barrels from the hunters, And the warheads drilled them as from open sights. Orillia detailed to sweep astern, Picked up the few survivors, took in tow The S.S. Tascee, badly hit but still Afloat: rockets were seen in midst of convoy: A signal from the flagship -- "Empire Hudson Torpedoed on port side." The triple task -- To screen the convoy, counter attack, and then, The humane third of rescuing the sailors, Seemed far beyond the escort's hope or effort. To save to kill, to kill to save were means And ends closely and bloodily allied. Hundreds of sailors, un-lifejacketed Clawed at the jetsam in the oil and water. Captain and commodore were well aware Of how a lame one in a chase could spatter With blood the entire herd. High strategy Demanded of the brain an execution Protested by the tactics of the heart, And there was only half-an-inch or less Of a steel skin upon the escort's hulls -- Not for self-safety were those ships designed ... The ships announced their wounds by rockets, wrote Their own obituaries in flame that soared Two hundred feet and stabbed the Arctic night Like some neurotic and untimely sunrise. Exploding tankers turned the sky to canvas, Soaked it in orange fire, kindled the sea, Then carpeted their graves with wreaths of soot. Only the names remained uncharred -- Muneric, Ulysses, Baron Pentland, Sally Maersk, Twenty-eight
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 29] The Empire Crossbill, Empire Hudson, Stargard -- Merely heroic memories by morning. The early hours of daylight drove the subs To cover though the escort knew that eyes, As sleepless as their own but unobserved Behind the gray-green mesh of swell and lop, Were following the convoy's desperate plunge. The odds lay heavily with the pursuers, Even by day -- for what were periscopes, At distance of three thousand yards, that reared Their tiny heads curved like swamp moccasins? What was their smothered wake compared with that Propeller wash, that height and drift of smoke, Those lines of funnels with their sixty hulls? And so it was a safe bet on the sub When at high noon one left her nest and sped Her charge right at the S.S. Thistleglen, Dead at the waterline and full amidships. It took three minutes for the merchantman To dock her pigiron on the ocean floor. But seven cables from the foundered ship, The killer's light-gray periscope was sighted, Remaining visible one minute only. The Skeena carried out a pounce attack With ten depth charges fired with shallow settings. The asdic trailed the sub proceeding north At three-knot speed. Kenogami confirmed Echoes. Depth-charges with deep settings dropped, The echoes ceased, and a great patch of oil Surfaced, and a huge bubble like a blister Broke, close to the position of explosions. "This time for keeps we pinged his bloody hide, sir, We've sent him down to join the Thistleglen." [RIGHT MARGIN]Twenty-nine
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 30] Canadian Poetry Magazine With this by day, what could another night Not call forth from the cupboards? Afternoon Wore on till dusk with that dramatic lull Which acted like narcotics on the heart, Yet put high-tension circuits in the brain. An hour after nightfall and the convoy Had pierced the sixty-second parallel. Twelve shortened columns tightened up their gaps, All ships under instructions -- ("You will not, repetition not, break W.T. silence without deep suspicion of U-boat presence".) Owing to moon Rear ships of the port column were instructed To drop smoke floats should enemy appear On the port side. Each minute passed, each mile Northward were credit items on a ledger. And now quickening the heart, two friendly shadows, Corvettes, steamed into shape -- Moose Jaw, Chambly -- Two added to the four. But still the hope Was on evasion -- on the North -- to kick Them with their wounded heels and merge the spoors Within the rolling Greenland-Iceland tundras. And so the last night's vigil was repeated, Although more ominous the silences: More broken, too, the sleep as the ears buzzed Still with the dental burr of the point-fives, And the yellow cordite from the four-point-sevens Kept up its smart under exhausted eyelids. The average rate was lowered by three knots. The Tascee was in tow of the Orillia, Fumbling her rudder. There was mockery Within the sea's caress -- the way a wave Would clamber up the bow of the Moose Jaw, scout Around the shadows of the foc's'le, Tattoo the face of the Bridge and lazily Slither along the deck and then hiss through Thirty
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 31] The hawse-pipes as the corvette dipped her nose To the slow anaesthetic of the swell. Mockery it was on face and lips and fingers, For, after her reconnaissance, the sea, As urging death with a forensic fury, Would shed her velvet syllables, return With loaded fists to thunder at the gun-shields, Trying to crack defence, before the battle Was joined between the "patterns" and the "tubes". The dark was sedative and irritant. How easy was it for an interval To muffle the senses with a hushed blackout, And the diminuendo of the run Could well delude the reason. This was not The rate that marked the fever of pursuit, And nothing from the decks was visible To show the way the trimmest escort unit Could be in shackles to a lubber keel, Or how towlines on crippled ships might part And have to be replaced in precious moments, Or how the navigation instruments Could be ungeared by submarine explosions. For this was information undiffused Among the crew or countered by the wish Or by resumption of the normal tasks. No one from the Ulysses lived to cite The witness of the E.R.A.'s and firemen, Pounding the steel rungs in that inner trap When the torpedo struck her gas and oil. The drama of the night before was over. No headlines would record as news the toil, As stokers every hour took temperatures Of bearings, scribbled them on pads, transferred Them to the logs and then resumed their rounds [RIGHT MARGIN]Thirty-one
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 32] Canadian Poetry Magazine To watch for popping valves, to check the flow By turning wheels when the full head of steam Was hitting the square inches of the boilers. There was no spotlight on the items when A leading seaman of the watch reported "The temperature of the sea forty degrees, The lowering falls are clear, boats off the pins, The watertight compartments all are closed." No one would mould the linotype for such A mass that might survive or not survive Their tedium of watches in the holds -- The men with surnames blotted by their jobs Into a scrawl of anonymity: Oilers, greasers, trimmers, donkeymen, Pumpmen, wipers, messmen, galley boys Incorporate with the cogs and gears they tended On ships that carried pulp and scrap to Europe. Desire invoking for the memory Amnesia for the nightmare that had passed, It might have been a run in peaceful times. The sounds seemed casual enough -- lookouts, Reporting to the officers-on-watch, Got back the usual laconic answers. The turbine notes ran up from C to G And down according to the scale of speed. The scraps of speech from duffel-coated forms, Huddled beneath the after-canopy, Had, by tacit agreement in the eyes, Nothing to do with present urgencies. A rating "in the rattle" salved his mind By giving his opinion of a buffer, Casting suspicion on the buffer's birth And pedigree. His b's and g's and s's, Delivered through his teeth in confidence To the highwinds and seas from A-gun deck, Thirty-two
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 33] Had all the symptoms of a normal trip. Only the action-station gongs could jar That gentle wishful thinking -- and they did! One hundred thousand horse-power on the engines Combined for scout assault and close defence, And shifted quickly to defence, for short Beyond believing was the interval Between the echoes and torpedo hits, Between them and the spotted periscopes. The peril of the night before was doubled. This time the subs had dived within the convoy, "Attacking from within the lines" -- the fear Above all fears, for, out to sea, the lairs Might be discerned and the protective screens Be interposed between them and the convoy. But now the hazards of the fight were weighted In favor of the foe. Seven or eight Out of the estimated twelve were there Inside or hanging on to flank and rear. Even blindly they could not miss -- on port And starboard, bow, amidships, on the quarter. Within the captain's brain the judgment fought With chaos. Blindness, deafness visited The Bridge. Through a wild paradox of sight And sound, the asdic echoes would not fall Within their ribbon-tidy categories. They bounded in confusion from the hulls Of tankers and corvettes: the ash-can sounds Were like those of explosions from torpedoes. Wake-echoes and reverbs, and quenching caused By pitch and roll of a heavy following sea, Had blended with the sharper pings from steel To give the effect of a babel and a brawl. But blindness was the worst. To find the foe [RIGHT MARGIN]Thirty-three
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 34] Canadian Poetry Magazine By starshell served indeed to spot the target, But carved in white the escort's silhouette. And yet the desperate risks were undertaken On sheer necessity. A megaphone Informed the Skeena that a sub was seen Between the columns seven and eight, its course Marked by a steady hail of tracer bullets. The Skeena tried to ram; the sub escaped To an adjacent lane and turned right-angles In opposite direction to destroyer. The shelter of the dark was now a threat Holding collision as the convoy ships Made their sharp turn of forty-five degrees. Her fighting and her navigating lights Were switched on to identify the Skeena Scratching the paint upon the merchant hulls, As orders pelted down the voice-pipe, helm And engines answering -- "Full speed ahead, Starboard twenty . . . Stop both . . . Half-ahead port, Half-astern starboard . . . Stop starboard . . . Half-ahead starboard . . . Full ahead both." This was infighting at its grizzly worst. The issue grew more leaden as the night Advanced, and what relief could daylight offer Against the weary arithmetic count? The Winterswyck blown up, sunk with her phosphate; Stonepool torpedoed on both sides, gone down With general cargo and a fleet of trucks; The Garm and Scania with their lumber lost; Rockets observed from Randa and Benury; The signals ceased -- both missing in the morning. The fourteen lost and others just afloat, The remnant staggered on still north-by-east. Thirty-four
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 35] Last night the second night, and must there come A third? Those hammerheads were off there still, Hiding, biding. How many? How those freighters Foundered! How fast? Minutes or seconds? "Did You see the way the Crossbill took her dive? Her cargo -- steel -- she went down like a gannet." "I saw the blades of the Muneric rise And edge themselves against the Alberni gunfire." Why should those phobias of speed, colour And shape belonging to the night alone, Return to plague the mind in open daylight? Would those fires start again? A chemistry That would incinerate its own retort Raged round the Stonepool when she sank. Water And fire, water and oil, blood, fire and salt Had agonized their journey through nerve-endings To char themselves upon a graphite-gray Precipitate. Survivors from the Stargard, Who must for life carry their facial grafts, Told of the scramble from the boiler rooms, Along the ladders and the reeling fiddleys, Only to find their exit was the sea, And there to find their only exit from Its cauldron surface was its drowning depth. But oil and blood were prices paid for blood And oil. However variable the time, The commerce ever was in barter. Oil Propelled the ships. It blew them up. The men Died oil-anointed for it choked the Christ That stuttered on their lips before the sea Paraded them as crisps upon her salver. This was the payment for the oil designed To sleek the gears and punch the pistons in And over Alamein and Normandy. And blood mixed with the sea-foam was the cost [RIGHT MARGIN]Thirty-five
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 36] Canadian Poetry Magazine Of plasma safely carried in the holds -- The price of its transmission and transfusion Across an ocean to a continent, There to unblanch the faces on the fields. And, over all, the purchase of the blood Was that an old dishonoured postulate, Scrubbed of its rust, might shine again -- Granted That what the mind may think, the tongue may utter. [CENTRE]---- Three morning hours were gone and no attack. Were the U-boats destroyed or shaken off Or still awaiting night? What mattered it? From the lookout a signal -- Smoke ahead! Was it a surface raider? This would mean Extinction, still another word for sleep. The smoke took shape -- five funnels pouring it. Binoculars from the crows' nests and bridges Of all the ships, escort and convoy, swept The horizon: dots turned into lines, the lines To hulls and decks and guns and turrets -- five British destroyers making thirty knots. This was the restoration for the hearts Of fifty ships -- the maimed, the blind, the whole. Around them raced the fighters, plotting out Suspicious zones whenever asdic sweeps Reported doubtful contacts, searching far Afield, then closing to resume position On screen. And so the S.C.42, With mutilated but with ordered columns, Covered the lap across the Denmark Strait With that same chivalry of knots which meant Rescue for hundreds in the Greenland battle. For with the battered Tascee still in tow Of the Orillia, they reached the two Most northern outposts of the Old World havens, Rock-armoured Hvalfiord and Reykjavik, Thirty-six
[Canadian Poetry Magazine 10 (June 1947), 37] Then took their southern stretch until the convoy Sighted Inishtrahull and there dispersed. And the fighting ships, miraculously unscathed, Proceeded to Moville, to Lishahally, From there up the Loch Foyle to seek their berths Around the crowded docks of Londonderry. [RIGHT MARGIN]E.J. Pratt .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... .................................................... Thirty-seven