Poems: Machine Gunner on a B-29, Saipan



WE SAW the smoke. The blue skull of the sky
Scarred on the black trail of the running fire.
The world came out of doors and every eye
Turned on the afternoon, while higher and higher
The sirens mounted and the watchers’ breath
Drew in and waited to be first with death.
It was a choice: to parachute or ride.
It was a race: fire against altitude.
He chose to land. Which way would fire decide
Lapping the tanks, racing to be renewed
Into the thundering of exploded gas
While the charred midgets cometed to grass?
We stood and watched and each man watched his own
Possible future flaming to arrive.
By never ending inches she came down
Bringing the living back to stay alive.
Still with a sky unclosed, we saw her shed
The first burned metal, flaking down and dead.
We counted distances by fractional
Unending seconds till her wheels might touch;
While fire grew wider till it lavished all
The warping wing, and something came to clutch
The circling silence of the afternoon,
And the long smoke rode her like a black dragoon.
First feet, then inches. Still a roof above
The blurring ground, the burning engine spat
Clear from the melted wing and dove
Spilling its flame into the landing mat.
And still the wing held and the sky thinned out
Between her and the ground, and with a shout
We heard the brakes squeal, saw the midgets dive
Like dervishes toward grass and rise and run
Across the sweet returning of their lives.
We counted out the crew and one by one
We saw death leave us, and from roof and wall
The held breath broke, as sudden as a squall.
We stood in circles when they brought them in,
And offered cigarettes and held the match,
Not certain where to let their lives begin,
Or held our breaths after the silent watch.
And then it thawed, and inches past a doom
Were all the spaces of the afternoon.
We turned and waited till the fire reached home
And saw the tanks blow and the monstrous cloud —
Orange and black upon the air’s blue room —
Slant up through miles of air, the emptied shroud
Still holding us. And crackling down below
We heard the roasted ammunition go.
It took an hour to burn down and be done.
We watched and memorized it flame by flame,
Our faces mirrored in the afternoon
With death gone by and fire become a game.
And when we left the last fire and last smoke
Someone began a drawn-out bedroom joke.


HERE lie Ciardi’s pearly bones
In their ripe organic mess.
Jungle-blown his chromosomes
Breed to a new address.
Progenies of orchids seek
The fracture’s white spilled lymph.
And his heart’s red valve will leak
Fountains for a protein nymph.
Was it bullets or a wind
Or a rip cord fouled with doom?
What artifacts the natives find
Failed and left no tomb.
Here lies the sergeant’s mortal wreck
Lily-spiked and termite-kissed,
Spiders pendant from his neck,
And a beetle on his wrist.
Bring the tic and southern flies
Where the land crabs run unmourning
Through a night of jungle skies
To a climeless morning.
And bring the chalked eraser here
Fresh from rubbing out his name.
Burn the crew-board for a bier.
(Also Colonel What’s-his-name.)
Let no dice be stored and still.
Let no poker deck be torn.
But pour the smuggled rye until
The barracks’ threshold is outworn.
File the papers, pack the clothes,
Send the coded word through air —
“We regret and no one knows
Where the sergeant goes from here.”
(No one but the jungle root
Fusing to a flare of bloom
And the anthill underfoot
In his stalked enormous room.)
“Missing as of inst. oblige,
Deepest sorrow and remain —”
Shall I grin at persiflage?
Could I have my skin again,
Would I choose a business form
Stilted mute as a giraffe,
Or a pinstripe unicorn
Or a cashier’s epitaph?
Darling, darling, just in case
Rivets fail or engines burn,
I forget the time and place,
But your flesh was sweet to learn.
In the grammar of not yet
Let me name one verb for chance,
Scholarly to one regret:
That I leave your mood and tense.
Swift and single as a shark
I have seen you churn my sleep.
Now if beetles hunt my dark,
What will beetles find to keep?
Fractured meat and open bone —
Nothing single or surprised;
Fragments of a written stone,
Undeciphered but surmised.