S.S. Atlantis      

Each night the lights burned through that ship

From all the cabins where we lay -

The only darkness in our hearts.

Along the decks more lights were strung.

On either side, a lighted cross;

And in between the funnels too -

But that was huge, on fire with light.

And every hour through the air

Our course was charted to the world,

And friend and enemy were told

That we were, at their mercy, safe.

So on we sailed, through submarines

Which marked blood-coloured brilliance in

Their fish-surrounded periscopes.

Yet had to pass us by. And far

Off the huddled convoys moved,

Dark ships that showed no life.

Our helmets had been put away

With other junk in barracks bags,

Lest, boarded by the enemy,

We might seem honest soldiers. I

Had Henry James and Herbert Read:

The Spoils of Poynton, was it? - and

Something about the need to be

A poet and an anarchist,

For I, of course, was both. Also

A pile of other books to tide

Me to Australia, should that be

Where they shipped us. All the voyage

We ate mean food and murmured at

Complacent officers, who strolled

About with nurses and who had

Distanced themselves from us. The dice

Would rattle and the cards would fall.

We bought fake Coca-Cola at

The seldom-opened store. And smoked

And smoked. And wrote those tragic letters.

Strange ship, so aptly named, which bore

Me from America to this

Iron-bound rusty kingdom, where

The war goes on between the rich

And poor, fought in the books and schools,

And where the huts we lived in have

Shambled to slums and chicken-coops.

On, on we sailed. Off Ireland, we

Were fired on, struck, the dummy shell

Missing the red cross by a foot

And lodging near the boiler. Some

Thought they might have died. But I

Laughed that they had mistaken us

For a target. Was it a sign,

That white ship lighted each night through?

Those crosses red for love? Yes,

I suppose it was, but not

Seen then. And now? Where is that ship,

Which ferried frightened men to death?

Where are those soldiers now, who diced

And drank and swore and wept, who shared

The weight of all my books, dividing

Them between their barracks bags, so

I might have them with me? Kind

Soldiers, prized in retrospect,

Who bored me then so much, despite

Their friendliness. May God be good

To them, alive or dead. The lights

Around the cross be theirs forever.