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.