USS Squalus, 1939/ Present
They hammered reports against
the steel hull of the conning
tower, repeating themselves
three times—two sailors so exhausted
they took it in turns to pound one letter each
and left the dead unmentioned
in their flooded compartments.
Then they paused, gasping, unsure
whether the ship above understood
such a weak signal. But the page loads grainy details so, from the airport, I can imagine unyielding seafloor. News breaks and washes over the numb rites of travel. A holiday waits, habitual and incomprehensible as the hourly recap—amplified, qualified:
“Conditions Satisfactory But Cold”
declared headlines about rescue
efforts in fog and surging waves;
families assumed a hopeful watch
without guarantee. Satisfactory
meant the crew huddled, ordered
quiet to conserve oxygen. They ate
canned pineapple. Cold seeped in—
unwelcome thoughts trailed after. And toxic
ideas are not rational. Nor are selves. They breach shadows. We board, though I cannot explain this willingness to entrust our bodies to some machines and not others, what instinct discerns. Obeying a habit of convenience, we pretend the clouds are rolling hills or waves. Gas entailed scaffolding as the plane trails
fumes, despite CO2 absorbent. To discourage
movement, to prolong life, officers allowed
their air to grow stale, noxious. They wrapped
themselves in wet blankets, drifted,
woke to the distribution of emergency
lungs; the men listened constantly for seawater
trickling nearer, and for what they hoped
would be lead boots overhead, then a bell
sealed to the hull, a knock to answer.
3 Questions for Ceridwen
What was your process for creating this work?
After flying home for the holidays while reading about an early submarine disaster (and rescue), I initially wrote two poems: one lined poem about the conditions on board the sunken Squalus and one prose poem about the strangely numbing effect of watching news coverage of (yet another) catastrophe from the airport terminal (where it everything seems to be simultaneously more urgent and more distant). I soon realized that the poems would speak more powerfully if they spoke to one another about how news breaks (in every sense) and how we enclose our bodies in machines.
What is the significance of the form/genre you chose?
For me, prose poems have always been the ideal vehicle for uncontaining what cannot be contained (anxiety, historic events, truth etc). The short and shifting lines reflect the constriction and uneasiness survivors of the submarine wreck experienced while they waited trapped on the seafloor.
What is the significance of the work to you?
I'd been researching and writing about submarines for a little while when I wrote this piece—and it felt like an exciting moment of connection and resonance. I could see that historic submarines weren't just interesting--they were a place to explore some of my big questions about contemporary technology and media, about how bodies survive inside machines.
Ceridwen Hall is a poet and book coach. She helps poets and novelists plan, create, and revise compelling manuscripts with one-on-one coaching and inspiring feedback. She holds a PhD from the University of Utah and is the author of two chapbooks: Automotive (Finishing Line Press) and Excursions (Train Wreck Press). Her work has appeared in TriQuarterly, Pembroke Magazine, Tar River Poetry, The Cincinnati Review, and other journals. You can find her at www.ceridwenhall.com.