Haiphong Harbor from the Belly

by J. Whitaker Schwelzer

The intercom gong sounds man your battle stations,
sounds our clattering sailors’ shoes down
ladders to bilge smelling steel, saltwater and oil
to boilers and engines below, to bring full steam up
to rush the ship stern down, bow up,
send rooster tail’s white arch flying to midnight sea,
nine million pounds of gray steel hurling
toward Haiphong Harbor
tilting deck plates beneath our soles
right at shore guns’ most recent
splash, while here in the belly
pumps beat clamor
over muffled slam…slam… slam…
of five-inch cannons firing
followed by acrid stench of nitrocellulose
blown in by ventilators,
and the thud … Thud … THUD …
of shore fire ever closer,
I adjust my headphones to dull the cacophony,
to listen with adrenaline ears for reports of failures,
(slam … slam … slam …, acrid air)
limb severing steam leaks, (slam … slam … slam …,
acrid air, a shuddering THUD)
or cracks in the welded hull,
then rooster tail flying we flee to the open sea,
intercom sounds secure from battle,
and we spew like Jonahs from the belly,
to shrapnel strewn decks and acrid thoughts
of near escape from death
that kill tranquility.