USS Squalus Retrieval Mission, 1939
they descend in pairs, alone and not in the cold: darkness they wear lead shoes and electric underclothes against the chill depth: pressure increasing, increasing, fathom by unthinkable; and yet, ‘go on’ their life-lines run shipward beside umbilical hoses for oxygen and helium to help the mind withstand depth rambling its loss of articulation-cognition understanding by with voices cabled to helmets cabled to repeat calm as if unrushed, repeat orders to speak against silence speak their sinking to stay alert despite encumbrance stay clearheaded because some cables must be cut others must not right and left might collapse, lungs also; and to avoid recall, to reduce fatal slips, divers keep saying how little they see so talkers can monitor by telephone, supervising breath growing sluggish, turning ragged to laughter or more reckless thinking to dreaming underwater without warning; godlike, talkers listen, determining when danger outweighs
rational—stay rational with knifeblade—intent when they hear divers’ function-language devolve beyond restraining capacity talkers, as required, order stand-by; they absolve and repeat: now, elbows in to safe-surface
Project Ivy Bells, 1977 USS Seawolf, Sea of Okhotsk
Listening is not simple; anchoring on the sea floor, in the bear’s mouth, no small task.
Divers, sequestered in their chamber, compress for monitored hours. Unsleeping, they stare at the curved wall, where films run. They breathe helium, which distorts voices, as pressure distends
thought. To be understood, they speak through a machine—let it synthesize and unscramble their pitched squeaks for the watchstanders, who feed sandwiches through the air lock.
Acclimatized, the divers egress, as rehearsed into Soviet waters. Their new masks suppress exhaled bubbles; any sign, however small, forms a risk should it reach surface.
The Beast is all ears and brain: a six-ton pod roped and buoyed by lifting balloons. Its prey —a cable stretched between two Soviet bases— lies half-buried in sand. The divers find
an amplifier and hook the Beast to it. Fish attack for which the team carry knives. Their emergency canisters each hold three token breaths, but the Beast, once fed, needs only camouflage
beneath a rubber blanket, and to be left running, recording calls. Beside it, a cow skull waits, placed to unnerve the next retrieval crew. And already, listeners sit, headphoned
ghosts, behind their curtain, eager to parse the wire’s channels and drink every uncoded word
The Fulton, 1899
“it is a well-known fact that machinery is without conscience” -Robert Hatfield Barnes
Spear and Cable tear out her buttons, scrap a row of automatic switches, revert to hand-operated gears the men can turn and trust; they make a mechanical animal
some whisper watery grave should the engine flood; should it merely fail,
she’ll rise in theory
on positive buoyancy
an apparition awash they declare her, once armed, capable of murder, but not betrayal; defender of coasts and battleships— nefarious subterfuge, some protest, or worse, fantastical— but this lungless whale, heavy with batteries, cradles her engineers through overnight storms what they fear is undetectable: their own stagnant breath, or motive fumes leaking permanent sleep—
so she carries always
a caged mouse
for the crew to watch; when it collapses, they must surface— even mid-battle—and, gasping, crawl out
Ceridwen Hall is a poet and writing coach from Ohio. She holds a PhD from the University of Utah and is the author of three chapbooks: Automotive (Finishing Line Press), Excursions (Train Wreck Press), and fields drawn from subtle arrows (forthcoming from GreenTower 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.