Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Bones of the Dead

In 1937, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan
attempted to circle the earth in her twin-motor
Lockheed Electra airplane,
but vanished enroute.

This poem propitiates by praise
The god of incompetence,
A saint later named Murphy:
Kilroy who was there,
But never came back,
Would be his accuser.
In any war there are dead
Flung from the sides of plans,
Unplanned for, idiotically lost,
Kinder perhaps than the intentionally
Killed, the maimed, the limbs
Amputated needlessly.
Where have you gone,
Intelligence that seeks an intelligent star
Somewhere else? Who would believe
You are sane in your self-assessment?
The bones of the dead shine at you
Resplendent with teeth,
Gleaming of your cunning,
Needless death, early death,
Death found in poorly made planes,
Or plastic that chokes, or bottle
Caps that have suffocated playwrights
Of infinite talent.
How can we package ourselves
On these armatures of memory,
These instant fossils that mock
The transgressions of sense, or logic,
Or care? Amelia Earhart
Flying with navigator – a man –
Trouble enough, and one with a flinty
Look, a small potbelly;
Neither of them well-fed,
Skinny in the best of times,
Boney in appearance,
Saddled with our watching them,
The gods of celebrity and daring.
He in her shadow, what was he,
The star spotter, the one with the sex-
Tant, pointing at the sun, the one
Measuring the temperature of heat
On the waxy oiled face of Icarus,
Who has two engines and a shiny
Aluminum skin, made to round
The round world at its fat girth.
And they only bone and flesh after all.
Talking like gods in radio waves,
Not able to hear the earthlings talk back,
They only hearing some garbled words,
The words overheard of the passing of
Strange publicity. Oh, to only read,
And hear at the short wave set,
No cell phone, no mobile, no inter-
Net, no net at all, just a plane and the
Pacific Ocean and a map drawing itself
Into zones for war. Idling forward from
Lea, on New Guinea, something gleaming
And modern and safe, of course,
Yet sun, blinding sun,
As an ancient warning rises in their eyes,
As they rise into tropical noon,
July 2, 1937,
Jews already in danger
All over Europe, bones
Rattling with the prophecy of engines,
Their hunger, their odd parallax
Like searchlights that show
Only the fury of forward motion.
Progress, it must be,
Progress is what is before us,
Wherever we go. Dolts
That we are, forgetting the past,
Used to it, sick of it, not good enough
Of it, just the next thing, the next objective,
The compass pointing mechanically,
We going toward the flash of camera lights,
The signing of book deals, the betrayal
Of value for money. Rising
On air buoyant with the wreckage
Of the Great Depression, rising
Over the islands of ancient, pre-
Antiquity, rising into blind ambition
To be all the way around the course,
The first woman to do so, the first up
The hill of achievement, and so, the first
Risk of everything for a moral purpose.

Down some water and a cracker or two.
Not too much, as it will fatigue,
Not too much work down there in the gut,
Keep it hungry, keep the head up, don’t
Listen to that idiot too much, he has a drinking
Problem – alcohol, I mean – tanked up
Most days he’s not flying. That’s the way
The liver likes it, and the kidneys. So
What, it’s the fashion to be fast.
The other one admired the Nazis, and their planes.
What became of him? They stole his baby,
Wrecked his life for him. Another set
Of bones, found broken-skulled in a roadway
Ditch by a truck driver relieving himself.
That is what you get for opposing Roosevelt’s War.
I am not quoting the FBI or the government,
Only that god of incompetence, Murphy, who
Went along with Lindburgh through frozen wastes
Of air, trying to drop him into the Atlantic,
But the young man was too daring and plunged
Willingly, dared all to melt his wings
And survived long enough to see Ireland,
And alight in Paris, but Murphy, god,
Along for the ride, saw more chances, every day
A chance, once the die is cast and the star is so
Bright that millions dote on the spectacle.
Are you following me? Of course, we all
Have our little Murphy after us,
But how much do we tempt him? Not a lot.
Here, though, propellers churning before their
Wasp engines, affect obedience to the pacifist
Amelia, and all her good psychic chic,
The soul not turned to dust just yet,
But more splendid than an aviator who sympathizes
With the Boche, this one is like Swiss Cheese,
Neutral, not aware she is really Belgium.
This cannot go well. Murphy wants to have
A war, and all in we must go, for there is
Folly foretold, and all in we must go.
So thus the radio doesn’t work as planned.
Either they hear you, or you hear them, but not
Both. Talking at cross purposes. The radio
Direction finder like the headdress of Hathor
Above the cockpit, what good is it? None.
The antenna below the fuselage fell off on takeoff.
Who needs that? The fuel they need just barely enough.
And so a needle in a haystack will be found,
Thanks to a man named Noonan. Murphy
Is his second cousin. He swings the sex-
Taunt up to the window in the waist of the plane,
And spots clouds, clouds, clouds. Who can predict
The weather? Nobody can, if Murphy can.
Murphy, the regulator of fate,
Turns the hands of the clock forward,
Minute by minute, Longitude by longitude.
Seems the refueling island should be near.
Howland Island and the Coast Guard ship
Itasca. Howl-for-Land it is called in the wind
Of the plane. I-TASK-A, reads the plaque
On the steel ship’s prow.
Two earnest seamen only yesterday
considered the birds on the island,
And the runway built only for this flight
Stopover, and hurried ashore with guns,
And boxes of ammo, unlocked the safeties and
Slayed in staccato an entire migration of terns,
Rudy turnstones, frigate birds, curlews,
And assorted sea gulls. Blasted to blood
A sacrifice on the runway altar
To the aluminum choirs of angels
Blessing Amelia and Noonan
With feathers and popsicle-stick bones
And the heat of a tropic night,
So they smell right away. Unlucky Itasca
Rides downwind, and now there is also
A portable radio-direction finder
And an inexperienced seaman on the flat
Skillet of island, wondering how and when
He should start wasting its battery power,
And how it even works – where to point it,
What button to push and when.

Now comes the rendezvous with history.
She, the goddess Amelia, pilots through night
Into second dawn, while Noonan must scuttle back
To the waist of the plane, between the tanks
Of extra gasoline, to shoot the stars (clouds),
Or now the rising sun, and pass his findings
To her through an opening over the fuel
With a pole that ends in two wooden
Finger sticks that tweezer their position
On a paper note. She at the radio
And direction finder can yoke and yaw
And utter the words of search,
Calling, announcing, to whomsoever can hear,
That they are unable to see the water, or island,
Or Itasca, or the bloodied runway,
Only clouds, but that they are on a line
Passing northwest, then southeast, northwest,
Then southeast, who knows which way,
Somewhere near Howl-for-Land.
The others below bray back unheard
That she should use Morse code, like
They do in the old days, because it is
Easier to fix the plane’s angle of direction,
And real men don’t like to talk,
But prefer to imitate the ticking of clocks.
Neither Noonan, nor Amelia, nor Murphy
Know Morse code. Too modern for that.
Every half hour they and Itasca
Talk past each other.
Who knows from where to where?
She leads them on to think she is north,
Because that’s the first thing she says
Every time. Never mind
Nothing is north of Howl-for-Land Island,
Nor is nothing North of I-TASK-A.
What is north is an empty ocean of water,
Miles deep. Eventually silence.
The untrained seaman
Returns to Itasca
With the radio direction finder:
Battery spent, antenna wires twisted,
Strangled and useless as a dead shorebird.

The Coast Guard panics. It calls the Navy.
Everyone steams north looking for Amelia
And Noonan and Murphy and the great waste
Of miles-deep water, unrelieved by any sense.
Transmissions from Amelia resume after a few hours,
Hours after she must have run out of fuel.
These signals come from the south,
But Murphy is riding to the rescue going north.
It is all going to work out, Murphy assures
The press, who tally up the cost, and blame
Roosevelt’s Navy, informing the taxpayers,
Causing nervous constriction of budget strings

Somewhere, Amelia Errorheart
And Noonan and Murphy sit stranded on
A coral atoll, on a reef in sight of a shipwreck
From 1929 – the Norwich, also known
As the North Witch, who caused the stock market
Crash. There they sit, alone,
Except for a little fuel and radio battery
That needs the right engine running
Next to the booming surf,
Whereupon nothing is audible anyway
On the infernal radio. (Perhaps the entire problem,
Right there.) Eventually messages heard world-wide
On July 2, July 3, July 4, July 5, July 6, July 7,
July 8, and July 9 are passed off as hoaxes,
Strangely emanating from a transmitter
Southeast of Howl-for-Land Island,
In the Phoenix Island group.
Phoenix they would be, indeed, if someone looked,
But incompetence is the rule of everything
In this part of the century.
Not like us. Not like true post-modernity.
Nothing like this ever happened to us.
We are perfect. Just that old-fashioned group
That built the Titanic with Murphy,
And strained at every limit. We go limitless.
We don’t strain, we give up rhyme and meter,
And the breaststroke for the doggie paddle.
Whatever works. We need all the help we can get.
Support staff. Essential waste. Don’t go it alone.
Bring up the rear. Simply unknown then.
There they explore, looking for water,
And a meal. There it is, a date on a desert island,
Beguilingly covered in trees and brambly bushes.
There are coconut crabs that leave foot-tall mounds of tailings,
And steal your food;
There are rats in the millions, hungry for you;
There are strawberry hermit crabs anxious to bite you.
There is nothing that can sustain a person,
Only heat and dysentery and scrounging.
Castaway. Truly cast away. Forgotten.
Psychics call her husband and hold séances.
He attends some of them. They answer questions.
She herself on the radio put their position at
Nearly the point they were – Gardner Island.
Garden this: It is absent of fresh water.
And nobody looking, nobody coming to get them.
Except maybe the Japanese.

Here we diverge into two stories,
Since we don’t actually know either one,
But in the magic of poetry we combine;
As the two endings of Oedipus at Colonus,
As the two endings of Moses,
We will splice them together for you.

Although they put down on the west of the island,
There is an infernally hot land breeze.
It is normally 100 degrees in the shade,
And this is the sintering sun with a land breeze.
The prevailing Easterlies only strike an ocean breeze
Across the wretched lagoon and impassable bramble.
Noonan and Earheart make to the southeast
Where the food flocks in the manner of bird
And fish, some of them poisonous.
They use a pocket-knife, perhaps to fashion
Spears to spear fish. They eat with their fingers.
They catch birds too trusting to the touch.
They use an eyepiece from the sex-
Tent to light campfires. They carry the sex-
Tant box with them like a meal locker,
Because sometimes there are leftovers,
But many mouths and claws clawing for
And over them. To say there is sleep
Is nonsense. To say there is sleep is to be
Eaten in bites at a time. They must romantically
Sleep in shifts, watching over each other
With a switch to ward off the crabs.
Maybe they use the pole with tweezers
That used to pass notes between them.
They wait and wait for rain. This doesn’t
Always come, but when it does, they sop it up
With some raggedy gauze cloth, and spoon it up
From little hollows where it is left, using
A broken bottle bottom, or anti-freckle ointment
Jar part. They sip like they once sipped champagne,
Not even like shots, though these are shots of water,
And full-time thirst. Not out of mercy the Japanese
Come in a fishing boat, or tug boat, something
Inconspicuous. They load up the plane on the northwest
End of the island, then search the brush for the
Aviators. Now around the bend of beach Noonan
And Amelia Earheart spy the Jap boat, lugging
Their skunk-works, ultra-modern, all-metal plane
With two motors rated at 600 Horsepower each,
Riding astride a Japanese ship with the red dot of blood
Flag, and what else to do but hide in the scraggly brush?
Imagine, Murphy asks, to hide from sure rescue!
But this isn’t rescue, nor hiding.
Thwacking through the lagoon behind them
Is a Japanese skiff, overhead rumbles a scout plane,
Noonan is nothing if not angry for a drink,
Even Saki, but here is the problem: this is not
Quite what they bargained for.
A Japanese soldier, barefoot, steps from the brush
And seizes Amelia by the arm, a bayonet
About to skewer her hollowed out stomach.
Noonan spears him with the pocket-knife
Fish-spear, right into the carotid, thinking
Crazily of eating the man straight away,
But that is not possible. They push their attacker
Under some bushes, and steal his clothes.
Delirium makes them throw off their shoes;
Now they look Japanese!
One of them will make it out of here,
But not on this boat. Others come after them.
Run, but of course, without shoes on,
It’s all a great pain, a folly, a Murphy.
Coral beaches cut western feet into ribbons.
They are hauled into custody.
They are taken aboard the ship with their plane,
And go to their pacifist war all the same.

 First, I admit they are actually fed and given water.
The ship goes northwest over fathoms they are thought
To be dead in. They are surprised by the length
Of their trip to Saipan in the Marshalls
(The comfort of flying, versus the tedium of boating).
There is a tarp over the plane to conceal it from spotters.
There is a cabin they share as a cell.
They are bones with some bitten flesh draped over them.
They are interrogated often, and beaten,
Especially Noonan. They begin to confess
That they bought the Japanese clothes from a passing
Freighter, or that someone was with them,
Or they killed one of the sailors. They confess
They are hungry and thirsty. They are strangely
Left alone to rot, until they dock and are taken
To internment. This happens across several islands,
For the length of the war, which breaks out
In 1941, and ends, and by then a number of people
Have seen them, and their plane in parts,
Last in New Britain, where the U.S. marines
Are ordered to burn the plane.  Hard to burn aluminum,
But that’s what I read;
They both already dead,
Executed by the Japanese.

A year and three months after Earhart and Noonan
Had landed on the reef with their Lockheed Electra  
Settlers came to Gardner Island,
Which had been named by Captain Joshua Coffin,
Of the whaling ship Ganges
out of Nantucket,
To commemorate his ship’s owner,
United States Congressman Gideon Gardner
In 1825.
The settlers, however, were Gilbert Islanders,
And they named the island Nikumaroro,
Which is the home of Nei Manganibuka,
Their tall fair-skinned goddess
Who came from Samoa to teach canoe-craft
And the lore of ocean navigation.
These islanders colonized Nikumaroro for Britain
Under an Irishman named Gallagher,
Whose first cousin was also Murphy.

These settlers knew of some plane parts on the reef,
Something round was sticking out of the water, and there
Were some broken parts on land, which Noonan
Had tossed aside when breaking out the windows
To make a still, and in deeper water,
Where the Japanese struggled to crane up the plane
To their ship by first winching it through the shallows
Out through the surf, and floated it up onto their deck
From pontoons of some sort. Everything
Being secret, since they were spies spying on spies,
That’s what it felt like to the Japanese,
And the murder of their sailor was proof.
Suffering, there is suffering and war,
And folly in plenty, and the bones of the dead
Are hidden from view, but still witness
The past and its god Murphy,
Who sits to this day on atolls
Casting hexes on Cruise ships.
How can one person like Amelia Earhart,
Reach so high, only to be averaged out
By an ignominious end?
While another, say Van Gogh, can be a ruin
All life long, a failure, only to burst
Like fireworks after he’s dead?
The gods envy if any person should be great
In his or her own time. They scorn those
Who might be that threat to them,
And send us the little god Murphy:
Murphy, who knows just which end of the glass
To hold, when drinking a pint,
So the beer goes straight to the floor,
Without passing through the Kidneys.

Do not attempt to be a god, nor be pacifist,
Nor an immortal poet, for that is sure death.
Fight when the fight comes to you,
And only be sure to be on the side of right
And good. Spit in the eye of all false and evil
Authority. Do not let anyone make a flattered sop
Of you. (That includes elections).
Spurn glamour and glitter of all sorts,
Especially gold and any abundance.
Keep your feet on earth, and your soul in
God’s house, and if it is not God’s house,
Get the hell out of there.
Love all as yourself, and be as tough on yourself
As the others.
Remember the rich are already dead
And the poor are the hope of us all,
For they have more fortitude than all the twits
Who gladly walk over the bones of the dead
To stand on Mt. Everest.
There the lost fliers also belong, ever to rest,
With the bones of the dead.

 John Sevcik

For a fascinating account of the mystery of Amelia Earhart's doomed flight, as well as its possible solution, you can try the following sites