From Issue 20: St. Martin Ludgate

Philip St. Clair

The baptismal font, an octagon of marble carved
seven years after the Fire,
bore a palindrome in Greek more clever than reverent –
cleanse my sins,
not only my face, the guidebook said. Then I wanted
to visit the altar,
and as I walked down the left-hand aisle upon the stones
carved with the crests
of the noble and wealthy buried beneath my feet,
I thought of a deck of cards
and the robes and sashes of crimson and gold
on the kings and queens and jacks,

and I remembered a winter evening fifty years ago
at Dover Air Force Base
when I walked into the barracks after an eight-hour shift
loading cargo on the flight line,
and I saw Jim Mayhew at a table with only a desk lamp
to light the dark:
a red poker deck scattered beside him made a pool of fire.
He wore an expression
of deep sadness as he stared at something in his hand,
and for a moment
I thought it was a Dear John letter from his girl back home,
but when he saw me
he silently raised his arm to show me a Queen of Diamonds
he’d cupped in his palm,

and I remembered Kennedy coming on TV in the dayroom,
telling us that the Russians
had sent a fleet of freighters loaded with nuclear missiles
to Fidel Castro in Cuba:
next morning we trudged up ramps through the clamshell doors
of C-124 Globemasters,
piled our duffels on the platform beneath the aft winches,
buckled ourselves into seats
made of canvas webbing, got the word from the loadmaster —
we’d be flying TDY
to a SAC base on Florida’s panhandle, just north of the Gulf.

One of us had been there.
He’d seen big brown pelicans flying like fighter escorts:
sometimes five or six
in V formation, sometimes ten or twelve
in a single ragged line.
He said they could glide so slowly it was a wonder
they never fell to earth,
but when they’d see a fish on the crest of a wave
they’d fold like a jackknife,
hit the water like a bullet out of a thirty-ought-six.
But I never saw any
either time I was there: all those aircraft coming and going
must have driven them away.
Once I saw fifteen transports circle the field and land
in fifteen minutes:
three thousand troops with BARs and fifty-calibers
and mortars and bazookas,

And a year later, not long after Kennedy was shot,
I sat in the back row
of a Gaumont cinema close to Prestwick Airport
and watched the end of the world:
a single B-52 flew like a pale shark through gray clouds
and over gray mountains
on a bombing run to Russia that could never be recalled –
the cowboy captain, some
thick-jawed dipshit caught up in his own private rodeo,
straddled an H-bomb
and rode it down to target with a one-handed hoo-raw,
and during the montage
at movie’s end, when fireballs swelled to the size of cities
in a half-second,
I laughed out loud in astonishment as Vera Lynn sang
“We’ll Meet Again,”

And forty years later, soaking in the chlorinated pool
of the Hilton Hotel
at Daytona Beach, I saw pelicans against the noon sun:
fifteen of them
glided above my head in single file toward the window
of my room:
dark, graceful shapes with great beaks and broad wings
gathering near my balcony,
suspended as if they were made of mist and smoke.
I held my breath
as I watched them hang in sunlight for a long moment
as if they came
out of some other dimension to stop time just for me,
and for seven days after
I carefully watched the sky over chrome-plated diners
and retro-deco towers,
over tee-shirt warehouses and fast food bungalows,
but I never saw one dive.

 

Philip St. Clair has published six collections of poetry.  He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council and was awarded the Bullis Prize by Poetry Northwest. He lives in Ashland, Kentucky.