Death in the Atlantic...A Poem

The Suicides of World War I Nurses Gladys Cromwell and Her Twin Sister Dorothea, 1885-1919, as if described by Gladys



"We can no longer bear the pain of pain,

this world of pain in flesh and thought miswrought

by god and man. 'The Saints of Chalons,'

they called us, the men of Britain, France

defiled by bomb and by artillery

that churned the earth to meaninglessness,

with body parts interred. Poison gas

dissolved all lungs down-wind in low terrain,

crater, hole and trench in which the mustard

poured like mist cascading from a canyon edge.


"We, too, were wounded to the death, not in flesh,

but spirit and in mind. Imagine those

who watch the basest acts of god and man,

see too many unkind disembowelments.

What then our view of life? How be the happy

lady peeling okra for the kiddies,

felicitous domesticity, when one

has stared into corruption's blank and evil gaze,

been engulfed, entombed like Jonah in the beast,

the very depth of degradation gratis-strewn by god?


"We are no longer what we were, innocents

believing, disbelieving banal life

from day to banal day, each selfish cell

demanding its extension independent

of any need or will within our brain or soul.

Mindless life living self-indulgently; wasteful

nature's god cares not how we live or die,

but that life go on in utter wastefulness,

empty, endless process; cruel continuance;

art for art's sake; consumption most conspicuous.


"My sister and I, the saints of Chalons,

do not much feel like saints and angels;

we are old at thirty-four, terribly old,

ancient at thirty-four – ancient! --

millennia beyond chronology.

We are weary – weary! -- broken by god

and god's weary way of life and death on earth.

Twins by birth, by service, sensitivity,

we felt a call to aid our fellow man

in direst need...and in the process fell

headlong into the slime as far as one

can ever fall, joined all the fallen angels,

blackest demons horror-clad, fallen god

and bankrupt, prostrate, savage man.


"There is no depth of hell we've left behind

unplumbed. Minds undone by proof that all is not

the best for man in life on earth. The ghastly

scream of outraged cells, pain beyond control

of mind or will, the agony of young men

ripped from limb to limb, atomized

by Nobel's clever dream that later seeks

to set its conscience right through legacy

of empty dollars draining down the empty years.


"This endless process, like the endlessness

of space, endless, distant space beyond all zones

and boundaries, made lonelier by a few

deceptive stars, few thousand billion,

trillion – what matter any figures –

of indifferent stars, an eternity

of empty light-years, empty space beyond

the number-loving, numbing mind of man.

All lies, fraud, unsubtle subterfuge;

ant-idiot man believes himself a king...

of kitchen slime, sardine cans with oily, curling lids;

mere refuse, offal, rotting stench that clog

the running sewers of the universe.


"No longer well, devoured by abomination,

we have thought and talked, illusion gone, long

on this subject...needed no thought, no talk,

not one single word, to understand,

as twins, ultimate abomination.

All our lives we've been as one. Pacing

hand-in-hand the ocean liner's long

and narrow deck, passing chatty couples

glad to be alive, unmarred by savage war's

caress, unkilled by influenza, laughing,

laughing. Why cannot we laugh and carelessly

stroll through life mindlessly as they?


"At war's end, lost souls on rich ships

return to America, land of...what?...

banquets, dinners, crystal gleaming, china,

table linens white, so white; white as the wistful soul

of wistful, wondering, modern man.

Where was this purity in the mud and blood,

hopelessness of the endless, hopeless trench?

Waiters, to and fro, bear aloft champagne,

the finest wines on silver salvers served,

goose and rabbit, sole and lamb well-done, rare

beneath their domes of steel (how like the helmet

filled with skull and oozing brain, machine-gun

sieved that drains its bloody juice away...

broken brain a jus! Bon appetite).


"We, on impulse, hand in hand, as if twin minds

with an ultimate plan, screamed and leaped head-long

into the frozen deep. We clambered, threw

ourselves beyond the rail, beyond the reach of man,

into the freezing waters of the grasping sea

that was the U-boats hunting ground, sanctuary.

We threw ourselves into eternity, the endless sea,

were tossed through dismal time and space

like the sad and lonely human race

by thoughtless, ever-loving god.


"It is not your business to ask or know

our last thoughts (why should we disturb your peace

of mind? What do you care of us, safe – you think --

in your destiny? This was our private

-- it was all humanity's! -- agony)...

as we floundered in huge seas, drifting, drifting,

small bits of cosmic dirt astern the fleeing ship,

fleeing for its sanity, its own sustaining

delusion of stability, flotsam-jetsam

sanctuary in the land of the free,

universe of high cosmic flim and flam.


"We held hands – if you must know – when we leaped

into a sea – Dorothea! Dorothea! --

rougher than Courbet, more frigid than Conrad ever knew.

Did we try to swim, say good-bye,

hold our breath, speak to god, of god;

gasp a what? Was there deity

somewhere with gushing eye and heaving breast

powerless to intervene in the failure

of its own creation? Did we, in final

human ambiguity (god grant us this indignity)

regret a major mistake, long for the warmth

of dry state-room safety, safely taken

from this filthy, searing, salty sea?


"Vain, oh vainly wish we had not flung

our shocked and shuddering flesh and soul

into such desperate circumstance,

every single cell combating every other

-- like a trampling crowd at a soccer match --

shrieking for continuity of mindless life,

their own mindless life, seeking to thwart

the purposeful madness that sent us plunging

madly over rail into the racking sea?

Or, did we simply slide into the deep,

abide, in grateful gratefulness, join plankton

and the whales, without regret of any kind,

in fervid thanks our consciousness

was finally at an end? Oh, Dorothea!"



Copyright by Don Gray



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