A poem from Jacob Boyd’s Convertible
followed by a note on the author
Tattoo & Binnacle
To dream of that beach/For the sake of an instant in the eyes,//The absolute singular//The unearthly bonds/Of the singular//Which is the bright light of shipwreck
— George Oppen
With the great ideal set, what mattered the exceptions, the little evil facts?
— W.E.B. Du Bois
James Journey Fidler sailed the Pacific
from Panama to San Diego then onward
to places with names like Kwajalein,
places he had no reason to be
were it not for the Second World War
& his rank as Quartermaster, First Class,
keeper of the ship’s log, compass reader,
unsettling attendant of the binnacle.
A brink of extinction marine sound
like barnacle, pre-digital, somatic,
a ship’s binnacle is the housing around
its compass, the case that fixes
the needle in place & lets it spin.
The spirit wheels in the body’s stall.
Earth turns like a world on a spit.
Japan joins Hitler. A recruiter calls.
Jim rolled his smokes in his shirtsleeve.
He sold a pint of blood for the mark
of the Navy’s amphibious force on his arm:
a black tank disembarking
from the open gate of a gator’s jaw.
Jim, born back country just
as the governor was giving a luncheon
for the Klan, had soaked Indiana in,
then lugged its scorn four hours north
to rivet planes—the same bombers
that would soon lay fiery blankets
over the beaches he was sliding toward.
He was free to hate who he wanted,
& he hated privately, in harbored silence.
With scales, tails, & four-chambered hearts,
gators are born to maintain the law
as thoughtfully as any Navy. Justice is ancillary.
A racist with liberating inclinations:
nothing new there. Had Jim’s role
in that war opened a rift in his psyche,
this might have the force of reckoning.
Instead, here is the story of an American
majority, its failure to make sense
of skin, & the symbols it hid behind.
When the convoy moored at Coco Solo,
Jim, Tracey, Kalka, & Stew,
after two long weeks at sea,
took a night of liberty in Colón.
Every door in town led to a club
with sequined dancers & an orchestra.
They had more American liquor than America.
Boy, did we have big heads in the morning.
The native women are thick as flies,
Jim wrote in his diary. “Surprisingly light
complexions. Some are even blondes.”
Ghosting the coastline past Costa Rica
in a strange new species of warship—
the LCI—these white, hungover boys
dreaming of the single victory at sea,
killing time, & thinking fondly of home.
The ship’s skin was a thin, steel plate,
flat-bottomed as a gator’s belly.
The men aboard felt every wave.
After emptying the berths of bunks
& removing both ramps, they’d stamped
rocket launchers & machine guns
to every available inch of deck
then stuffed the hold with ammo.
They swarmed south & west, out
from under snow clouds to the azure,
eternal summer, zagging around
battleships & aircraft carriers.
In Honolulu, Jim had a hulu girl
stitched to the cliff of his bicep.
I used to make her dance, he said,
flexing a flabby arm by the bay
window in Ypsi, when the tattoos
had all gone to gravy on the speckled
surface of his body where the war
lay buried, then he laughed
himself to tears, adding,
Tattoo & Binnacle first appeared in the American Journal of Poetry.
Jacob Boyd is from Holt, Michigan. He teaches in Chicago and in Milwaukee. He has poems forthcoming in Bracken, Iron Horse Literary Review, and RHINO. His chapbook, Stilt House, was selected by Heather McHugh for the Emrys Press Award.