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Meredith’s poem remains poignant tribute to ‘Thresher’ crew

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published April 15. 2013 4:00AM

Along with a Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and a National Book Award, the late Montville poet William Meredith also was known for his bravery as a Navy aviator. He was awarded two Air Medals and flew missions in World War II and the Korean War - landing 32 of them at night on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Among the several books of poetry published during his lifetime was a 1964 collection called "The Wreck of the 'Thresher' and Other Poems." Meredith's Navy service inspired many of the works in the compilation; the title piece is a reflection on the 1963 loss, in deep-diving exercises in the North Atlantic, of the nuclear submarine USS Thresher (SSN-593).

All 129 men onboard died. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the loss of the submarine, The Day is reprinting "The Wreck of the Thresher."

The poem is not just a moving and melancholy ode to the lost sailors but a solemn and evocative meditation on the random enormity death - as well as the bewildered self-recrimination of survival.

Meredith retired from Connecticut College in 1983 after suffering a debilitating stroke, and he died in 2007 at the age of 88.

'The Wreck of the Thresher'

(Lost at Sea, April 10, 1963)

I stand on the ledge where rock runs into the river

As the night turns brackish with morning, and mourn the drowned.

Here the sea is diluted with river; I watch it slaver

Like a dog curing of rabies. Its ravening over,

Lickspittle ocean nuzzles the dry ground.

(But the dream that woke me was worse than the sea's gray

Slip-slap; there are no such sounds by day.)

This crushing of people is something we live with.

Daily, by unaccountable whim

Or caught up in some harebrained scheme of death,

Tangled in cars, dropped from the sky, in flame,

Men and women break the pledge of breath:

And now under water, gone all jetsam and small

In the pressure of oceans collected, a squad of brave men in a hull.

(Why can't our dreams be content with the terrible facts?

The only animal cursed with responsible sleep,

We trace disaster always to our own acts.

I met a monstrous self trapped in the black deep:

All these years, he smiled, I've drilled at sea

For this crush of water. Then he saved only me.)

We invest ships with life. Look at a harbor

At first light: with better grace than men

In their movements the vessels run to their labors

Working the fields that the tide has made green again;

Their beauty is womanly, they are named for ladies and queens,

Although by a wise superstition these are called

After fish, the finned boats, silent and submarine.

The crushing of any ship has always been held

In dread, like a house burned or a great tree felled.

I think of how sailors laugh, as if cold and wet

And dark and lost were their private, funny derision

And I can judge then what dark compression

Astonishes them now, their sunken faces set

Unsmiling, where the currents sluice to and fro

And without humor, somewhere northeast of here and below.

(Sea-brothers, I lower to you the ingenuity of dreams,

Strange lungs and bells to escape in; let me stay aboard last-

We amend our dreams in half-sleep. Then it seems

Easy to talk to the severe dead and explain the past.

Now they are saying, Do not be ashamed to stay alive,

You have dreamt nothing that we do not forgive.

And gentlier, Study something deeper than yourselves,

As, how the heart, when it turns diver, delves and saves.)

Whether we give assent to this or rage

Is a question of temperament and does not matter.

Some will has been done past our understanding,

Past our guilt surely, equal to our fears.

Dullards, we are set again to the cryptic blank page

Where the sea schools us with terrible water.

The noise of a boat breaking up and its men is in our ears.

The bottom here is too far down for our sounding;

The ocean was salt before we crawled to tears.

"The Wreck of the Thresher" is reprinted from "Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems" by William Meredith, published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press in 1997. Copyright 1997 by William Meredith. All rights reserved; used by permission of Northwestern University Press and Richard Harteis.

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