Leviathan cruise ships glide
above salt bleached bones and splintered docks,
revelers deaf to century-old spectral screams.
The Mi’kmaq called it Chebucto – “big harbor” –
so deep that even harsh Maritime winters can’t freeze it.
Perfect for cruise ships
Those not preoccupied with bingo and buffets may learn
how during The Great War, The War they promised would End All Wars,
a cowardly captain and crew abandoned
a floating bomb causing
an explosion unlike the world had known.
December 6, 1917, 7:30 a.m.: The French munitions ship Mont-Blanc left her anchorage at the mouth of the harbor to join a gathering convoy and collided with the Imo, a Norwegian ship bound for New York to collect relief supplies for Belgium.
Not a pane of glass left intact on either side of the harbor
yet an ocean away from an enemy gun.
dead: nearly 2,000
homes destroyed: more than 1,600
homes damaged: 12,000
More than 500 miles, nearly a century later
a white spruce towers above the Boston Common.
More than 500 miles, nearly a century ago
they came by train in less than a winter’s day
among the first to arrive,
among the last to leave.
Nurses and doctors salved burns, bandaged wounds
sawed off limbs and excised eyes.
limbs amputated: 25
eyes removed: 250
injured treated: more than 9,000
Each Christmas the progeny of the maimed and injured
send a majestic evergreen to Boston to honor those
who tirelessly did what they could to help.
They’re all gone now.
Until a few years ago you could see them
in nursing homes around Halifax. Some missing an eye.
Others totally blind never again to see
storms coming in over the sea
or heron gulls slicing through summer skies
or rampant purple lupine bivouacked on June hillsides.
Children, settling into their morning school work,
heard the explosion and ran to windows,
imagining fireworks and festivities. Glass shrapnel
pierced young corneas shattering hopeful visions.
Aye, the harbor was a sight to see in those days.
Supply ships from all over
and troops waitin’ for warships
to take ‘em across the sea to the front.
Some days it looked as though you could walk across the harbor
on all those boats and never wet you boots.
I tried to warn him, about the Mont-Blanc.
A floatin’ bomb she was, with that cargo –
wet and dry picric acid: 300 tons
TNT: 200 tons
gun cotton: 10 tons
benzol: 35 tons
right outside his little railway office.
Only a few of us knew her cargo,
top secret war stuff. Damned fool mixture
if you ask me.
Coleman, his name was. Vincent Coleman.
Kissed the wife and three bairns when he left that morning,
walked the five blocks to his office like any other day.
So dapper in his suit and high starched collar,
perfect pompadour, full mustache.
No doubt pulled his muffler a little tighter against December.
I’d seen him through the window
when I was workin’ around the docks,
always at that telegraph key of his.
His boss left as soon as I told ’em.
Coleman stood up to leave
then turned back to that telegraph key
thinkin’ about those 300 souls aboard
Passenger Train No. 10,
the overnight from Saint John
due in Halifax at 8:55 directly in front of that floatin’ bomb.
With those little dots and dashes
he saved ’em all:
Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor
making for Pier 6 and will explode.
Guess this will be my last message.
Marianne Gambaro’s poems have been published in several print and online journals including The Aurorean, Oberon Poetry Magazine, Pirene’s Fountain, Avocet Journal, Snowy Egret and The Naugatuck River Review. Following a career as a journalist and public relations practitioner for nonprofit organizations, she now writes for the sheer love of the word. She is a member of the Florence (MA) Poets Society and serves on the editorial board for Silkworm, Florence Poets’ annual journal. She resides in Western Massachusetts with her talented photographer-husband and three feline muses.