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A Ship on the Line
Vincent A. Cellucci and Christopher Shipman
Unlikely Books
ISBN: 978-0-9907604-0-5

Reviewer: Cindy Hochman

Machines are gonna fail and the system's gonna fail ... then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That's the game - survive.

Because they're buildin' a dam across the Cahulawassee River; they're gonna flood a whole valley, that's why. Dammit, they're drownin' a river; they're drownin' a river, man.

—Burt Reynolds (as Lewis) in Deliverance

          In terms of the backstory to A Ship on the Line, there are two particularly vital pieces of information contained in editor Michelle Greenblatt’s excellent introduction to this book: that Vincent Cellucci and Christopher Shipman live in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, respectively, and that they were knee-deep in a game of Battleship while writing these poems. As if the setting and MO were not enough to give these two poets their nautical bona fides, there is the aptness of Christopher Shipman’s last name, which, for the sake of this review, we can add to the book’s (oceanic) street cred. But even without that delightful bit of name-play, the poems are powerful, timely, and most of all, unsettling. We can keep in mind the grand literary tradition associated with the Mississippi River thanks to Mark Twain, but if Twain’s Mississippi was muddy, then Cellucci’s and Shipman’s is downright battered. You can’t possibly read this book without framing the poems within the contexture of Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, the threat of rising sea levels, and the polluting of our aquatic resources, as well as in the biblical sense: Jesus walking on water, Moses parting the Red Sea, the ritual of baptism with holy water, and Noah’s Ark. Although water is fundamental to our existence, making up about 72% of our bodies, the channels through which these poets navigate have an ominous side, and the estuaries to which Cellucci and Shipman steer the reader lead to the river’s aphotic zone.

taking turns or the sea’s terms

the instructions have yet to be written
authored by destruction

fixed grid
we are so eager
to destroy
when there’s nothing left
to explore

no war should be downloaded
no love should be uploaded
sync both
to blood and casualty…

          While reading this book, two movies came to mind, and Jaws was not one of them, although there are, in fact, a few sharks inhabiting the waterways of these poems. Rather, I thought of the chilling 1983 movie War Games, wherein a seemingly innocuous video game turns out to have dire world war consequences; similarly, A Ship on the Line invokes a mantra of this is a game, but this is not a game. The other movie, as delineated in the epigraph above, is the disturbing, yet enduring, film Deliverance; no, not because of the toothless hillbillies and pig squeals which, unfortunately, the movie has become most known for, but because of its underlying theme: the destruction of a river in order to build a (man-made) dam. Here, a strong parallel can be made to the poets’ own antipathy towards modern-day trappings which are aiding and abetting the wreckage of our ecological systems; that is, the dueling banjos of ecology vs. high tech. (To that end, one has to wonder whether the poets were playing the electronic version of Battleship which came out in 1989.)

either deter or encourage

…a course for
humans to sync to
which has little
to no updates

but what scares the ships
is how roaming all at sea we
the ports are no longer
stationary and to dock
is a feat as horrible and
conspiring as sinking
an airplane into a skyscraper
allowed passage into a safer
land than if we were born
before the boasts of history
or the pop ups of

          Kids at summer camp are familiar with the safety method known as the buddy system, employed when learning how to swim and dive, whereby pairs of children are teamed up in order to rescue each other should calamity arise. In the Army, they are called battle buddies; in the Navy, shipmates—and, in poetry, collaborators. While the lighthearted camaraderie between Shipman and Cellucci is apparent in these poems, so too is the undercurrent of doom; it is well to bear in mind that the ultimate goal of the game Battleship is to sink all of your opponent’s ships.This is a game, but this is not a game.

          Although each poem in this collection can, and does, stand on its own, there is an overall cohesiveness that transforms the book into one epic seafaring odyssey.The poems read as if they were written underwater, in fragmented breaths, with the poets (representing the whole of humanity) hanging on for dear life. And, in a sense, they are, given their (our) fear of what man has wrought. In “the last finger of a sinker,” the poets “speak with a mouth full of water”and in “there’s no such thing as a river,” the very title of which portends the river’s ruination, “we sing to the sea/ with shivering mouths.” While the river, personified, is vast, sprawling, and murky, these poems are minimalist, even within their broad scope, as if to mitigate damages and contain solidity, clarity, and permanence. The poets capture both a calming lull and a seething riptide of turbulence, groundswell, and gush. The buzzword levee, which our post-Katrina minds have come to associate with breach, suffuses the seascape. The intentional spelling of the word sync rather than sink is notable, synchronicity being the natural harmony of things, though the synchronic language reels in a sodden history of ghosts. In the final poem, “last image,” “when a river gets lost it loses/ its line// which is the same battle// (ship out to sea)// as saying sink.” Perhaps, by the end of their voyage, even the poets have to admit the inevitability of abyssal annihilation.

hard to say what we are

…our main battery the waves
that lap against
our own dark doorsteps

digital demolition

…we’ll navigate and wreck
the face of civilization

          This ambitious collection of poems is less about “a ship on the line” than it is our very lives on the line. Vincent Cellucci and Christopher Shipman are sending out an S.O.S., and the message in their bottle is: Man your battle stations. Proceed at your own peril, lest we all drown.

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