After reading “The United States” by C.K. Williams, I was curious to know more about this ship. Doing a little research, I discovered that the SS United States is the largest passenger vessel ever constructed in the United States and the fastest ocean liner to cross the North Atlantic. It was built to be a dual ocean liner and a naval auxiliary to be called upon to transport large numbers of troops if needed. The ship was never called upon for service; however, it remained a symbol of America’s ingenuity and power, especially during the Cold War era. As Williams states, “The rusting, decomposing hulk of the United States / is moored across Columbus Boulevard from Ikea, / … in Philadelphia” (lines 1-4). This massive powerful ship is now rusting away, docked in Philadelphia, but there is the SS United States Conservancy dedicated to preserving it and keeping it from becoming scrap metal or to save it from being “auctioned… stripped of anything / it might still have of worth, and towed away / and torched to pieces on a beach in Bangladesh”. The Conservancy wants to preserve the 17-year legacy of this ship, which still holds the speed record for westbound crossing of the North Atlantic.
I do believe that Williams is commenting literally on the state of the ship and the preservation of its legacy; nevertheless, he is a poet, so there is undoubtedly something more. Since the SS United States is a symbol of American power and glory, “’America’s mighty flagship’”, how ironic that it is now decomposing:
Now, behind its raveling chain-link fence,
the ship’s a somnolent carcass, cables lashed
like lilliputian leashes to its prow, its pocking,
once pure paint discoloring to blood.
Is this the state of America today, too? Do we still retain vestiges of our glory and supremacy, but we are wasting away? Or are we misusing our power, causing us to lose the beauty of the past? Are the “cables lashed / like lilliputian leashes to its prow”, literally the comparatively small cables holding this giant ship, representative of the smaller or less powerful countries attempting to hold us back or have some control in the world, of which they have no chance? Or perhaps the country, too, is “a somnolent carcass”, a sleepy remnant of our past selves, too lazy or apathetic to use our influence to make any difference in the world? There is so much going on in this poem that raises questions for me about what he is trying to say about America. Down the river from the ship, “the shells of long-abandoned factories / crouch for miles beneath the surface”. The United States has outsourced much of our production to developing countries for cheaper wages and greater profit margins for us. Is this quick line in the poem a comment on the United States’ role in the race to the bottom, how we have again failed to assert our power and chose to maximize our profits and lower our prices at the sake of the lives of the already poor and destitute in other countries?
I know that Williams was very critical of the Bush administration and the War in Iraq and this poem was published in 2007, still very much in this time frame. I think that Williams is using the powerful image of the fastest ocean liner created by America, a symbol of our ingenuity and prestige, and the state of decomposition it is in now to comment on the great power of America and our great potential that we are wasting away with the policies and lifestyles that we are practicing.