“Secure Speech Cipher System”

A new poem by Linda Bierds

—Bell Laboratories, 1943

To be nothing but the sound of hornets,
that was the goal for the human voice, Ally to Ally,
each wind-filled, greening word whittled to a thread.
The cipherists filled one top-secret cell, near-nothingness

their goal, the human voice encoded, Ally to Ally.
De-pulse the pitch, de-tone the wave, de-spec the spectrum—
the cipherists filled one top-secret cell with nothing more
than filaments of numerals. Then built them back, re-toned

the pulse, re-pitched the wave, re-speckled the spectrum,
as one might—instantly—rebuild a leopard from a paw print.
From filaments of numerals they built a voice, and from
the voice a prophecy—nicknamed X, for what was almost there.

Daily from its paw print, the leopard instantly stepped,
while from adjacent cells, deciphered Axis codes bloomed,
nicknamed not for X but for a there that always was.
The SS code was quince. Rommel’s words were chaffinch.

Up from Axis codes, deciphered cells bloomed, or flew,
or swam, as if the natural world might mend the broken word.
The SS code was quince. Then chaffinch, limpet,
seahorse, sunfish, trumpeter, pike,

as if the natural world might mend the broken word.
Near last to fall was plaice, which to the ear, just after
seahorse, sunfish, trumpeter, pike,
inexactly doubles back—both creature and its habitat.

Near last to fall was place, just after “old procedures”—
masquerades and vinegar ink, trench-coated agents
who inexactly doubled back, creatures to their habitats.
This was the world’s new war, the war’s new

prophecy: past masquerades and vinegar ink,
a wind-filled, greening world whittled to a thread.
This was the war’s new word, the word’s new war—
there and there, nothing but the sound of hornets.