Liz’s Weekend Poetry Series: Atomic Ghost
I didn’t grow up with the specter of nuclear annihilation drummed into me like school children were more than half a century ago. My explosions were of the casually televised variety, not threatening WWIII, but smart, sometimes clustered, always championed as precise, clean, strategic.
The specter has receded. Nuclear proliferation doesn’t take up a lot of our national attention these days. So much so that terms like tactical nukes slowly creep back into our lexicon, unchallenged.
But nuclear is back in a big way, though less dramatic to the visual palette. The explosions at Fukushima weren’t mushroom clouds, but as the scope of the now admitted three meltdowns (maybe melt-throughs) continues to come into focus, new threats arise, from floods and wildfire.
The hyperbole I was called out on in my last post stems from what I (and the editor of an anthology titled Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the Nuclear Age) see as a decreasing awareness of mutually assured destruction. This from the preface, by editor John Bradley:
This is how the book began. I was sitting in a cavernous office in an old building on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa. It was a warm spring day in 1984. There was a sophomore or junior talking with another English instructor about a poem he was having the class write about. I couldn’t help but overhear, as my desk was a few feet from her chair. It was a simple, honest question. One that startled me, and still does. In response to an image in Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead,” the image of a safe that survives the blast, she asked her question: “What is Hiroshima?”
Her question made me realize that there are Americans who have no idea what happened on August 6, 1945. How the world was changed. How we are still dealing with the consequences, and the “ghosts.” Her question made me realize I have an obligation as a teacher, a poet, and a human being living in the twentieth century to try and answer her question, to see that future generations will know, and that they in turn will teach their children. How else, I wonder, can we have peace, can we have a future, if we do not remember?
Red-faced and sweating in autumn
heat, Grandpa and his khaki friend
from town unloaded picks and hammers
off the truck, and took out a case
with dials that seemed a radio
or recording machine with spiral
cord and microphone and needles.
All afternoon they circled fields
and pasture gullies, climbed the ledge
above the road, knocked on spoil of
the old zircon digs, chipped at
the cliff face, and shoveled mud from
the branch bed. Each time they found
a specimen they put the mike
to its gritty form and listened,
and checked the needles’ sway. The crops
were in and Grandpa looked for a new
harvest in the soil. I watched them
lug the equipment and armloads
of rocks like apples to the truck,
and knew the Russians might blow us
up any day, they said, and what
they looked for bombs were made of. At
the barn they let me listen to
the counter’s faint static. And while
the old men talked of wealth and sure
Armageddon and the Bible’s
plans for our annihilation
I heard the white chatter of rock,
a noise that seemed to go back in
time inside the bright machine, and
inside the hammered flakes in hand,
to the crackle of creation’s
distant fires still whispering in us.
WAR RESISTER’S SONG
Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove—
Or such as presidents may spare
within the decorum of Total War.
by bosky glades, by babbling streams
(Babbling of Fission, his remains)
We discover happiness’ isotope
And live the half-life of our hope.
While Geiger counters sweetly click
In concentration camps we’ll fuck.
Called traitors? That’s but sticks and stones
We’ve Strontium 90 in our bones!
And thus, adjusted to our lot,
Our kisses will be doubly hot—
Fornicating (like good machines)
We’ll try the chances of our genes.
So (if Insufficient Grace
Hath not fouled thy secret place
Nor fall-out burnt my balls away)
Who knows? but we may get a boy—
Some paragon with but one head
And no more brains than is allowed;
And between his legs, where once was love,
Monsters to pack the future with.
PRAYER FOR MEN AND CHILDREN
with loose hands that by day are fists
men sleep and women are awake
because some men are dreaming
cobalt blue, the slowest death
carried by wind
and pure rain looking innocent.
Grandmothers feel this in their bones.
Aunts weep for no good reason.
Mothers guard windows of sand-blown houses
where men and children sleep.
This is a prayer that enters a house
and touches a lantern to light.
For the sleeping men and gentle work
of women. Their hands wash dishes in pans
silent as breath.
They touch water
and dream out the window
toward lost voices of children.
At the window bottles have changed violet.
Pale linen is blowing on the lines.
This is a prayer to save the soft gray dresses
of evening, blowing suddenly off the lines
of their bodies. To save the eyes
that watched flowers on wallpaper
ignite like a thousand suns.
A fire wind. A prayer against heat
that burns dark roses from shirts into skin
because fire passes first through the dark.
Newspapers held casually
write a day’s history
across the sleepless faces of women.
Burning, another world enters
through the shadows of bodies
flashed on walls,
the dark wedges between blue fingers
that were praying for sleeping men and children.