Back in 2005 I wrote a poem about Hiroshima. It wasn't a good poem and, even after I tweaked it to make a 2007 version (the text of which I give below) I still can't rate it as being more than so-so.
The poem was based on the annual ceremony of remembrance which takes place in Japan on August 6th, the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and it's always shown on TV.
When I've seen the televised ceremony, the weather has always been fine, and, always, two children speak. One a boy and one a girl. The children are maybe young teens, maybe actually prepubescent kids. Working from memory, I cannot tell.
Both have splendid speaking voices, and they speak with absolute confidence, delivering themselves of certainties. What certainties I do not know, not for sure, since the Japanese they use is too complex for me to follow on the fly. But I imagine that they say something about truth and something about sorrow and something about the peace that they hope for in the future.
Here, anyway, is the text of the abovementioned poem, the title of which is HIROSHIMA:
In the ceremonial Hiroshima
The sun stands still.
It is the moment.
It is hot,
The silence sweats,
Waiting for the time.
It is the hour.
And now the school kids pronounce
In crystal voices.
We are awake,
And yet forgetting,
Asleep in ritual.
The protocol of public recollection
Does not permit,
For the purposes of the present moment,
The child at play with its mother's breasts,
The child alive,
The mother extremely dead,
One of the thousands littered in the streets
Of the dinosaur city where all the clocks have stopped.
This year, having completed a poem on GUANTANAMO to my satisfaction, I decided to take on the challenge of writing a poem about the Hiroshima bombing which would take us right into the heart of the experience.
But I wasn't sure how to do that.
Tens of thousands of people died, and the deaths of tens of thousands is not something you can capture in a poem. The numbers, necessarily, inflict defeat.
Then I realized that the strategy I had used for GUANTANAMO would serve me just as well for a poem about Hiroshima. For GUANTANAMO, my focus was on the eponymous white rat, Guantanamo, and he became a representative of all the incarcerated prisoners. One white rat, treated poetically, proved to be a perfectly manageable subject.
And I realized that I could apply a similar strategy to the bombing of Hiroshima. Hiroshima could be a single woman, and we could focus on her fate, and, through that, understand, to the extent that understanding is possible.
By way of background, I had grown up in the Cold War, and, while still at high school, had seen the nuclear war documentary film, THE WAR GAME. This was, at the time, banned on TV, but my high school organized a showing, back in the days when schools all had movie projectors, the age of video having not yet arrived.
I also read, while still at high school, a book which, if I remember correctly, was called ON THERMONUCLEAR WARFARE, and dealt with the particulars of the apocalypse that was in planning.
In later years, I lived and worked in London at a time of nuclear tensions.
And, back in 1989, in the year in which the Berlin Wall fell, I visited both the A-bomb museums. First, the modest affair in Nagasaki, where the relic that made the deepest impact on me was the clothes contributed to the museum by a woman.
The clothes were those that her infant child had been wearing on the day of the Nagasaki bombing. The woman eventually gave the child's clothes to the museum. And what broke me up, what was utterly intolerable, was the simple fact that was stated on the card which accompanied the clothes: following the death of her child, the woman kept the clothes for twenty years, before finally consigning them to the museum.
The museum at Hiroshima was larger and more institutional, but well designed to convey a message: this could be your city.
My 2007 poem, then, is a poem which has been meditated upon about as deeply as a poem can be, and the text of it I give below. I have chosen the title LUMBERJACKED CITIES, a lumberjack being, of course, a forestry worker. The cities in the poem, and there are four of them - Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki - were felled as one might fell a tree. Taken down and totally destroyed.
The firebombing of Tokyo is, in the West, the least-known of these stories, and I have not studied it. But I did once read an account by an American who had returned to Japan, where he had lived before the war, in the days of the American occupation.
All his Japanese neighbors, all the people in the area where he had lived, were dead, and he had the feeling that he had returned to a city of ghosts.
Here it is, then, the poem.
Dresden is the good German,
Taxpayer and scout master,
Keeping a low profile for the duration,
Safe in a civilian city made of wooden houses
Possessed of absolutely no strategic value.
Dresden (his personal name is Fritz)
Is a productive member of the German middle class,
Fond of beer but always home for tea.
Blood pressure a little high, to tell the truth,
But otherwise unremarkable.
He and his wife are together at the end,
Being boiled alive in the water tank
They thought would offer refuge from the flames.
Of the many ways there are to die,
Cannot be said to be user-friendly.
Tokyo is an old man now,
Who has stumbled beyond possession of a name.
His personal patch of riverside,
His burns unit for the moment,
Is lit by clouds reflecting lurid red.
Old, he finds his recollections failing.
He cannot remember how it is
That his skin became pork crackling.
He has no understanding of why it is
That when he calls
Not one member of his many-peopled family
Comes to his aid.
The consuming flames are reflected from the river waters
For many hours.
A city is not the easiest thing to burn.
His life, deceasing,
Earns him no paragraph.
Never gets its movie.
Hiroshima is a woman, her expectation
The daily ration,
Survival on short commons
In the safety of an obscure and unimportant city
Nowhere near a battlefield.
Then the universe
Gives her a nudge.
Is a red-hot furnace
Slammed directly into her eyes.
Is a utility pole
Rammed up her privacy.
She has nothing sacred.
She is one big meathook rape,
Helpless to defend herself.
Her back is broken,
Her hair on fire,
Her teeth displaced.
Her nose is a red truncation.
The caprice of demons chortles in her flesh.
She dies in slow eternities,
As she dies,
The colors black and white,
Her father's name,
And what exactly that it was
Her mother's milk once tasted of.
The cherry blossom will no longer bloom for her.
She forgets her very name,
So you, if you so choose,
May give her one of yours.
Nagasaki is a child
Still young enough to believe in rainbows.
Her household has been deleted.
Now she survives alone
If living beyond the black rain
Can be said to be survival.
Her teeth are loose,
Her gums are raw and bleeding
And her hair
Is already starting to fall out.
Is too sad to continue.
In the cool retrospectives of our museums
Compared to the Black Death,
Dresden, all said and done,
Was an ocean's raindrop.
Hiroshima has no holocaust to outcompete
With Genghis Khan.
In the inventories of our statistics,
The souls are too numerous to be lamented
One by one.
We cannot say kaddish
For each and every.
In the streets of Dresden, the German survivors
Collected wedding rings in buckets.
The wedding bands,
Engraved with the identities of the married,
Would help identify those many of the dead
Who no longer had faces.
I have a pocket calculator and can, at need,
Compute and recompute the actual numbers.
But what they really mean I cannot say.
Beyond my child's misfortune,
My mother's death,
I have no gauge at all
For human suffering.
The sundry catastrophes
Are as mute to me as the dictionary,
Saying no more to me of human tears
Than words at random chosen from the page:
Pinecone, wombat, blancmange.
This is the limit of my eloquence on death,
The death of millions.
Is not cultural.
I share it with my entire species.
In the haystacks of our holocausts
The individual needle goes unsung.